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  • Post last modified:01/02/2023

Midnight Cowboy: A Buck in New York


Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Photo: United Artists

When John Schlesinger went to Hollywood in the late 1960s, he had already made a career for himself as a thoroughly British filmmaker, capturing his country from all perspectives in several lauded movies. He showed the world Northern England in A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar; Darling was one of the first films about ”swinging London”; and then he went out into the country (and back in time) for Far From the Madding Crowd.

Schlesinger may not have seemed like the perfect guy to depict contemporary New York City, but it’s often true that it takes the eye of a stranger to spot what’s special about a place. This Englishman takes us to the seedy underbelly of the city, the way it looked at the time, but as in Darling he also captures the counterculture of the era.

Hoping to become a male prostitute
Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a dishwasher in Texas, has a plan. He quits his job and gets on a bus headed to New York where he intends to become a male prostitute, hoping to attract rich women with his cowboy outfit. It doesn’t go well; one of his first encounters ends with him paying the woman. Joe is a naive man, unfamiliar with the city and its hustlers. One of them is Rico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), called ”Ratso”, a sickly thief with a limp who takes Joe to a pimp he recommends, earning $20 from the Texan. ”Rizzo’s ”help” turns out to be a scam. After a few miserable days where Joe is locked out of his hotel room after failing to pay the bill, Joe suddenly runs into Rizzo again. At first, Joe threatens to beat him up, but he ends up staying at Rizzo’s place, letting him teach him how to hustle…

Turning half the novel into flashbacks
This is an excellent way to adapt a novel. James Leo Herlihy’s ”Midnight Cowboy”, published in 1965, spends a good part chronicling Joe Buck’s life in Texas and New Mexico where he tries to form meaningful relationships while growing up, only to learn that most boys and girls he meets are interested in his body, not him as a person. The relationships he does have, with his grandmother and a girl, end in tragedy. It’s only later in the novel that Joe comes to New York and meets Rizzo. Screenwriter Waldo Salt gives us a series of clues to Joe’s personality and past by inserting flashbacks, staged by Schlesinger in an uncomfortable way that makes us understand that these are not pleasant memories for Joe.

A clear sign of the times in the film is the countercultural scene that Joe and Rizzo find themselves in.

His sexual ambivalence remains a potent theme and is one major reason why the film initially received an X rating; apparently, the young needed to be protected from gay influences. A clear sign of the times in the film is the countercultural scene that Joe and Rizzo find themselves in, visiting a party that looks like one of Andy Warhol’s Factory hangouts; in fact, one of Warhol’s best-known ”superstars”, Viva, makes an appearance there, and a socialite character in the film was reportedly inspired by another Warhol ”superstar”, Edie Sedgwick.

Two exceptional ingredients in this gritty, compelling film tower above everything else. One of them is the music, with John Barry’s instrumental theme and Harry Nilsson’s rendition of the 1966 song ”Everybody’s Talkin’” firmly lodged in one’s brain after seeing the film. The other is Voight and Hoffman’s performances. The former got his breakthrough and was famously paid minimum wage for a role that would earn him fame and an Oscar nomination; the latter was concerned that his role in The Graduate (1967) would typecast him as a nice, young man, but his transformation into a dirty, rugged con man is as convincing. It is their friendship that provides the film’s devastatingly emotional core. 

Midnight Cowboy 1969-U.S. 113 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Jerome Hellman. Directed by John Schlesinger. Screenplay: Waldo Salt. Novel: James Leo Herlihy. Music: John Barry. Editing: Hugh A. Robertson. Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Enrico Salvatore ”Ratso” Rizzo), Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes… Bob Balaban. 

Trivia: Bob Dylan wanted to contribute ”Lay Lady Lay” as the film’s theme, but didn’t finish the song in time.

Quote: “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” (Hoffman)

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Actor (Hoffman), Screenplay, Editing. 

Last word: “I think one of the things that I’ve often been attracted to is a kind of fantasy/reality theme. That, for example, is one of the things that attracted me to Midnight Cowboy. I liked the notion of a fantasy about what New York was like to somebody who was really naive and the reality of the experience of going there in order to be a hustler, to make it. What drew me to the book finally, though, was its humanistic terms, the underlying seriousness of the theme of loneliness, the need for some kind of commitment from another human being. I felt there was a terrific movie there.” (Schlesinger, Film Quarterly)

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