Film Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Release Date: May 25th, 1969 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Written by: Waldo Salt
Based on: Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, Jennifer Salt, Bob Balaban

Jerome Hellman Productions, United Artists, 113 Minutes

Review:

“I like the way I look. Makes me feel good, it does. And women like me, goddammit. Hell, the only one thing I ever been good for is lovin’. Women go crazy for me, that’s a really true fact! Ratso, hell! Crazy Annie they had to send her away!” – Joe Buck, “Then, how come you ain’t scored once the whole time you been in New York?” – Ratso Rizzo

I’ve seen this movie three times now and I’ve always loved it. But it’s that type of film that drains on the soul and frankly, I can only watch it about once per decade, as it just weighs on me for days after seeing it.

It’s absolutely depressing and its hard to peg what it is about the film that makes it so endearing but I have to give all the credit to the two leads: Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. In fact, the men are great actors and both have done several great motion pictures but this may be the best performances that both men have ever given.

What’s amazing about the film is that both characters are pretty despicable people but you end up caring for them, pretty deeply. The film does humanize them and gives you their backstories, which show you why they are the way they are. However, by the end, Voight’s Joe Buck has probably killed a man and is on the run, even if he planned to leave New York City anyway. But you still feel for him because even though he’s done dark shit, he’s a stupid person that pretty much has the mind of a child. He tries to take life head on but continually gets his ass kicked by his own ignorance and inability to comprehend the depth of the water he keeps diving into.

As for Hoffman’s Rizzo, he’s a conman, he takes advantage of people but when you see into his world and into his past, you hurt for him. The fact that he’s sick and degenerates over the course of the story becomes a hard pill to swallow and you want him, despite all of his flaws, to find the peace he needs. The scene where he falls down the stairs and then has to walk himself home, alone and in the cold, is pretty damn heart-wrenching.

I think that the direction and cinematography greatly enhance the film. This is a fluid movie with a lot of motion, matching the quick moving world of New York City. But it doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of New York and the dark lives these men lead. Frankly, the film doesn’t sell you a Hollywood fantasy about New York City, it shoves its harshness down your throat and force feeds it to you from the moment Joe Buck arrives in town until the moment where he and Rizzo get on the bus to Miami.

Interestingly, this motion picture was rated X. That’s not a rating that really has any meaning in modern times but for the late ’60s, this was controversial for its harshness but also because it examined sexuality in ways that were pretty taboo and uncomfortable for the general public. It’s one of the earliest films that specifically deals with a protagonist trying to figure out whether he’s gay or not. I can’t think of anything that is this open about it that came out earlier but if such a film exists, please let me know in the comments.

The sexual exploration and Joe’s uncertainty over who he is, is the driving force behind his development throughout the movie. He’s lost, confused, wants to know himself and find his place in the world but the reality of his emotions and what does or doesn’t arouse him is a hard pill for him to swallow. And this just shows how difficult these things were for people in 1969. It’s clear that Joe hates himself but the possibility that he may be gay just compounds his self-hatred. And the tragic thing, is that he’s too dumb to make sense out of his emotions and his situation.

Midnight Cowboy is a pretty important motion picture in the history of film. It’s especially important in how it addresses and looks at LGBT issues. For a lot of filmgoers who saw this when it was current, it had to be their first experience in understanding the struggle of gay or sexually unsure people.

It’s a superbly acted and produced movie; certainly one of the top social films of its time. I feel like it also sort of set the stage for what became the cinematic view of New York City in the 1970s, as seen in the films of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and others.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: other films of the era: Easy Rider, The Graduate and The American Friend.

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