Book Review: Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel

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.

The Last Castle (2001, directed by Rod Lurie)

It’s Redford vs. Gandolfini in The Last Castle!

The last castle of the title is a United States Military Prison, one that was originally constructed during the Civil War and which resembles a castle, but with one big difference. Castles were originally designed to keep people from entering. The purpose of this castle is to keep people from leaving.

Colonel Ed Winter (James Gandolfini) is the prison’s commandant, a martinet who has never served in war but who keeps a collection of bullets and weapons in his office. Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) is the newest inmate. Irwin was a highly respected general until he disobeyed a presidential order and eight of his men died as a result. Irwin has been stripped of his rank and sentenced to ten years. He tells Winter that he just wants to do his time and then go home. That’s fine with Winter, until he overhears Irwin disparaging his collection of battlefield memorabilia.

At first, Irwin tries to lay low.  Even when he sees firsthand that Winter is a sadist who manipulates the inmates and who isn’t above ordering his guards to kill an inmate in order to make a point, Irwin tries to stay uninvolved.  But eventually, Irwin’s natural military instincts kick in and he leads the prisoners in a revolt against Col. Winter.

The Last Castle requires a healthy suspension of disbelief.  Irwin brings the inmates together by reminding them that they were once soldiers and that, even when serving time in a military prison, they’re apart of a grand tradition of soldiers who have been court-martialed.  He soon has them saluting and standing at attention and walking in formation.  The movie overlooks the fact that most of the prisoners were sentenced to the prison by men much like General Irwin.  The idea that all of them are just waiting for someone to once again start barking orders at them just doesn’t seem plausible.  Instead, it seems more likely the Irwin, as a former general, would be the least popular inmate in a prison that’s full of enlisted men who feel that they were screwed over the army.  In the end, Irwin asks the prisoners to sacrifice a lot but, in the end, it doesn’t matter how heroically he’s framed in each scene or how much the music swells on the soundtrack, Iwin’s rebellion seems like its more about ego than anything else.  Even if it means getting rid of Col. Winter, would any of the inmates realistically be willing to die for Eugene Irwin?

At the same time, The Last Castle is worth watching just to see James Gandolfini face off against Robert Redford.  Gandolfini plays his role with the type of neurotic energy that only a method actor is capable of capturing while Redford is his typical move star self.  The contrast between their two styles of acting translates well into the contrast between Winter and Irwin’s philosophy of leadership.  Among the inmates, Mark Ruffalo and Clifton Collins, Jr. both have early roles.  Of the two, Ruffalo gets to play the only character in the film with a hint of moral ambiguity and he runs with it.  Clifton Collins, Jr., meanwhile, plays a character whose fate will be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a film before.  The Last Castle has its moment but it’s never a surprising movie.

The Last Castle ends with a spontaneous display of patriotism, one that is effective but also feels implausible and out-of-place.  It’s the perfect way to sum up this frustrating but occasionally diverting film. 


Film Review: Icahn: The Restless Billionaire (dir by Bruce David Klein)

Before I actually talk about Icahn: The Restless Billionaire, I should probably confess something.  Well, actually, this is a reconfession because I explain this every time that I review any movie or documentary the deals with stocks and investments and big shorts and corporate takeovers and all the rest.  The Stock Market confuses the heck out of me.

Seriously, I have no idea how it works.  Everything that I hear about it just confuses me.  How can you invest money that you don’t have in order to make or lose money that might not actually exist?  How can people keep buying stock in the same company?  It just seems like a company should eventually run out of stock.  And what is stock anyways?  And don’t even get me started on this whole thing where people can apparently secretly buy everyone’s stock and then force a company’s founder to resign or sell the company itself.  That’s just weird to me.

I will also admit that I actually do own stock.  I didn’t buy any of it.  Some of it, I inherited.  Some of it was gifted to me.  Some of it, I got through work.  Off the top of my head, I really couldn’t tell you much about any of the stock that I own.  I’ve been told that my stock’s doing well, which is fine with me.  Nobody ever tells me if my stocks aren’t doing well, which is also fine with me.  I don’t really need that pressure.

Some people, however, love the pressure.  Carl Icahn, for instance, has made billions by playing with the stock market and by taking over struggling companies and then selling them for a profit.  Icahn’s detractors call him a pirate or a raider.  Icahn claims that he’s an activist, taking over poorly managed companies and then selling them for a profit so that people, like me, who have no idea how any of this works can also make a profit.  (And, of course, Icahn makes a huge amount of money off of it as well.)  Carl Icahn is thought to have been one of the role models for Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko.  Consider that Wall Street was released in 1987 and you can see just how long Carl Icahn has been doing this.

Icahn: The Restless Billionaire is a documentary about both the man and his controversial career.  It delves a little into his childhood and features plenty of scenes of Icahn at his mansions and in his ornate office.  For the most part, though, it’s a collection of scenes of Icahn and some of his associates discussing the various takeovers and battles that Icahn has been involved with over the years.  The documentary is unapologetically pro-Icahn.  If you’re expecting to see AOC or Bernie pop up and start going on about taxing the rich or condemning billionaires, you’re out of luck.  In fact, the documentary is so pro-Icahn that it almost feels like a relic from a different era.  For that matter, so does Carl Icahn.  Icahn is happily pro-capitalism and he makes no apologies for that.  A lot of viewers aren’t going to be used to seeing that in a contemporary documentary, especially not one produced by HBO.  Myself, I’m a fan of capitalism and free enterprise so it didn’t bother me and the documentary, at the very least, worked as a change of pace.  Still, I can’t help but imagine that a lot of my friends would have ended up throwing something at the TV.

Carl Icahn is obviously a smart guy and he’s made a lot of money.  I enjoyed looking at the house.  At the same time, he’s not exactly the most charismatic billionaire in the world and the scenes that attempt humanize him come across as being stiff and staged.  The documentary is probably at its best when its just Icahn and his associates talking about the battles that he’s fought.  I honestly couldn’t follow what they were talking about but I also couldn’t deny that they all seemed to be having fun.

Scene That I Love: The Opening of Mulholland Drive (Happy Birthday, Angelo Badalamenti)

Happy birthday, Angelo Badalamenti!

This great composer is probably best known for his dream-like and haunting work for the films of David Lynch.  Among the many songs and musical pieces that he’s done for Lynch, he composed the jitterbug music that opened David Lynch’s 2001 film, Mulholland Drive.  The scene below features the perfect mix of Lynch’s visual vision and Badalamenti’s musical ear.  What I especially like about this scene is that the music starts out as a very cheerful and vaguely generic but then it grows steadily more ominous as the scene plays out.

Here it is.  The haunting opening of one of the best films of the current century:

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Stardom Edition

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

With the Oscars approaching, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to stardom with 4 shots from 4 films!

4 Shots From 4 Films About Being A Star

Mulholland Drive (2001, dir by David Lynch, DP: Peter Deming)

Chicago (2002, dir by Rob Marshall, DP: Dion Beebe)

Maps to the Stars (2014, dir by David Cronenberg, DP: Peter Suschitzky)

The Neon Demon (2016, dir by Nicolas Winding Refn, DP: Natasha Braier)

Music Video of the Day: Somehow You Do, performed by William Shatner (2021, dir by John Ottman)

Today, the Shattered Lens wishes a happy 91st birthday to William Shatner!  Not only is William Shatner an actor, a director, a writer, a famed wit, and a legendary Canadian but he’s also a singer!

Here is William Shatner performing Somehow You Do.  This song was written by Diane Warren and the video was directed by John Ottman.