1960. 113 minutes. Rated X, downgraded to R.
Joe: Lotta rich women back there, Ralph, begging for it, paying for it, too… and the men… they’re mostly tutti fruttis. So I’m gonna cash in on some of that, right?… Hell, what do I got to stay around here for? I got places to go, right?
Texas GF: You’re the only one, Joe. You’re the only one…
There were three movies that had a significant impact on my early teen years: Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, and Midnight Cowboy. Introduced to these by the influence of a close friend’s free-spirited, intellectual older brother, my best friend and I absorbed any music/film suggestions like sponges. His Svengali-like hold on our creative senses lasted well into our teen years. This period of artisitic self-cultivation was born from a shared misanthropic outlook on the tastes of our peers, and in an ivory tower type opinion of where we stood in our small town realities in general. In short, we knew what was good.
Midnight Cowboy, in all it’s associated pretensions to me, is a stand-out favorite because it tells the story of two human beings alone: one a naïve country man named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) portraying himself as a much in demand gigolo cowboy–the other a street urchin, Ratzo “Enrico” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) without a dime and a persistent tubercular illness. Both of these characters navigate the mean streets of New York, friendless in the beginning of the film; after meeting, are side-by-side (literally) until the end.
Between flashback scenes of his abandonment by his mother and over-coddling grandmother, the audience may understand why Joe became to rely on his sexual prowess and why he seems so confident in these matters. From the very first eerie flashbacks Joe has on his bus ride East, I sensed Joe’s primary caretaker broke boundaries with him as a child (his grandmother’s over affectionate bedtime cuddling, and the adoring sentiments “You’re gonna be the best looking cowboy there…” ) All of his-self worth is built around his “studliness,” good looks, and cowboy appeal.
Joe’s telling memories also show violence meshed with tender scenes with his Texas girlfriend Annie (Jennifer Salt) , who consistently coos to him how he “is the best–the only one.” (more of the same carnal reinforcement.) These flashbacks are effective in revealing how it is Joe Buck became convinced that heading to NY in pursuit of rich women to fulfill his American Dream became his life’s purpose. They also present both Joe and “Crazy Annie” as tormented souls that were taken advantage of (Joe perhaps molested at a young age) and violated in the worst ways imaginable (Annie–perhaps along with Joe–gang raped by her enraged en masse of townie lovers.)
Though a successful trick here or there, Joe has no real prospects, but determined, he plugs on. His cheerful demeanor is almost hard to watch at times during his revelations of what his reality actually is here in New York City. Joe’s desperation in his new environment leads to some sordid sexual exploits: a hustle in a movie theater with a young man (who he attempts to rough up), and a disturbing hotel room scene with a religious fanatic set-up by a newly minted pimp, Ratzo.
Now another decrepit brick in the city wall, once-confident Joe finds himself struggling and down and out, with nowhere to turn. As time goes on, Ratzo Rizzo becomes the only solid person in Joe’s life, and vice versa. These two unlikely, seemingly mismatched friends end up needing each other: Ratzo’s street smarts, Joe’s almost maternal role taking care of Ratzo until the bus ride to Florida when fate steps in.
It is not mutual desperation alone that brings together Ratzo and Joe. There seems to exist a shared understanding and complete acceptance of who the other person really is. Joe is a broken young man seeking to start over; Ratzo, a lonely man with nothing. Both seem humbled by one another’s existence, and it’s their acceptance of each other in their true skins, not as Joe the stud or Ratzo the swindler that softens each other’s egos. Much of the superiority stems initially from Joe, who believes he is in a higher strata than Ratzo. Though, he soon sees he is not. Joe no longer feels the need to rely on his cowboy image and he accepts it isn’t working, furthermore, he gets on a bus (in normal street attire, spurs gone) with his ailing friend to help them both start afresh… together.
Beyond all the X-rated hype, and some debate on its worthiness in beating out Butch Cassidy and Easy Rider in 1969. (yes, it is the only X-rated flick to win an Academy Award), Midnight Cowboy has two amazing things going for it: One, the impeccable acting by everyone, even the peripheral characters are believable, as terrible as they might be. I am specifically thinking of Cass (Sylvia Miles), Joe’s first paying customer. Cass is a rich monster who seemed like she leaped right off the pages of a Tennessee Williams play (Think, Sweet Bird of Youth). Did she really swindle him out of money after throwing a fit and indulging in his “services??”
Which brings me to the second stellar quality, the humanness that permeates throughout this film. Joe transitions from confident sexy cowboy to humiliated and destitute homeless man. This, coupled with his ability to accept this truth of his circumstance and man-up, get on a Greyhound bus and embrace the journey with the equally poor Rizzo is incredibly humbling. In an earlier heart wrenching scene, after becoming broke and with nowhere to go, Joe spills ketchup on himself in a shelter, (I shed at least one tear EVERY TIME I see this scene) Jon Voight brings a believable weakness to Joe Buck that is poignant to an extreme. This is no hack acting job. Poor Joe, things just go from bad to worse, In every scene we see the good-natured buckaroo struggling, wearing looks of frozen animal confusion and just trying to make his futile attempts at hustling work in his new digs. The vulnerable sides of the characters, and the concept of humanity in this film, is a powerful one to me.
Harry Nilsson, the gifted American singer/songwriter who once impressed John Lennon, is responsible for the breezy title track (which nicely accompanies Joe’s simple nature) “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me.” (Huge fan, and highly recommend Nilsson Schmilson to everyone who hasn’t already listened).
Some of the film drags, namely the drug party scene, which actually brings Joe a second paying customer, Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro.) It could be described as a little Warhol-happy in its depiction, but remember, this WAS 1969, so what we could shrug off as pretentious mods in drug scenes, the film was considered scandalous and received this rating owing to the sexual content, nude scenes. It was definitely edgy for its time period. By today’s Hollywood standards, Midnight Cowboy is still dark, but probably too tame to qualify for an X-rating. Realistically, society’s standards of what is inappropriate content in films has obviously changed. These days, many people are desensitized to seeing rape, incest, and excessive violence glorified by the entertainment industry.
Clearly a 60’s film, there is something timeless about Midnight Cowboy. The flawless acting maybe, the human struggles of two lonely, new friends struggling to survive in an indifferent city; whatever it is, Midnight Cowboy should never be snubbed as that third-rate, X-rated hippie movie that beat out “Butch Cassidy…”