“Uh, well sir, I ain’t a f’real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!”
The 60s were a time of cultural revolution in America, and most great American films from that decade addressed that. Films like The Graduate and Breakfast at Tiffany’s tried to show the dark side of that emerging culture as well as its better points. But by the end of the 60s, the cultural revolution won out. In 1969, Midnight Cowboy showed a relic of the old culture getting ripped apart in the new America. Directed by John Schlesinger (Marathon Man, Sunday Bloody Sunday) and starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in his first role after The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy is an amazing piece of cinema that excels on all levels: screenplay, acting, soundtrack, cultural significance, and many others. It was extremely edgy for its time; and even today, it’s so much more cynical, biting, and real than the typical Hollywood drivel we see each year. This film is just as sharp and poignant as it was nearly 50 years ago and deserves a spot on the watch-list of any movie buff.
The story opens with Joe Buck, a handsome, small-town Texas cowboy who dreams of making it big in the city, packing up and getting on a bus for New York. His dream: to be a male escort for rich socialite women. He quickly meets Ratso (not his real name), a street-smart but ultimately ineffectual con man, who appears to take Joe under his wing, but ultimately cons him. The two eventually reconnect, and Ratso, perhaps feeling guilty, invites a desperate Joe to stay with him. The two bond while doing whatever they can to get by, often turning to crime as the big city threatens to eat them alive. They eke out a meager existence while trying to make their big break, alternating between hope and despair, but ultimately sticking together through it all.
I like the way I look. It makes me feel good. It does. And women like me, God dammit. Hell, only one thing I’ve ever been good for is lovin’.
There are many great things about the film, but the part that will stick with me for years is the great relationship that develops between Joe and Ratso. This totally (or possibly just mostly) platonic couple is one of my favorite couples in any movie ever. The way they grate on each other but need each other and eventually begin to love one another even more than they did their own families is carefully constructed to be eerily real, touching, and, at times, emotionally devastating. Voight and Hoffman put forth amazing performances and take two characters that really shouldn’t be admirable and make you feel deeply for them. It feels like a more balanced Lenny and George pairing, and seeing them lean on each other as they struggle through life in New York City is touching and memorable. The bright lights, fancy parties, and American dreams in this film all prove to be hollow and somewhat fake—even Joe asserts that he is not a real cowboy. The relationship between these two proves to be the most real thing in the movie.
As I said, this movie also offers some important social commentary as well. We have Joe Buck, a Texas cowboy who embodies traditional values, mindsets, and problems. He moves to a city that’s light-years ahead of him culturally, but he still expects to be relevant and important. It’s the exact opposite of that old immigrant-comes-to-America-for-a-dream plot: an all-American kid moves to the big city to pursue his dream, and his dream is shattered and the city runs him into the ground. His meeting and bonding with Ratso, very wise in the ways of this new world, illustrates a major turning point in American cultural history: when the old culture finally had to come to terms with the new one and befriend it, even be changed by it. In cinema history as well, this film helped usher in a new age. When this film came out, it was so shocking that it was given an X rating. (Two years after its release, this was re-rated as an R.) Midnight Cowboy was the first—and last—X-rated film to ever win an academy award. It was shocking, but it was so good and respected that it spawned imitators for years after its release.
Midnight Cowboy is a great film that is as beautiful and emotional as it is important and insightful. I know I’m making it out to be some sociological study, but honestly, it’s very easy to appreciate even without an awareness of the cultural movements it touches on—it’s a very good movie. That said, it’s not for everyone. The frank discussion of prostitution and homosexuality may still turn some traditionally-minded people off, and it definitely does not have that feel-good Hollywood vibe—it will likely leave you feeling quite depressed. But this is a beautiful story with amazing acting and a killer soundtrack. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to go deeper than the typical Hollywood movie and experience a turning point in American cultural history.
Director: John Schlesinger