Tonight, I watched the 1969 winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy.
Midnight Cowboy is a movie about Joe Buck. Joe Buck is played by an impossibly young and handsome Jon Voight. Joe Buck — and, to be honest, just calling him Joe seems wrong, he is definitely a Joe Buck — is a well-meaning but somewhat dumb young man. He lives in Midland, Texas. He was raised by his grandmother. He used to go out with Annie (Jennifer Salt) but she eventually ended up being sent to a mental asylum after being raped by all of Joe Buck’s friend. Joe Buck doesn’t have many prospects. He washes dishes for a living and styles himself as being a cowboy. Being a Texan, I’ve known plenty of Joe Bucks.
Joe Buck, however, has a plan. He knows that he’s handsome. He’s convinced that all women love cowboys. So, why shouldn’t he hop on a bus, travel to New York City, and make a living having sex with rich women?
Of course, once he arrives in the city, Joe Buck discovers that New York City is not quite as inviting as he thought it would be. He lives in a tiny and dirty apartment. He can barely afford to eat. Walking around the city dressed like a cowboy (and remember, this was long before the Naked Cowboy became one of the most annoying celebrities of all time) and randomly asking every rich woman that he sees whether or not she can tell him where he can find the Statue of Liberty, Joe Buck is a joke. Even when he does get a customer (played, quite well, by Sylvia Miles), she claims not to have any money and Joe Buck feels so sorry for her that he ends up giving her his money.
As I watched the first part of the movie, it stuck me that the main theme of Midnight Cowboy appeared to be that, in 1969, New York City was literally Hell on Earth. But then Joe Buck has flashbacks to his childhood and his relationship with Annie and it quickly became apparent that Midland, Texas was Hell on Earth as well. Towards the end of the film, it’s suggested that Miami might be paradise but not enough to keep someone from dying on a bus.
Seriously, this is a dark movie.
Joe Buck eventually meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Ratso’s real name is Enrico but, after taking one look at him, you can’t help but feel that he’s a perfect Ratso. Ratso is a con man. Ratso is a petty thief. Ratso knows how to survive on the streets but New York City is still killing him. As a child, Ratso had polio and now he walks with a permanent limp. He coughs constantly, perhaps because he has TB. Ratso becomes Joe Buck’s manager and roommate (and, depending on how you to interpret certain scenes and lines, perhaps more) but only after attempting to steal all of his money.
Unfortunately, Ratso is not much of a manager. Then again, Joe Buck is not much of a hustler. Most of his customers are men (including a student played by a young but recongizable Bob Balaban), but Joe Buck’s own sexual preference remaining ambiguous. Joe Buck is so quick to loudly say that he’s not, as Ratso calls him, a “fag” and that cowboys can’t be gay because John Wayne was a cowboy, that you can’t help but suspect that he’s in denial. When he’s picked up by a socialite played by Brenda Vaccaro, Joe Buck is impotent until she teases him about being gay. In the end, though, Joe Buck seems to view sex as mostly being a way to make money. As for Ratso, he appears to almost be asexual. His only concern, from day to day, is survival.
Did I mention this is a dark movie?
And yet, as dark as it is, there are moments of humor. Joe Buck is incredibly dense, especially in the first part of the movie. (During the second half of the film, Joe Buck is no longer as naive and no longer as funny. It’s possible that he even kills a man, though the film is, I think, deliberately unclear on this point.) Ratso has a way with words and it’s impossible not to smile when he shouts out his famous “I’m walking here!” at a taxi. And, as desperate as Joe Buck and Ratso eventually become, you’re happy that they’ve found each other. They may be doomed but at least they’re doomed together.
There’s a lengthy party scene, one that features several members of Andy Warhol’s entourage. I was a bit disappointed that my favorite 60s icon, Edie Sedgwick, was nowhere to be seen. (But be sure to check out Ciao Manhattan, if you want to see what Edie was doing while Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo were trying not to starve.) But, as I watched the party scene, I was reminded that Midnight Cowboy is definitely a film of the 60s. That’s both a good and a bad thing. On the positive side, the late 60s and 70s were a time when filmmakers were willing to take risks. Midnight Cowboy could only have been made in 1969. At the same time, there’s a few moments when director John Schlesinger, in the style of many 60s filmmakers, was obviously trying a bit too hard to be profound. Some of the flashbacks and fantasy sequences veer towards the pretentious.
Fortunately, the performances of Voight and Hoffman have aged better than Schlesinger’s direction. Hoffman has the more flamboyant role (and totally throws himself into it) but it really is Voight who carries the film. Considering that he’s playing a borderline ludicrous character, the poignancy of Voight’s performance is nothing short of miraculous.
Midnight Cowboy was the first and only X-rated film to win best picture. By today’s standards, it’s a PG-13.