God bless films made between 1966-1973. It probably has become apparent that this is my favorite time in Hollywood film making with the 90s indie movement being a close second. Each film presents a different look at subjects that, up until this point, were mostly avoided by studios. With each film coming out, the picture of life in America became more and more gritty. A more cynical public wanted films that reflected what they were seeing on a day to day bases. In 1969, director John Schlesinger brought the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy to the screen. One of the defining films of the period, it’s broken characters wander through a dirty city trying to fulfill something they can’t even articulate themselves. It also would become one of the first mainstream films to depicts graphic sexual situations with very little regard to what rating the MPAA would hand down.
The film follows a young, naive man from Texas named Joe Buck (Jon Voight). He sets out for New York with dreams of being a hustler. After making it to New York, he quickly finds himself over his head. He has an unsuccessful ‘session’ in which he ends up paying the woman after their tryst and gets swindled by a poor, street thief known as Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). When Joe finds himself out of money and not having any luck, he runs into Ratso again with the intention to settle the score. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Ratso takes Joe in and give him a place to stay. They begin to grow closer as Joe continues to try becoming a successful gigolo and Ratso’s health continues to worsen. After being invited to a party reminiscent of the types of parties Andy Warhol would have, Joe finds himself in the company of a wealthy woman. Ratso strikes a deal with her and gets $20 (plus $1 cab fare) for her to spend the night with Joe. With his career on the way, Joe comes home to find Ratso in worse condition then ever. In a desperate attempt to get the money for them to get to Miami, Florida, Joe tries to pick up an older male customer. When the man begins to back out Joe attacks him and robs him. Using the money, he buys them both one way tickets to Florida. On their way to Miami, Ratso passes away with Joe sitting next to him. The driver, unable to stop until they are in Miami, tells Joe they are just going to wait and Joe puts his arm around his friends lifeless body.
What is most well remembered of this film are the amazing performances that come from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman, having gained popularity from his work in The Graduate, brings his usual heart-wrenching realism to the part of Ratso. So easily could the part be a caricature, but he comes off as a real person. He seems like someone who you would find in the back alleys of New York or watch your pockets around him. When you first meet him it’s hard to really sympathize with him. Yet, as you see him grow to care for Joe and watch as his health declines faster, he becomes a more sympathetic character. Your heart can’t help but sink when you see him slipping into death on the bus with the beauty of Florida passing by his window.
While Hoffman’s performance is truly amazing, it’s Voight’s that sticks with you even after the film is over. At the beginning of the film, Joe Buck seems to be an innocent, naive man with dreams of being a famous hustler. As the film progresses, the layers of his character start to show. We learn that he was raised by his grandmother who didn’t always set a good example. It is also revealed that he and his girlfriend Annie were gang raped. After the fact, she was sent to a mental institution with Joe going to the Army. You can see cracks in his persona as the film goes on. Yet, it is his childlike simplicity that seems to keep him going. He believes he’s going to be successful. It is amazing to see him grow to love Ratso and begin growing into a more ‘adult’ person. While on the way to Miami, he ditches his “cowboy” apparel and talk of getting a real job.
The film owes a lot of it’s look and feel from the popular European films of the time. The unflinching looks at sexuality were still new coming from Hollywood films. In fact, it would be that graphic depiction of sexual scenes that earned the film it’s ‘X’ rating. At the time, a new set of film ratings had just come out. Before the ‘X’ rating was claimed by the porn industry, it was used for what we would now call a ‘R’ rating. Even with a ‘X’ rating, the film was still distributed to theaters (a near impossible feat to NC-17 films today) and became very popular. It was a popular as well as critical hit. The film went on to be the only ‘X’ rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar.
At the heart of the movie is the story of two people who become dependent upon one another, wither they like it or not. It’s watching two independent people start to become intertwined and actually caring for each other that wins the viewer over. The idea that even in the dirty, broken city you can still find another person to push on with you. Isolation is a central theme explored throughout the film. In fact, the film goes full circle by having it essential begin on a bus and end on a bus. Buck is by himself on his way to New York, even surrounded on a bus full of people. Then, at the end of the film, sitting next to his best friends lifeless body, he is again alone on a bus. Barreling toward an uncertain future in a new city, alone.