As the Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight film turns 50, Scott Holleran explores the reasons for the controversial box-office hit and the impact of its legacy.
Jon Voight stars as the handsome young Texan hustler who goes seedy before he goes straight — it’s hinted that he’s probably gay — thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s vagabond in director John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. I had never seen this extremely influential blue movie, which is also purposefully dark and depraved, partly because it was rated X by Hollywood’s ratings association and partly because it isn’t widely available. As severe and bleak as it is, Midnight Cowboy’s mark on movies is undeniable.
In fact, Midnight Cowboy starts with a reference to the movies and it piles on Hollywood references, as if Schlesinger, with writer Waldo Salt adapting the Sixties novel, knew that the motion picture industry was completing the radical change from a golden age of glamor to a new age of depravity. It’s a movie that constantly talks to itself, as when Hollywood’s ghosts of cowboys and Indians beckon at an abandoned drive-in theater as the sordid film begins. “Where is Joe Buck?” Everyone snaps as the picture shifts to a greasy Texas diner in fast intercuts with the young stud preening in the mirror.
“What are you doing with that get-up?” Someone asks as Joe Buck (Voight) enters the joint as if answering the earlier question. He spends the rest of the movie offering an exhaustive answer to the second question. With nudity, sex and whoring, this must’ve been shocking 50 years ago this month, when Midnight Cowboy was released in theaters.
Sadly, it is not shocking now. The raunch of yesteryear gave way to the raunch of five seconds ago and the raunchier the culture, the more Puritanical it becomes, which leads to rougher fare as the cycle goes around and around. Though it wasn’t the first, Midnight Cowboy, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, leads the trend toward movies about dying.
When Joe Buck, whose name signals what you need to know, says he’s heading to New York to make a living prostituting himself to the ladies — and to the gents who are, as he puts it, “tutti-fruity” — going east instead of West, it’s clear that this is the ultimate anti-Western. Not because the cowboy, who admits he’s not a cowboy, plays gay for pay but because he has no sense of himself. This isn’t to say that cowboys aren’t conflicted, deep and interesting. Despite his name, Joe Buck — with the build, the boots, and the hat — is merely traumatized, which the audience learns in fantastic flashbacks to an overbearing granny and some sort of violent episode, and he is in desperate need of a friend.
“One of the most remarkable legacies of Midnight Cowboy is its nearly unanimous praise. Yet, Midnight Cowboy is not a masterpiece, not by any serious estimation.”
This is where Rico (Hoffman), known as Ratso, eventually, predictably comes in, if not until 25 minutes into the film. The picture’s first bookend, a passenger bus, carries Joe in all his cheerful amity and innocence to Manhattan. Along the way, he shares the journey with a tomboy reading a Wonder Woman comic book, an old cowboy, drunken sailors, and a nun, while reflecting as he looks out the window of the bus.
Impressions along this reverse American trail include a “Jesus saves” sign and faith healing on a religious broadcast, which are clues to what might happen back east. In this sense, Midnight Cowboy dramatizes the insidiousness of religion. Still, young Joe Buck in this grainy, folksy movie gets caught up as he comes into New York City.
Pinups of naked Marilyn Monroe and swarthy Paul Newman adorn Joe’s cheap hotel room, where he writes postcards that he rips up as he struggles to hustle those in the market for a tall, blond stud in a cowboy hat. That he passes a man face down on the sidewalk in front of Tiffany & Co. consolidates the sense that, unlike George Peppard’s blond gigolo with Patricia Neal in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Joe Buck, who fantasizes that women pay him for sex, gets taken more than he hustles.
“Ho ho ho,” goes the ad on TV for Green Giant vegetables as he gives a horny old hussy what she wants. “Bring your knees up,” another TV show goes during an exercise routine. Like 1976’s Network, Midnight Cowboy both satirizes and uses TV, known then as the boob tube, to make its points. TV, flashbacks and other fleeting visuals offer a purely subjective commentary on the plot while you’re watching the movie.
“Terrific shirt,” Hoffman’s greasy, gimpy and petty criminal tells Joe when he eyeballs him sitting at a gay bar. With a bum leg and a nasal, grating whine, the con man isn’t very promising as a potential scout for prostitution. But Joe’s running out of options, so he follows Rico’s lead toward John McGiver (The Manchurian Candidate) as a pimp.
The pimp turns out to be another religionist, which sets Joe Buck spinning into another post-traumatic flashback as he runs through Manhattan’s red light district recalling a gang bang as hippie music plays amid go-go dancers and a stream of visual and mental confusion — night turns to day, day turns to night and back again — and, in this part, Midnight Cowboy nails the Dionysian hedonism of the late 1960s. As Ayn Rand wrote after watching the rocket launch that put a man on the moon, contrasting it with Woodstock, confusion defines 1969. Midnight Cowboy dramatizes the disorientation.
In this sense, for its portrayal of man at his lowest, Midnight Cowboy is conservative in depicting Joe’s journey of self-preservation. The theme that one must hit bottom before one can rise again — an overdone Hollywood notion — plays out through Ratso’s redemptive trade with Joe, whom Rico finally sees as human in exchange for the absolution of learning to become human himself.
Locked out of his room for inability to pay, turning tricks — triggering more horrible flashbacks — and being utterly disgusted with himself leads to Joe’s own first proper exchange. Declining to accept the 64 cents Rico offers for the 20 dollars he’d scammed, Joe agrees to accept a proposition he’s previously never been offered: an act of kindness.
That Joe’s ascent comes at the expense of or in conjunction with Rico’s declining health is another common Hollywood notion (see various versions of A Star is Born) but, here, too, Midnight Cowboy reverts to conservatism with more pictures of Jesus Christ — religion is everywhere, including in Rico’s makeshift home and Joe can’t escape it — with Florida as a kind of afterlife. A wrecking ball foreshadows the rest.
“Midnight Cowboy uniquely mainstreams depravity….a movie that garners attention chiefly for its vulgarity and not much else.
By this point, like a wet street mutt, sick, brown-eyed Rico’s obviously in love with the tall, blond Texan in spite of everyone calling everyone else a “fag” with more abandon than a scene from Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.
“There you are you handsome devil you,” Joe Buck declares to himself in the mirror, invoking religion and finally feeling a bit better about himself as winter comes on faster than you can say La Boheme. With a long fade out, the sound of a cold wind blowing signals Rico’s worsening cough, a condemned ‘X’ and an oncoming storm — as snowflakes descend on Manhattan, a dripping faucet freezes and the temperature falls to 28 degrees. Without heat, Rico shivers in fear and despair.
Money for blood, Christ in a cemetery, a drug-induced stupor — again, Schlesinger captures 1969 with Bohemian party scenes of spaced-out dilettantes droning ‘why are you here? / I don’t know’ in ritualized nihilism while smoke drifts from the incense. Midnight Cowboy collapses into a kind of orgy as Joe falls into bed with his first real score (Brenda Vaccaro) after Rico literally falls down. It’s downward from there, especially for an older gay man (Barnard Hughes) on the downlow with Joe making a crucial cosmetic choice about who he sees in the mirror.
For its bleak plot, how it’s portrayed — with stark, abrasive pictures and words — and the plain if disjointed plot trajectory of each character, which features an upward arc only after indulging seediness to the extreme, Midnight Cowboy marks a major departure from goodness, wholesomeness and clarity in movies. The story moves in abrupt flashes and clusters of images that may or may not represent reality. In this sense, Schlesinger attempts not to sort but to deliberately distort; to transfer Joe’s confusion to the audience.
Whether the cautionary outcome of Brokeback Mountain, the shock and depravity of Silence of the Lambs, or, for that matter, Jaws, or the ordinariness with which death, depravity and misery are depicted in The Departed, No Country for Old Men and Pulp Fiction, or any movie by Quentin Tarantino, Midnight Cowboy paves the way down. Certainly, other films of the late 1960s, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), with a range of gritty movies of the 1950s as predecessors, influence today’s films. But movies by Peckinpah, Kubrick, Ritt, Kazan, Preminger and others were either more muted or were outliers, genre films or had commercially and critically narrower audiences.
Midnight Cowboy uniquely mainstreams depravity. Its depiction of sex and violence — specifically, sexual violence — made way for Deliverance, Straw Dogs and Monster. Other movies mixing violence with sex got made, won awards and were sold to mass audiences, from Moonlight to The Shape of Water. One of the most remarkable legacies of Midnight Cowboy is its nearly unanimous praise. From conservative Jon Voight, who went on to portray the pope, to most critics, scholars and aggregated ratings media, an overwhelming majority of audiences regard Midnight Cowboy as a masterpiece.
Midnight Cowboy is not a masterpiece, not by any serious estimation. The plot is predictable. It is also implausible. For example, Joe Buck flees Texas with money he’s earned as a dishwasher but he fails to gain employment, any employment, even for a day. Chronic non-sequiturs derail the plot and add nothing to characterization. The ending is contrived. Hoffman, Voight, Vaccaro and Hughes, and Bob Balaban as a youth who performs fellatio on Joe Buck, are very convincing in their roles. But characters, including the leads, drift in and out of the story, failing to make an emotional impact.
The result is a movie that garners attention chiefly for its vulgarity and not much else. This is why the loneliness depicted is less haunting here than it is in other somber, gay-themed movies, such as Brokeback Mountain. I’ve read that it’s been said that Schlesinger was known upon the movie’s final cut and release to express anxiety that he’d simply made a repulsive movie about a dishwasher that goes to New York to prostitute himself and fails before his only friend, a con man, dies of pneumonia on a bus to Florida.
“Hollywood, by ditching glamor in 1969 and heralding the depraved, endowed American culture with more of the status quo.”
If this is what he thought about Midnight Cowboy, I think John Schlesinger, who was gay, was right. He could not have known that Hollywood studios, copying his picture’s every move, theme and frame, would take the same depraved path and that Americans would follow. After 50 years, isn’t it evident that America became more like the moist and seedy underbelly shown in Midnight Cowboy?
Whatever Midnight Cowboy’s merits, one of its enduring lessons is that Hollywood, by ditching glamor in 1969 and heralding the depraved, endowed American culture with more of the status quo. If the sunny, optimistic, happy pictures were so annoying, is the parade of gloomy, pessimistic, unhappy movies also irritating? Particularly ominous is that Midnight Cowboy inculcates both acceptance of the vulgar for being vulgar — as long as it’s redeemed by a religious, conservative death — and acceptance of the religious for being religious — as long as it’s made more subversive and supposedly sophisticated by being vulgar.
The 1969 film is emblematic of its time. It’s proven to be extremely influential. With mass death now trivialized in memes, Marvel movies and fantasy shows driven by who will die, as against romantic-realistic shows about who’s alive, today’s evangelical culture of the depraved may not have started with Midnight Cowboy. Yet, with its success, depravity and vulgarity advanced.