MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)

midnight cowboyI ain’t a for-real movie critic, but I am one hell of a blogger. So let me talk about Midnight Cowboy, the movie about a poseur cowboy from Texas who sets off for New York City, convinced that owing to a dearth of straight men, wealthy women there will pay him for his sexual services. When his clientele fails to materialize, he meets and eventually befriends Rico “Ratso” Rizzo, a sickly sneak thief with a desperate dream to escape the city for Miami. While it’s status as “the only Best Picture winner to be rated X” is a little misleading, it is certainly worlds away from the previous year’s winner and it signalled that a new era had definitely arrived for American filmmaking.

I was excited to see this movie because Mouse has told me so much about it over the years. I wasn’t disappointed. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are both fantastic in this film. Voight plays Joe Buck, a man from Texas who decides to leave his home and job as a dishwasher to pursue a career of hustling in New York City. He believes that his charm and good looks, along with his sexual prowess, will enable him to succeed financially because New York is a city teeming with wealthy, older women eager to hire someone such as himself for company and a good time. Voight is plagued by flashbacks throughout the film, and we as the viewers never learn the entire story behind them. It appears he was raised by a grandmother, had some negative experiences with organized religion, and had several traumatic experiences connected to a past lover/girlfriend – possibly even surviving his own assault and witnessing hers as well. What exactly happened in his hometown and home life is never made fully clear, but we do know he has a painful relationship to sexuality and other people. In spite of this, he is a warm, loving person, eager to do right by others. Within days of relocating, he meets Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman. Rico is a con man and pulls one over on Joe, but thankfully this doesn’t define their relationship. In fact, they need one another’s companionship more than either can fully articulate.

The funny thing about the platonic relationship between Joe and Rico is that it follows a standard rom-com formula. First there is an initial acrimonious stage, followed by a thaw that allows them to establish a rapport.

Obviously the late 1960s are seen as a time of enormous cultural change, and this can be seen in both movies and popular music of the time. One aspect of change was the evolving view of morality. Songs were making increasingly obvious reference to things like drugs and politics. In Hollywood, the tyranny of the Hayes Code had broken and films depicted more adult themes like sex, violence and crime. But other changes were less about evolving views of morality and more oriented toward improving technology. Musicians, along the the producers they collaborated with, took a new approach to recording. Rather than reproduce a live performance as faithfully as possible, they exploited modern recording facilities to create sounds that did not and could not exist in the real world, using ‘the studio as an instrument’, as it was called. For example: Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

A parallel approach can be seen in Midnight Cowboy. As Katy described, there are sequences that may be fantasies, memories or nightmares edited into the action of the story. The camera follows characters on streets, subways and buses; nothing looks like it was shot on a soundstage. Music is played over disjointed scenes for montage sequences. In several scenes, images from what the characters are themselves watching onscreen are edited into the movie, contrasting or echoing the characters’ experiences. It’s like the filmmakers are ‘using the studio as a character’, so to speak. I’m not saying Midnight Cowboy is the first film to use these techniques. But I keep thinking back to how different this feels from Oliver!, and not just owing to its more risque subject matter.

I especially like the character of Joe Buck and his cowboy image. Since the days of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the cowboy has been America’s go-to hero, the New World’s equivalent to the knight errant of old. Movies, of course, embraced the heroic cowboy as a standard protagonist. And so the film seems to be sticking its thumb in the eye of Hollywood tradition, or at least this particular tradition. The toughness and rugged individualism of the cowboy has been reduced to a facade, one that Joe can barely maintain when he’s prostituting himself on the streets of New York. In fact, the movie opens with what seems to be the sounds of an old cowboys and Indians movie, but shows a blank movie screen at a deserted drive-in theater. Did the cowboy hero of American legend ever actually exist? If so, he is long gone and the only thing left is a hokey costume good only for attracting randy johns.

Mouse and I also wondered in a conversation whether the ways in which homosexuality and queer identity are depicted in the film are in fact homophobic. Certainly, the one openly gay character we see briefly in the bar where Joe meets Rico feels like a caricature – but then again, this is also one of the earliest representations of a gay character I can recall seeing in film. Rico and Joe repeatedly pronounce that they are “not fags.” As a viewer, it’s hard to discern what the filmmaker is hoping we take away from this. The men that hire or solicit Joe for his company are not exactly presenting in a stellar light, either. They appear weak and tortured. Mouse shocked me though by letting me know that the director of the film, John Schlesinger, was gay himself. Could he have written self-loathing into some of these characters intentionally, or was it meant as a social critique? There are aspects of this film that do seem to lend themselves to a pre-Stonewall era New York City. Is this story in fact helping to break through some barriers for queer representation, as archaic as it may seem to us in 2015?

Mouse also mentioned the rom-com narrative similarity found in this work. While I did not think the relationship between Joe and Rico was meant to be seen as sexual, I did find it to be infused with a strong and beautiful love. The two end up cohabitating – a choice that offers salvation to both of their spirits in many ways. I would even argue that this could be viewed as a romantic, if not sexual, story. Surely if nothing else it is a tale of deep love and an invaluable bond. Perhaps Schlesinger was drawn to this story for these reasons.

Another interesting thing about Schlesinger – he was British, and in his life he admitted to having voted at different times for all three major political parties in Britain. When he passed away at the age of 77, he was survived by his partner of over 30 years – photographer Michael Childers. Childers, hailing from North Carolina, had quite a career in his own right, specializing in dance, film and theater photography. Graphis Magazine named him one of the top 100 photographers of erotic art. The life of Schlesinger, including the story of his love for Childers, is outlined and brought to life in William J. Mann’s biography Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger.

We will have to check out more of Schlesinger’s stuff. Marathon Man is definitely on my list.

Aside from the glimpses of pre-Stonewall LGBT culture, in a broader sense Midnight Cowboy shows New York well before its economic rebirth, when the city was on the downhill slide that would later be explored in Taxi Driver. Also seen in the film is a peek at the art scene centered around Andy Warhol and his Factory in the late 60s. Several Warhol superstars make cameos in the party sequence near the end of the film. Don’t look for Andy himself, though. I have heard that his absence is because he was recuperating from his gunshot wounds, but I can’t find anything to confirm or deny this.

The 42nd Academy Awards were a somewhat cowboy-centric affair, with both Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid taking home several Oscars. Both Voight and Hoffman were nominated for the Actor award but lost- in what was perhaps a slightly ironic twist- to the greatest cowboy hero of them all: The Duke himself, John Wayne.

I consider Midnight Cowboy part of the canon of classic movies, something everyone should see at least once.

Thinking of the cowboy archetype reminds me of the Marlboro Man representations that fascinated me a bit when I worked at organizations examining masculinity. I liked the analysis of this trope – the uplifting of a man who is truly an island: rugged, independent, stoic. Time and again we can see in our culture that holding men to this impossible standard can be dangerous. People need other people. Independence and self-reliance are attractive qualities, to be sure – in people of all genders. Joe Buck seems to underscore this poignantly in Midnight Cowboy. He wants to be the sexy cowboy that wins women over with his appeal, the rugged individual – but at his core he yearns and needs to connect with other people. Fortunately, the film is brave enough to show him doing just that in his friendship with Rico. It’s a powerful lesson about the value of interconnectedness and strong bonds as a key to being able to survive. It was my favorite takeaway from this movie, and I think it came across beautifully.

Also nominated in 1969:
Anne of the Thousand Days
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Hello, Dolly!
Z

Next film: TITANIC (1997)

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