Brokeback Mountain (2005): Midnight Cowboy for Our Age??

December 28, 2005–In several significant ways, “Brokeback Mountain” is the “Midnight Cowboy” of this year, albeit Ang Lee’s modern Western is superior to John Schlesinger’s 1969 urban Western on every level, narrative, theme, mise-en-scene, visual style, and overall acting.

In 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” won the Best Picture Oscar, Best Director for John Schlesinger, and Adapted Screenplay for Waldo Salt.

It was a year of mixed bags as far as the Oscar race was concerned. Released in the midst of the Vietnam War (and the anti-War movement), “Midnight Cowboy” defeated the flawed historical epic “Anne of the Thousand Days,” the stagy adaptation of “A Thousand Clowns,” the exuberantly fake revisionist Western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Newman and Redford, the old-fashioned musical, “Hello Dolly! With Streisand in the lead, and the Costa-Gavras’ superb political thriller “Z.”

History repeats itself and this year, 36 years later, the Oscar race may look like this. Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” will occupy the “Midnight Cowboy” spot, Spielberg’s international thriller “Munich” will substitute for “Z” (on which it’s partially modeled), the musical “Walk the Line,” touted as this year’s “Ray,” will serve as “Hello Dolly! for our times. The fifth spot could conceivably be taken by Stephen Frears’ theatrical tableau, “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” as the equivalent of the Broadway to Hollywood transfer of “A Thousand Clowns.”

Setting and Source Material

“Midnight Cowboy” and “Brokeback Mountain” are set at the same time: 1960s. “Brokeback” begins in 1963 and spans twenty years, whereas “Midnight” is set in the late 1960s. Both films are based on respectable source material: “Midnight” on the 1966 novel of James Leo Herlihy (who, by the way, committed suicide), and “Brokeback” on Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story, masterfully adapted to the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.


“Midnight Cowboy” is a cynical, occasionally touching tale of a strange friendship between two victims of the American Dream: Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a good-looking, uneducated and naive Texan, who fancies himself to be a stud, and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly, crippled poor drifter.

Joe Buck is a good-looking, none-too-bright Texas lad who comes to New York with the ambition of striking it rich by providing sexual services to wealthy women, only to discover that the image projected by his buckskin jacket and cowboy paraphernalia has appeal mainly in the homosexual market. Full of contradictions, Joe is dumb but sensitive, vulnerable but violent. He may be America’s last unenlightened fool, a small-town bumpkin, unable to adapt to a faster, more sophisticated world.

Ratzo Rizzo (Hoffman) is a crippled, ailing mousy scrounger living in a vacant, decaying building, barely eking out an existence by his street smarts.


The tone is more morbidly exploitative than honestly realisticor humanistic, for that matter. “Midnight Cowboy” goes out of its way to portray the sordid ambiance of nightlife at Times Square and its alienated, lonely creatures. Schlesinger explores the Dante-like Inferno New York City’s 42nd Street area, emphasizing the characters’ squalid adjustments to loneliness and desperation. In this, the movie perpetuated the myth of New York as a big, sleazy, dehumanized, impersonal city.


Stylistically, however, the two movies could not have been more different. Reflecting the influence of the French New Wave and Richard Lester (the Beatles movies, “Petulia”), “Midnight Cowboy” employs jazzy camera tricks and editing pyrotechnics. Relying on rapid-fire intercutting, Schlesinger uses the spurious exuberance of mass media slogans as a counterpoint to the joyless real-life encounters of his protagonists. However, the fragmented flashbacks into the cowboy’s lurid formative years are irritatingly ambiguous and incoherent.

Graphic Sex

“Midnight Cowboy” surprised audiences with its candid view of sex and daring dialogue, though by today’s standards, the film is conservative and mild. The relationship between Joe and Ratso doesn’t go far enough; it is never overtly sexual, despite innuendos. And all the sex scenes are depicted in grotesque and exaggerated manner. The first one, with an aging blonde, is meant to be comic; in bed, the couple fall on and off a remote TV control.

Sylvia Miles plays Cass, a restless ex-hooker who welcomes the excitement of Joe’s visit to the plush penthouse provided by her current protector, an aging floozy Joe picks up under the mistaken interpretation that she is a society lady.

Two of the film’s strongest scenes are sexual. In the former, Joe allows a young man to perform fellatio on him in a movie theater, while he’s watching a sci-fi flick. When he climaxes, Schlesinger cuts to the screen and we see the spaceship takes off! In a later scene, Joe beats and nearly kills an old faggot.

Subtler and far more audacious, “Brokeback Mountain” contains fewer sexual scenes, though the first one between Ennis and Jake involves anal intercourse.

Message Movie

A message movie, “Midnight Cowboy” is about a relationship between a flawed “innocent,” a victim of the American Dream, and a cynical, illusionless, moribund loser. The movie concerns the awakening of affection in two alienated young men, who discover for the first time in their lives what it is to care for and about another human being. Neither Joe nor Ratso, the Times Square derelict who first cheats and then befriends him, has ever really “communicated” with anyone before. The resulting camaraderie fufills the need for human companionship.

Despite major flaws, the movie is sporadically moving. And it certainly has the kind of energy that transcends its depressing context. Moral ambiguity prevails throughout, specifically in the gratuitously brutal act Joe commits in an effort to realize the dying cripple’s fantasy about getting to Florida, a paradise of sunshine and cocoanuts.


A product of the late 1960s, “Midnight Cowboy” contains a Greenwich Village hippie party-orgy, an almost obligatory gesture toward the then fashionable onscreen decadence, begun by Fellini in “La Dolce Vita” and “81/2.” Now a days, the party scene looks meaningless and even unnecessary.


Times have obviously changed. “Midnight Cowboy” was the first film of prestige to get an X-rated in the new rating system, which was initiated just seven months before its release. The X-rating doesn’t exist anymore’the more problematic NC-17 has replaced it. As expected, “Brokeback Mountain” is R-rated.

Audience Appeal

Dealing with moral disintegration and moral dislocation, “Midnight Cowboy” catered to and reinforced the facile pessimism and cynicism of the then young moviegoers. A generation later, “Midnight Cowboy” served as a reminder that movies can be tough and gritty and still have wide commercial appeal. Similarly, if early evidence is to be trusted, the moderately budgeted “Brokeback” may prove to be a huge hit, even in the hinterland.

Quality Acting

The acting of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman was superb, earning both nominations in the lead category. The winner, however, was another cowboy, an older and more traditional one, John Wayne, in “True Grit.”

And the Oscar Goes to

Awards-wise, George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” got more Oscars (four) than “Midnight Cowboy.” However, with the exception of William Goldman’s Original Screenplay, the awards were in the technical categories, such as Conrad Hall’s Cinematography, Burt Bacharach’s Score, and Song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” with music by Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David.

“Midnight Cowboy” was nominated for 7 Oscars: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, two Best Actors (Voight and Hoffman, thus canceling each other out), Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles), and Editing (Hugh A. Robertson).

If my interpretation of this similarity is valid, “Brokeback Mountain” should garner at least 7 nominations (and possibly more) comes January 31, when the nominations are announced. It seems safe to predict that Lee’s modern Western will be nominated for 7 to 11 Oscars: Picture, Director (Ang Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), Actor (Heath Ledger), Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto), Production Design, Editing, Music (Gustavo Santaolalla), and Best Song, Emmylou Harris’ “A Love That Will Never Grow Old.”