It’s the story of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who’s come up to New York dressed as a cowboy to make a living as a male prostitute. He’s a fish out of water until he meets “Ratso” (Dustin Hoffman) who befriends him and shows him the ropes. As his prospects get worse, Joe struggles to make it in the seedy environment of urban New York as Ratso struggles with his own health.
The story would almost feel like a satire of the kind of American Dream fantasy and romanticism of the Big Apple, as expressed through Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, if not for how depressingly serious it takes its tone. The plot itself doesn’t really have a set direction, and the story isn’t all that important anyway. This movie’s more about its setting and characters, as told through some very skilful filmmaking from director John Schlesinger. His editing and camera trickery conveys both the feeling of being lost in your surroundings as well as a city in perpetual motion. This is in perfect contrast to Joe’s slow, unsure meanderings. The editing is particularly engaging, notably the fast-cut montages that infer a characters’ backstory, their senses, or feelings. There’s a great cut for example between television channels being changed rapidly and a slot machine. The scenes I prefer are the ones that incorporate the city in a way that really heightens the mood. My favourite is the sequential cuts between night and day as Joe is walking the city. Obviously they’re different shots at different locations, but they transition so smoothly it’s beautiful and very contemplative. The sex scenes are very tightly shot and intimate, again breaking Hollywood taboo. There are a couple scenes that use these methods to illustrate memory and presence under drug use or intoxication, and they’re quite good too; smartly shot, if not being quite as unsettling as Easy Rider. But though it’s not unsettling, the movie does get uncomfortable. It shows a side of New York that was never really seen before on film of this calibre. I’m going to use as an example, a somewhat similar movie in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which also centres on a (albeit more subtextual) sex worker in New York City. Holly Golightly’s life is full of class, and the city we see is the respectable and accessible, though titanic Manhattan that America wanted you to believe in. Midnight Cowboy takes a very similar premise, that of a hopeful southerner come to New York and working in a sexual capacity once there; but it decided to show the gritty realism of the city in its depressed environments and from the point of view of a couple of those bottom dwellers. No beautiful Upper East Side apartment; instead there’s Ratso’s run-down place where the paint is coming off and the coffee mugs have visible stains. And that’s not taking anything away from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s merely proof of an art form in evolution to a more honest picture.
Honest characters are another contributor to this movie’s unique effect. Joe is the primary focus and a very interesting one. His initial naivety and overconfidence establish the dose of reality he’s going to need before long. One funny scene early on has him attempt to get a socialite played by Sylvia Miles to pay him after sex, only her, not realizing he was a prostitute, is incredibly offended, and it ends with him paying her. Joe’s backstory we get in a series flashbacks composited against thoughtful recollections and key moments for him in the film. He seems to have come from a family of sex workers, having mostly been raised by his grandmother, who was one herself, and it’s what directly led him into the career he’s pursuing. He also had a very close relationship with a local girl that ended very swiftly and traumatically when they were caught in the middle of sex for whatever reason by a gang who subsequently raped both of them. That’s some damn horrible stuff, but it never comes back to him. He’s haunted by his past for sure, but it never really affects his actions in the story or the story itself. It just forces you to question his character and psychological state. And Jon Voight, who we forget was a pretty good actor before he lost his mind, plays it very well, the optimistic hustler masking some serious issues. Even better is Hoffman, who was still pretty much fresh off of The Graduate. For him this was Daniel Radcliffe doing Equus (though Hoffman-unlike Voight -doesn’t have any nudity). He really proves his versatility as Ratso, who’s also had a pretty depressing life, his father having been a shoeshiner all his life. His Italian-American accent can be a little over-the-top at times, but he makes up for it in great nuance. Ratso always looks a little greasy and worn, and his distinct lack of height and limp next to Joe really sets him apart. He’s a guy who would just blend into the throngs of down-on-their-luck New Yorkers. And with his lack of much ambition or a decent upbringing, and deteriorating health, his ultimate fate is especially depressing. No one’s really going to know or care that Enrico Rizzo died. Except for Joe Buck.
That’s another interesting area of this movie, and one of the reasons it was given an X-rating in 1960’s Hollywood. There’s a definite gay subtext to the movie. While there is some homophobic rhetoric and one very stereotypical character, you can’t deny the friendship between Joe and Ratso has certain connotations to it. The characters grow very close over a short period of time. After setting him up to meet an insane pimp played by John McGiver (oh look, another Breakfast at Tiffany’s connection!), the next time Joe sees Ratso, after he’s been evicted, it’s played almost like romantic leads meeting again. But perhaps the most telling sign is when Joe goes home from a party with Brenda Vaccaro and finds he can’t perform in bed. They play cribbage, until she suggests his inability may come from him actually being gay. This stimulates him and they apparently have such good sex, she highly recommends him to her friends, and it completely revitalises his prospects. Surely there’s some connection with him being called gay and a sudden boost to his sex work. We already saw he’s willing to perform sexual acts with men, like when a student played by an astonishingly young Bob Balaban gives him fellatio in a theatre -though he’s clearly more ashamed of this. You could also possibly draw sexual coding from the flamboyance of his cowboy outfit. One thing’s for sure, there’s certainly more overt sexual themes and politics to this movie than to any other Best Picture winner before it.
Midnight Cowboy is certainly not much of a terrifically enjoyable film, but it is a great time capsule of that period in the late 60s when Hollywood really began its counter-culture transformation. It was deserving enough to make history. It’s the mood that really resonates for me, capped by a really good soundtrack. Though much like “Song of Silence” in Hoffman’s The Graduate, “Everybody’s Talkin” is certainly overused, but that doesn’t take away from how fitting it is, especially over the opening credits, and later during Joe’s trek through the city (that image of the distinct cowboy hat in the crowd of people has become iconic for a reason). It’s a very well-performed, enticingly edited, and superbly atmospheric study of seedy urban life.