Oscar: Best Picture–Midnight Cowboy (1969), Directed by Schlesinger, Starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight

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

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Midnight Cowboy
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Theatrical release poster

Midnight Cowboy was based on a respectable source material, the 1966 novel of James Leo Herlihy (who, by the way, later committed suicide). Though bold, tough, gritty by standards of the time, the movie, with the help of the Oscars, became a commercial success.

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

midnight_cowboy_5_hoffman_voightMidnight Cowboy surprised audiences with its candid view of sex and daring dialogue, though by today’s standards, it’s rather conservative and mild.

The film tells a bittersweet, occasionally touching tale of a strange friendship between two victims of the American Dream. The one, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), is a good-looking, uneducated, and naive Texan who, under the influence of radio and television commercials, fancies himself to be a stud. His ambition is to strike 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. The other character, Ratzo Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is a crippled, ailing mousy scrounger, who lives in a vacant, decaying building, barely eking out an existence by his street smarts.

midnight_cowboy_3_voightSome critics, such as Pauline Kael, found the movie offensive and inaccurate in its seedy portrait of New York City. The harshest, most disturbing image shows a man lying unattended on a Fifth Avenue pavement in front to Tiffany’s.

Other critics, such as Barrios, claims that despite the edgy surface, the film is at heart conventional, sort of “old wine in new bottle.”

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But I disagree with both of them.  Reflecting the zeitgeist, the film tried to capture the ambiance of nightlife at Times Square and the area’s alienated and lonely creatures. In the process, it perpetuated the myth of New York as a sleazy, dehumanized, impersonal city. Schlesinger explored the Dante-like Inferno the 42nd Street area long before it was Disneyfied.

Grounded in its socio-political context, there is a Greenwich Village hippie party that feels like an orgy was a gesture toward the then fashionable kind of decadence.

z2nro7qdtuzThe relationship between a flawed “innocent” and a cynical, moribund loser emerges out of their desperate need for some kind of human companionship. The movie is sporadically moving and it certainly has energy to transcend the depressing context and awful surroundings. The film focuses on their squalid adjustments to loneliness and desperation. The tone is more morbidly exploitative than honestly realistic–“or humanistic, for that matter. The relationship doesn’t go far enough; it is never overtly sexual, despite innuendos and homoerotic overtones.

Joe may have been America’s last unenlightened fool, a small-town bumpkin, unable to adapt to faster world and new markets. This comes across in most of his interactions, but particularly with Cass (Sylvia Miles), a restless ex-hooker who welcomes the excitement of Joe’s visit to the plush penthouse provided by her current protector. She is an aging floozy that Joe picks up under the mistaken interpretation that she is a society lady.

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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 hot-climate Florida.

Aesthetically, Schlesinger relies on rapid-fire cutting, distorted wide angle shots, crudely inserted flashbacks from Joe’s childhood, and other shock effects. He uses the spurious exuberance of mass media slogans as a counterpoint to joyless real-life encounters. Most critics found the fragmented flashbacks into the cowboy’s lurid formative years to be irritatingly ambiguous and incoherent too.

Indeed, ultimately, what the viewers cared about was not the frenzied style and visual pyrotechnics but the characters and the central friendship. The movie is about the awakening of affection–“and conscience–in two alienated young men, who discover for the first time in their lives what it is to care about another human being. Neither the cowboy nor his pal Ratso, the Times Square derelict who first cheats and then befriends him, has ever really “communicated” with anyone before.

The film catered to and reinforced the facile pessimism of the then young moviegoers, just as the facile optimism of the older generation used to cater to a simpler age. The film used freedom of expression with balancing responsibility and constructive-hopeful purpose. Indeed, it became first prestigious movie to get an X-rated in the new rating system, (which was initiated just seven months before its release.

Awards-wise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got more Oscars (four) than Midnight Cowboy, which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three. Midnight Cowboy was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, two Best Actors (Voight and Hoffman, thus canceling each other out), Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles), and Editing (Hugh A. Robertson).

The acting of Voight and Hoffman was superb, and both were nominated for Best Actor, though the winner that year was John Wayne for the retro Western, True Grit.

It’s worth noting that “Midnight Cowboy” was released theatrically just weeks before the riots at Stonewall, which would open the gates to a more vivid and candid portrayal of gay relationships.

Detailed Synopsis

Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young small-town Texan, frustrated with his job as a dishwasher, dream big.  One day, wearing a new cowboy outfit, he packs a suitcase, and quits his job.  Heading to New York City, he hopes to score as a seductive hustler with sexually-starved women, of various classes and ages.

Joe sleeps with a rich, middle-aged New Yorker (Sylvia Miles), but ends up paying her money, having failed to understand she was a call girl herself, expecting to get paid.

Joe then meets Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled con man who takes $20 from Joe by offering to introduce him to a known pimp, who turns out to be a Bible thumper (John McGiver). Joe flees the encounter in pursuit of Ratso.

Joe spends his days wandering the city and sitting in his hotel room. Broke, he is kicked out of his hotel and most of his belongings are impounded. He tries to make money by  receiving oral sex from a man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater. When Joe learns that his client has no money, Joe asks for his watch, but eventually lets him go.

Turning point occurs when Joe spots Ratso, and the latter offers to share his dwelling in a shabby, run-down building.

Soon, they begin a “business relationship” as hustlers, and gradually they develop a more intimate bond, all along while Ratso’s health grows steadily worse.

Joe’s story is told through flashbacks. His grandmother raised him after his mother abandoned him. He and his girlfriend Crazy Annie were raped by local townspeople. She is institutionalized, and Joe joins the army.

As for Ratso, his father was an illiterate Italian immigrant shoe-shiner who worked in a subway station, developed a bad back, and “coughed his lungs out from breathin’ in that wax all day”. Ratso now dreams of moving to Miami.

Joe and Ratso are invited to a Warhol-like party scene (cameos by Warhol superstars), and Joe smokes a joint, thinking it’s a cigarette.  After taking a pill, begins to hallucinate. He leaves the party with a socialite (Brenda Vaccaro), who agrees to pay $20 for spending the night with him, but Joe cannot perform. They play Scribbage together, and Joe shows his limited vocabulary. She teases Joe about being gay, and suddenly he can perform. In the morning, she arranges for him to service her friend as Joe’s customer.

Ratso, though bedridden and feverish, refuses medical help and begs Joe to put him on a bus to Florida. Desperate, Joe picks up a gay man (Barnard Hughes), and robs the man when he tries to pay with religious medallion instead of cash.  Joe buys bus tickets, but during the journey, Ratso’s physical condition deteriorates.  Joe buys new clothing for Ratso and himself, discarding his cowboy outfit. As they near Miami, Joe plans to get a regular job, but then realizes that Ratso has died. The driver tells Joe there is nothing else to do but continue on to Miami. The film ends with Joe seated with his arm embracing Ratso.

Cast

Jon Voight as Joe Buck

Dustin Hoffman as Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo

Sylvia Miles as Cass

John McGiver as Mr. O’Daniel

Brenda Vaccaro as Shirley

Barnard Hughes as Towny

Ruth White as Sally Buck

Jennifer Salt as Annie

Viva as Gretel

Bob Balaban as Young Student

Credits:

Directed by John Schlesinger
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Adam Holender
Edited by Hugh A. Robertson

Production companies: Jerome Hellman Productions, Mist Entertainment

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: May 25, 1969

Running time: 113 minutes
Budget $3.2 million
Box office $44.8 million