“I gotta get outta here…Miami Beach, that’s where you could score. Anybody can score there, even you. In New York, no rich lady with any class at all buys that cowboy crap anymore. They’re laughin’ at you on the street.” -Ratso Rizzo
For this Personal Pantheon series, my original intention was to reserve it for movies I’ve seen several times and know inside and out, so I could convey why I think they are great in the most complete way possible. I didn’t think a movie I literally just saw for the first time the night before would hit so hard that it achieved instant pantheon status for me. I mention all of this, because last night, I saw John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” for the first time.
I’ve been meaning to see this movie for years, but it was worth the wait. I was totally blown away by this movie. Everything from it’s deceptively emotional story of friendship, to its unique visual style to, most importantly, the unbelievably great acting from the two leads.
Like most American films from the late-60’s and early-70’s, there is not much of a traditional “plot,” in “Midnight Cowboy.” It’s 2 hours of these two characters and their lives in the weird, revolutionary and electric world of 1960’s New York City. That may make it sound like the film is dated, but the story at its core speaks universal truths about the nature of friendship and the American Dream.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight, back when he still cared about acting) is an affable, naive and ambitious good ol’ boy from a small town in Texas. He’s decided he can’t stand being a dishwasher at at roadside diner in the middle of nowhere, so he decides to move to New York City to try his luck as a male prostitute. You read that correctly. Joe models himself after John Wayne, with a cowboy getup that everyone finds ridiculous except for him. He has horrible luck as a hustler; in one scene, the customer ends up asking him for money. He gets locked out of his hotel room because he is broke, and he ends up meeting Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in a bar. Rizzo, who is a cripple and has tuberculosis, offers to help Joe with his hustling business. Rizzo at first tries to con Joe, but the two become friends after Joe spends the night at Ratso’s abandoned apartment, and the rest of the film is about them trying to survive in a world that sees them as outcasts.
One of the things I really loved about this movie is how unflinching it is in its portrayal of urban life in New York City at the end of the ’60s. This film was rated X when it was first released, and although its numerous sex scenes and portrayal of urban decay are pretty tame in 2012, you can see why this movie was so shocking in 1969. That didn’t stop it from winning Best Picture at the Oscars, however (Imagine an NC-17 movie winning an Oscar today, it’s unheard of). That grittiness also comes through with how the characters of Ratso and Joe are developed and Schlesinger’s visual style. Joe is a strange, fascinating character. He may seem like Southern caricature at first, but we learn more about his past and find that he is just a lost, naive soul who’s warped sense of manhood is keeping him from finding a place to belong. We see flashbacks to Joe’s childhood and find that he had a very, very strange relationship with his grandmother and his first girlfriend, and learned how to be a man from watching old westerns, hence the cowboy obsession. He believes that he is God’s gift to women, and that the cowboy persona exemplifies that. Voight convincingly brings this incredibly complicated character to life, portraying a man who slowly realizes that New York City is not the place to have all of his dreams come true.
Ratso is the polar opposite. With his high-pitched, nasally whine of a voice, his matted,greasy hair and his filthy clothes, and his dream of making enough money to move to Florida to find a better life, he is the epitome of pathetic. But Dustin Hoffman’s performance is astonishing. He forever obliterated the concept that movie stars needed to be glamorous to be interesting. Hoffman completely transforms into Ratso, with the way he walks and his ever-worsening health. He and Joe are both people who have been discarded by society, which is why they form such a strong bond. This film is a reminder that even when the “counter-culture” was in full swing, there were still people struggling and desperate. The scene where the two are invited to a beatnik party filled with all sorts of odd people, and they still are unable to fit in, even among misfits like themselves. “Midnight Cowboy” is like Jack Kerouac by way of Charles Dickens.
I was also surprised by how stylized this film was. I was expecting a slow-paced, ultra-realistic film like so many others of it’s time, but Schlesinger uses black-and-white cuts, montages and different types of film stock to create such a fascinating, vivid atmosphere. He effectively captures the jumpy, crazed nature of the City in the 60’s without ever losing the emotional bond with Joe and Ratso.
“Midnight Cowboy” is still a great movie even though it is so focused on a specific time period because the story deals with universal themes of friendship, hopelessness and the crushing reality that your dreams are not as easy to achieve as you thought they would be. From it’s legendary opening credits set to Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin,” to the heartbreaking yet subtle final shot, “Midnight Cowboy” is still a masterpiece, one of the key films of the New Hollywood era, when movies were galvanized by the introduction of one important element: the ragged truth.