Directed by John Schlesinger
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Screenplay by Waldo Salt
Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy
I’ve probably said this before so if the next couple of paragraphs sound familiar feel free to drop on down and read the rest of this review, okay? You won’t hurt my feelings. One of the reasons I love movies is that I feel by watching them you can get more of a feel of a period of history in terms of fashion, slang, societal and political attitudes than you can from reading a dry text. Since the movie was made and acted by people who were living those attitudes and dressing in those fashions and using that slang the impact you gain from watching the movie can probably give you a better sense of what people and the world was like during that period. I watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY one weekend and the main thing that I came away with was that the movie pretty much accurately shows what New York was like in 1969 when it resembled something out of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” especially the way 42end Street used to be before it became Disneyfied. The 42end Street/Times Square shown in MIDNIGHT COWBOY is the 42end Street I remember when my buddies and I used to go there on Saturdays to watch three Kung Fu movies for three dollars and the pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, junkies and drug dealers ruled the Times Square area.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a tall, lanky, good-looking Texan who quits his dead end job at a roadside diner, packs up his stuff in an ugly cowhide suitcase and hops a bus to New York. He thinks he’ll be a natural in his chosen profession of being a male prostitute since he believes that New York is full of rich old women who will throw handfuls of money at him for sex. He’s full of confidence and energy and he can’t wait to get to The Big Apple where he dreams of making it big.
His confidence is soon busted into splinters because he soon realizes that he’s simply not smart enough, street savvy enough or tough enough to make it in New York. His pathetic attempts to pick up women are met with disgust, outrage or gales of laughter at his wildly out-of-place cowboy outfit of huge Stetson hat, fringed leather jacket, sequined shirt and garish boots. And when he does finally score, the woman he picks up (Sylvia Miles) makes him feel so guilty that he actually ends up paying her for their afternoon of recreational sex.
Joe meets the lowlife street hustler Enrico ‘Ratzo’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who tells Joe that he needs a manager to set him up with high-class women and Ratzo cons Joe out of $20 bucks (remember, this is 1969…$20 was a whole lotta money back then) then leaves him high and dry. Joe soon runs out of money and is locked out of his hotel room. Joe is forced to prostitute himself to a gay student (Bob Balaban) where they have sex in a 42end Street movie theatre and the student stiffs Joe on the money he promised him. Joe can ‘t even bring himself to take the student’s watch as compensation and he’s now at rock bottom, reduced to eating crackers he finds on restaurant tables that he adds ketchup to give them flavor.
Joe again runs into Ratzo who offers to share his apartment in a condemned building with no heat and no electricity. The two total losers begin to form a bond of friendship as Ratzo teaches Joe how to commit petty crimes in which they steal food and pull off really minor cons that mainly consist of them distracting their marks, grabbing whatever they can and running like hell. Ratzo’s attempts to become Joe’s pimp gets Joe thrown out of a Park Avenue hotel when he propositions They have no money, no food and Ratzo contracts pneumonia. Things start to look up when Joe is invited to a drug party and he meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) who actually pays him for sex and indeed, promises to hook him up with some of her friends. But Ratzo’s health is rapidly deteriorating and after Joe has an encounter with a middle aged homosexual (Barnard Hughes) that turns violent, the two friends decide to leave New York and head to Florida where Ratzo dreams of a better life for both of them. Let’s just say it doesn’t happen the way the way Ratzo plans.
I don’t mind watching depressing movies about lowlifes, prostitutes, hustlers and degenerates if they’re well made. But MIDNIGHT COWBOY simply isn’t a well-made movie. It’s a total mystery to me how this movie won for Best Picture. There must have been awfully slim pickings that year because outside of Dustin Hoffman’s performance I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that you should see this movie. I like Jon Voight a lot but his Joe Buck is simply too damn stupid to live and it’s a miracle he survives as long in New York as he does. And there are these highly confusing hallucinations/flashbacks/dreams that Joe has in which he either A) rapes his girlfriend, B) is falsely accused by his girlfriend of raping her or C) both he and his girlfriend are raped by Joe’s drunken buddies.
Add to that there are even still more flashbacks of Joe’s childhood concerning his grandmother who may or may not have been a prostitute herself and may or may not have sexually molested Joe. There is one scene where the young Joe is in bed with his grandmother and a man and they’re all plainly naked but you’re never sure if this is something that actually happened to Joe or if he’s dreaming it or what. It’s unnecessarily confusing and eventually I gave up trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. Add to that the scene where Joe turns violent out of frustration over being stiffed yet again and beats the piss outta the Barnard Hughes character. The movie doesn’t make it clear if Joe kills the middle-aged homosexual after robbing him. Ratzo asks him a number of time during their bus ride to Florida if Joe killed the man or not but Joe never gives a clear answer one way or the other.
The supporting actors don’t make any impression at all outside of Brenda Vaccaro who in her day was one of the hottest actresses working. But here she seems to be acting in another movie altogether here. Thankfully she gives the movie some much needed energy during the last half hour and Sylvia Miles displays a really remarkable pair of legs early on as Joe’s first pickup. Dustin Hoffman is the only real reason to see this movie as this has his famous “Hey! I’m walkin’ HERE!” scene and he captures the despair and hopelessness of Ratzo’s poor sad life perfectly. And I was driven absolutely apeshit with how many times “Everybody’s Talkin” sung by Harry Nilsson is played.
So should you see MIDNIGHT COWBOY? Only if you’re interested in it purely to see Dustin Hoffman or to watch it as a cultural artifact of a New York that no longer exists. Otherwise, it’s a pretty pointless movie and by the time you get to the end and one of the main characters dies you might be like me and breathe a sigh of relief.
Rated R: When MIDNIGHT COWBOY had its original theatrical run it was rated X for subject material, nudity and drug use but since then, the rating has been lowered to R and that’s still laughable. I find it hard to believe that even back in 1969 this material was considered controversial. If anything, there is more attention paid to the despair of the life Joe and Ratzo live than to sex or drugs. There are a couple of sex scenes but they’re so tame there’s nothing erotic or titillating about them. Maybe that was the whole point and I’m just a sleazy so and so. Anyway, there’s nothing in MIDNIGHT COWBOY that offended me except the utter naivety and stupidity of the Joe Buck character and I don’t think there’s anything that will offend you except poor movie making at its best.
P.S. MIDNIGHT COWBOY holds the distinction of being the only X rated movie to date to win a Best Picture Academy Award.