Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger was a surprise Best Picture Winner at the 42nd Academy Awards. The film follows the friendship between Joe, a Texan prostitute and Ratso, a fledgling con-man in New York City. The two are broke and destitute, finding solace in their shared loneliness. But this is more than just a buddy movie. It is one of Hollywood’s best offering of the 60s.
Like the best late-60s films, Easy Rider, The Graduate — Midnight Cowboy commented on the society their audiences inhabited. Controversial and gritty, they rejected big-budget escapism for something less happy but more human. On the 50th anniversary of Midnight Cowboy‘s release, I look back on the legacy the film has left on American cinema.
An LGBT landmark
So far Midnight Cowboy remains the first and only X-rated movie to win Best Picture. Alongside scenes of violence and drug taking, it received the rating for its depiction of homosexuality. Same-sex relations were still criminalized in the majority of states throughout the 1960s. As a result, films rarely broached the topic, but in Midnight Cowboy it forms one of the movie’s central themes.
Joe Buck’s cowboy façade is an identity to hide behind. In one scene he finds himself unable to perform with a female client. In an impromptu game of scribbage, she suggests he might be “G.A.Y”. Galvanized, suddenly Joe is able to perform. His repressed sexuality is illuminated in a scene in which he brutally beats a male client and steals his money. It’s also possible to read Ratso and Joe’s relationship as beyond a buddy, odd-couple pairing. Also repressed, his mid-film fantasy sequence of him and a regularly shirtless Joe in Florida is very telling.
Despite the attitudes of the time, Midnight Cowboy portrays homosexuals not as an effeminate monolith but complex, interesting characters. Joe is ultimately kind if conflicted. Ratso meanwhile, is cynical and unclean but owns familiar, universal dreams in life. One slight issue is the flashbacks to Joe’s childhood. His relationship to his overbearing grandmother and a brutal rape scene imply his homosexual leanings may be developed and not inherent. However, the film and its success are still incredibly significant. Today LGBT voices are being consistently recognized in Hollywood. Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight and Boy Erased being the most recent. As such it’s important to note how the groundwork for addressing all sexual orientations in Hollywood began with movies like Midnight Cowboy.
Midnight Cowboy also reflects the change Hollywood cinema went through in the 60s. Big-budget, escapist movies were reflected for socially charged dramas. Films such as The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant caught the public imagination by dealing with the decade’s social upheaval. They were shot on-location, dealt with countercultural themes and were often fraught with controversy. Midnight Cowboy was very much made in this mold. Schlesinger shot in search of realism on New York’s sidewalks, in emulation of his French New Wave contemporaries. The famous “I’m Walkin’ Here” scene is an example of wanting to truly place the viewer in New York’s urban sprawl.
The movie interrogates urban poverty, a key trigger in anti-establishment sentiments. Joe and Ratso squat in a condemned building and barely scrape through life earning a street living. Midnight Cowboy also dared to explore highly taboo subjects like prostitution, homosexuality and the rise of recreational drugs. The hedonism of counter-culture is depicted in the iconic Andy Warhol party scene. There, Joe tries a joint. The flashing lighting and frenzied cutting is vindictive of the late-60s drug sequence and is comparable to Easy Rider’s acid trip sequence.
The movie’s final scene, filled with sadness and uncertainty, evokes the similar sorrow of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Gone were the days of the assured happy Hollywood ending. Such conclusions reflected the darkness of the late 60s, of continued involvement in Vietnam and political assassination.
The films of late-60s Hollywood featured many new faces. The likes of Beatty, Redford, and Hackman all became big names during the late 60s and early 70s. By the time of Midnight Cowboy Dustin Hoffman was already established with The Graduate, while Jon Voight was a relative unknown. Both recieved nominations for Best Actor that year. And it’s not hard to see why. The performances in the film are first-rate and bring the audience into an emotional understanding with the strange and eccentric characters of Joe and Ratso. Both are outcasts, shut out from their own versions of the American dream. Even in Roger Ebert’s nitpicking 1994 retrospective, he notes each performance as unforgettable.
Regardless of recent revelations, it’s undeniable that Midnight Cowboy confirmed that Hollywood had found a talent to dominate top billings for decades to come. His turn as Ratso was a paranoia-filled sleaze fest, suitably conveying the twin pillars of pride and desperation that govern the character’s world. Voight’s performance as Joe catapulted him to solid leading man status, if not quite the dramatic heights of his co-star. Making a male prostitute endearing like a child is no easy feat but Voight has no trouble. He paints Joe with enough naivety and innocence to communicate how at odds he is with the big city. Yet, he still manages to make Joe a tragedy, caught up in the midst of an urban society influx.
Midnight Cowboy continued the trend of late 60s/early 70s movies using pop & rock music in their soundtrack, moving away from orchestral movements or musical numbers. See The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Midnight Cowboy’s soundtrack is a quintessential 60s score. Standard western musical iconography is routinely mixed with 60s rock and roll. The tunes are upbeat and lively. They emphasize adventurism, while lyrically speak of loneliness. Several tracks were recorded for the film including Harry Nilsson’s cool country version of Neil’s Everbody’s Talkin’, a song that is pure adventure with a beat irresistible to tap along too. The song is now iconic to the film and bookends the tale with bittersweet tones.
Today the movie is a reference for other films. The small-town “Buck” moving to New York is a common indie movie staple. Everybody’s Talkin’ has become the go-to montage song, while Hoffman’s “I’m Walking Here!!” is a line now intrinsically associated with a New Yorker accent.
However, to me, Midnight Cowboy is simply one of the 60s most impressive and important Hollywood films. Its LGBTQ legacy, in particular, makes it a highly important movie in the American cinematic canon. Its innovations and social commentary on the times in which it was made make essential watching for any cinephile.
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