As you can probably guess from the title, Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic is all about the making of one of the darkest films to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy.
Released in 1969 and based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck. Joe is a simple-minded but handsome man from a small-town in Texas. After both he and his girlfriend are raped by some local rednecks, Joe puts on his cowboy hat, hops in a bus, and heads for New York City. Joe figures that he can make a lot of money as a hustler but he soon discovers that New York is a far more dangerous, nightmarish, and depressing place than he ever realized. Not only is he not smart enough to make it as a hustler but he’s not even the only cowboy hanging out around Times Square. Eventually, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who has a bad leg, a hacking cough, and the worst apartment in New York. Joe and Rizzo become unlikely roommates and eventually, they even become friends. (And depending on how you interpret certain scenes and lines of dialogue, they might even become more.) Rizzo helps Joe to survive in New York but Rizzo himself is dying. Not even a chance to hang out with a group of Warhol superstars can cure Rizzo of what ails him. Rizzo wants to see Florida and Joe wants to get out of New York. How far will Joe go to escape and save his only friend?
Midnight Cowboy was controversial when it was first released, with some critics calling it a masterpiece and other claiming that the film was a symbol of America’s cultural and moral decay. It went on to become the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture. Midnight Cowboy‘s victory over films like Hello Dolly! and Anne of the Thousand Days was seen as a sign that mature and adult-themed films could actually find both acclaim and an audience. Midnight Cowboy‘s success helped to bring Hollywood into the modern era. For many, it was also responsible for establishing New York as being the dirty and heartless city that would appear in so many of the films that followed. Indeed, there’s many different lessons that one can take from Midnight Cowboy but the main one seems to be that everyone should stay the heck out of New York. Seen today, Midnight Cowboy is no longer all that shocking and director John Schlesinger occasionally seems to be trying too hard to establish his auteur credentials. But the film’s story still remains effective, as do the lead performances of Hoffman and Voight. Though being very much a film of its time, Midnight Cowboy is still watchable today. It’s not only an effective film but it’s also a milestone in Hollywood history.
As for Shooting Midnight Cowboy, it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about both the film and the controversy that has surrounded it over the years. Starting with the novel that was written by James Leo Herlihy, Shooting Midnight Cowboy meticulously follows the production of the film, exploring not only how both Voight and Hoffman came to star in the film but also how these two very competitive actors came together to create an unforgettable portrait of an unlikely friendship. It also explores everything from director John Schlesinger’s efforts to bring his vision to life to the concerns that mainstream audiences would refuse to see the film because of its adult context to the writing of the film’s famous theme song, Everybody’s Talkin’. Perhaps the most harrowing chapter deals with the ordeal that Jennifer Salt suffered through while playing the small role of Joe Buck’s Texas girlfriend, Annie. Shooting Midnight Cowboy puts the movie into its proper historical and cultural context, showing how the film commented on the issues of the time while also telling a story that remains effective even when viewed outside of the 60s. It makes for an interesting and informative read, for both the film lover and the cultural historian.