Midnight Cowboy (1969)

“The only one thing I ever been good for is lovin’.”

Synopsis:
A small-town Texan (Jon Voight) heads to New York City in hopes of making a good living as a gigolo for wealthy women. Instead, he finds himself hustling to survive, and relying on the friendship of a down-and-out con-artist (Dustin Hoffman) who dreams of moving to Florida.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this infamous cult movie — the first “X-Rated” film to win a Best Picture Oscar — “has humor and moments of warmth”, it nonetheless possesses a “cruel edge” which he believes is generated by the “America-hating director, John Schlesinger, who seems to enjoy victimizing [the two male leads] in the name of America”. From what I’ve read, Schlesinger’s relationship with America was actually much more nuanced than Peary indicates (he grew to love Los Angeles), and I can’t quite agree with Peary that the film’s “cruel edge” has anything to do with how its director chooses to “treat” the characters. Peary further complains that “scriptwriter Waldo Salt doesn’t… include any scenes in which the men open up to each other and discuss their deepest feelings or their past”, yet he praises both Voight and Hoffman (who he names Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars) for giving “excellent, sympathetic portrayals” which allow us to “understand both the reasons for and the depth of their friendship”.

In the remainder of his review, Peary labels Schlesinger’s use of flashbacks as a “technical imposition” which merely exhibits “his desire to use film to play with time,” given that we “never find out” how a gang-rape endured by Voight and his girlfriend (Jennifer Salt) “affected him”. I disagree: while it might be nice to understand a bit more about these and other earlier scenes from Voight’s life, we clearly understand that he comes from a troubled background, which is enough to help us sympathize with his desire for a better life in NYC. Similarly, we don’t find out much about Ratso’s background, or even learn exactly what illness causes him to cough so persistently — yet what’s most important here is that he and Voight find each other and develop a most unusual companionship in the midst of abject poverty. Their (mis)adventures together, while certainly often depressing, always ring true, and are (ironically) tinged with an air of subtle optimism given the obvious loyalty they’ve developed towards one another; indeed, despite a decidedly heartbreaking ending, I can think of a hundred different ways the storyline for Midnight Cowboy could have been even “crueler” than it is.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jon Voight as Joe Buck
  • Dustin Hoffman as “Ratso”
  • Sylvia Miles as Cass
  • Adam Holender’s cinematography
  • Excellent use of Harry Nilsson’s instantly memorable rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”

Must See?
Yes, as an historically relevant cultural icon of late ’60 cinema.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Midnight Cowboy (1969)”

  1. A no-brainer must. One that holds up quite well to repeat viewings – in fact, a couple of extra viewings, at least, serve to answer ‘hidden’ questions. I saw it on its release (at a drive-in) and I probably see it about once a year (since I have a copy).

    This is maybe one of the rare times when, reading the assessment and seeing the various quotes from him, that I’m actually shocked that Peary could be so wrong in how he views the film. Of course, ‘wrong’ could be the wrong word. Everyone who sees a film will come away with his/her own interpretation – in theory, that’s part of the beauty of film.

    But, well…in this case, to me he’s wrong. 😉

    In stating that the ‘America-hating’ Schlesinger made a ‘cruel’ film, Peary makes a major error in ignoring the fact that the film is adapted from a novel! I’ve read the novel and the film is a rather excellent transition of it to the screen. Peary goes on to complain about screenwriter Salt (a highly gifted writer). Why would Salt include scenes in which Buck and Rizzo open up about “their deepest feelings or their past”? Did he not notice that the film is set in New York City – and that, in the milieu these guys are operating in, no one gives a s**t (more or less) about either one of those things?

    Sheesh. (As for Rizzo’s past, I don’t actually recall if the book goes into detail about it. But, for the film…I find it quite appropriate that we not only learn sketchy details about Buck’s past – which can be put together nicely on a rewatch – but that we actually learn nothing about Rizzo other than his present non-entity position. That makes it all the more poignant when Rizzo insists on being called ‘Rico’ instead of ‘Ratso’ – as a means of gaining a real identity.)

    It’s almost tedious to remark on the so-called “technical imposition” of the flashbacks. In fact, it *is* tedious to make more of that.

    ‘Schlesinger captures New York City in a way similar to Sidney Lumet – with a very clear, compassionate but realistic eye. I lived there not long after this film was made and the NYC I see in this film is the one I saw when I got there. Very similar to the view in Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’. ~the difference being that, although I can continue watching ‘MC’, I’m rather uncomfortable returning to ‘TD’ – as I stated in my post on the latter film.

    Like most good directors, Schlesinger is at his best when he has a terrific script (which he has here). As well, he is usually quite good with actors and tends to get very layered performances from them. No exception here; there’s marvelous work from the entire cast.

    I actually think ‘MC’ doesn’t hit a single wrong note – right from the bat, with the wonderful opening shot of the daytime drive-in movie screen which segues into the memorable ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, sung by Nilsson. (I also love the instrumental theme song, which plays later on and is repeated.) It is a one-of-a-kind film which, oddly, I don’t find depressing, and I’m not sure why. It certainly often shows a harsh reality – one that I’m glad to be far removed from. But what it does for me personally is explain a particular underbelly in a way that makes me somehow root for the two main characters…

    …and makes me yearn to see them succeed in their plan for a better life.

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