Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Directed by John Schlesinger
Written by Waldo Salt, based upon the novel by James Leo Herlihy
Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman
Midnight Cowboy seems an unusual choice to win the Oscar – after all, until it’s win in 1969, no movie with any real, honest-to-goodness grit to it, save for maybe Marty, managed to snag the top prize. And those that did have a tinge of grit to it – or darkness, if you prefer another word – were about big, important things, e.g. The Best Years of Our Lives. In other words, if a dark movie, rooted in real life, wanted to win Best Picture, it had to go big and make epic statements about important topics (anti-Semitism, WWII), because, aside from that sweet little film about the lonely butcher – Marty – you couldn’t win.
And darkness is basically what Midnight Cowboy has in spades. There are hints of female sexual abuse all over the place; hints of man-on-man rape; prostitution of both the straight and gay persuasion occurs; drugs are taken; criminality runs rampant, illnesses are suffered; poverty is endured and – most importantly – no lessons are learned and no great statements are made. Unless you count ‘life is hard and without a serious imposition of luck, never gets any easier’ as a life lesson.
But really – what is Midnight Cowboy, or at least, what is it about? In short, Midnight Cowboy is about a good-looking Texan who heads to New York City, which he views as some promised land where he can peddle himself to the lonely, rich women who wouldn’t mind paying for a stud like him. And that’s basically his selling point—
Not much of a cowboy, but a real stud.
And what does he think he’ll get for the sale of his body? Wealth.
Except this Wizard of Oz does not end with Dorothy’s dreams coming true when she reaches the Emerald City. Rather, Dorothy finds the rich women aren’t all that interested in paying for sex, that job prospects are just as miserable in New York City as they are in Texas, and being poor in New York City is actually a whole mess worse than Texas.
Still, this Dorothy meets something of Wizard in the form a decidedly low-level hood named Ratso Rizzo, who limps, talks in an affected nasally voice and clearly has some sort of TB, i.e. an actor’s dream role of quirks and tics. They live together in a condemned building and, in the end, when they finally make enough to escape their situation – turns out, Emerald City is somewhere in Florida – the Wizard drops dead on his TB on route and Dorothy never really makes it back to Kansas.
In a nutshell ? Not exactly the type of film to win Best Picture at that point. And this assessment comes from more than just the subject matter. Yes, the subject matter – gay prostitution and poverty – are one thing. But the way it tells the story of the subject is another.
The film has little in the way of plot and incident, though it is overloaded with misery and suffering. It is rife with a much more impressionistic style of editing than previous films, which allows it to more or less suggests the underlying themes of the film rather than bashing you over the head. In other words, it’s a little film that’s subtle.
But subtle – god knows the Academy doesn’t do subtle. Instead, the more-likely type of winner were those in the years Midnight Cowboy was sandwiched between – Oliver! and Patton. Given the sweeping, bombastic subject of the one, and the sweeping run time and musical numbers of the other, Midnight Cowboy shouldn’t have a chance – it’s a low-key anti-epic. It’s chances should have been further sabotaged by the fact that the far-from-punishing and bigger box office achievement of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the bill – which has its own bit of darkness and melancholia laying on it – as well as the stodgy and ‘important’ Anne of a Thousand Days. In its way, Midnight Cowboy seems like an accidental Best Picture win.
(As an aside, since I’m coming to the end of this, I think I’ve noticed that one of my usual grips about the Best Picture winner is it was ‘accidental’).
(As another aside, given the movies/performances nominated down-ballot that year, like winner Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, and a few for Easy Rider, the Academy obviously was into grim-chic).
Accidental or not, for most of the 1970’s, a film in the template of Midnight Cowboy would be the norm at the top of the podium. All it took to guarantee victory was adding a dash of the epic (The Godfather), or social commentary (One Flew Over the Cukoos Nest), or rousing rah-rah underdog story (Rocky). To be sure, the Academy was still capable of rewarding junk (The Sting), but on the whole, something had changed. And going forward, while it was common to see bloated ‘important’ pictures take the top prize – Ghandi and Out of Africa spring to mind – it was not unheard of to see darker films like Platoon and Silence of the Lambs dance with Oscar as well.
On the whole, though, Midnight Cowboy is a worthy Best Picture winner. It’s forward thinking enough in style, sensibility and subject to not seem old fashioned or trite. Refreshingly, unlike many movies, neither of the main characters are saved by luck, a la the dues ex machine. Rather, whenever it seems they’ve hit a lucky break and can finally take off to the promised land, something always comes around the corner to snatch the feeling away, see e.g. Ratso dying on the bus. In other words, it has a very lived-in quality to it.
Similarly, the struggle to overcome crushing poverty is completely timeless – especially at this day and age – and easily offers talking points to the ideas of both the political left and right. Conservatives will see nothing but laziness in Voight and Hoffman’s characters and would likely argue that, if they were willing to work hard and not go for the easy way out, they’d get ahead. Liberals will point to how opportunity is really unavailable for most people in life – even returning GI’s, and that while working hard is one thing, there will always be the structural inability to turn it into something meaningful. That, no matter what you do, you’re almost surely going to tread water.
Still, the movie isn’t exactly political, so let’s not get bogged down in that.
At the same time the movie feels timeless, it’s also very much of its time and serves as a pretty clear window to the past. Never having been to New York, either in the 1960s or any other time, I can’t speak to the change in the feel of the architecture, crime, the Grindhouse era or any of that, in and around the Times Square area – I’m afraid you’ll have to go elsewhere for that.
But the inclusion of the drug-fueled party near the end, shot to amplify the psychedelic mood, is so dated to be hysterically embarrassing – it could easily have been lifted from the film and dropped in the middle of Austin Power’s party in the first Austin Power’s film without anybody noticing. The difference is that while one movie plays it for drama, the other plays it for camp, and the scene could be played both ways without any changes.
Beyond that are the cultural issues. Just about every time you turn around you hear somebody calling somebody else a ‘faggot’ or doing ‘faggot’ things. I’d like to give this a pass and say the movie was of its time period and homophobia was in the air so it has to be in the movie, but I can’t. After all, while it spends all it’s time calling everything under the sun ‘faggot’, it has nothing to say about any other races or nationalities. I can’t give it a pass on the homophobia front because, at the same time it dials up the homophobia, it conspicuously dials everything else down and I suspect that if the country hadn’t just moved through the civil rights era – and honestly, was still in the throes of it – you’d have not heard a single F-word but would have been deluged by N-words. In other words, it was just easier to pick on gay people, so that’s what they did.
But, while Midnight Cowboy is, on the whole, a worthy Best Picture winner, and not a choice you could really complain too hard about, I personally prefer Butch and Sundance. That film has far more naturalistic and lived-in performances – in a word, those performances feel easy – and don’t come loaded down with all the tics and histrionics of Midnight Cowboy.
As Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman just seems like he’s trying too hard to be something different that Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate. That in order to not be typecast and prove he could really Act – Act with the capital-A Act – he greased up his hair, adopted a weird voice, stuck in some nasty teeth, worked a limp and…and the truth was, I just couldn’t buy in. Which is a shame because there are parts of his performance that are quite good. When he gets down to the scheming and suffering – which he can do virtually wordlessly and without that distraction – he becomes the character. As soon as the mouth opens – I’m out.
(As an aside, apparently the most famous scene from the film was an accident, with a very real car nearly hitting Hoffman and Hoffman semi-breaking character, complete with the loss of the ‘Ratso’ voice and all).
Jon Voight, despite seeming more natural in his role – he really nails the sweetness and innocence and the internal struggle over doing the things he does. But his accent is so broadly cowboy it’s ridiculous. To my ear, there really isn’t much difference between Jon Voight doing a Texas accent as ‘authentic’ than Hank Hill’s voice on King of the Hill, or Anderson’s voice on Beavis and Butthead. Again, it seems to display a little too much camp.
First and only X-rated movie to win Best Picture – X meant something different back then than it does today. I guess you can thank your local porn guy for that.
Also of note, it was the first and only X-rated, following the first and only G-rated.
Of course, we had plenty of unrated films back in the pre-Code era, so, whatever
For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.