In a year that saw a man step on the moon and The Beatles play their last live gig together, a small film rated X by the MPAA won an few Academy Awards (The first and only to do so). So, as we say goodbye to the swinging 60’s, I take a look at 1969’s John Schlesinger directed Midnight Cowboy.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a big, handsome and gentlemanly Texan who after having enough of his boring life decides to take the big plunge to ‘The Greatest City on Earth’ New York City. Confident in his good looks and charm, he’s sure that his attempt to be a male prostitute will lead him to a better and wealthier life. But when things don’t go to plan and he finds himself alone with his finances dwindling he befriends Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who promises that all he needs to ‘make it’ is a manager and that he’s the man for the job.
It’s an incredibly gritty piece of cinema that I’m sure at the time could be seen as being ‘too realistic’ as it’s a portrayal of a lifestyle that many would choose to forget existed. It’s uncomfortable to see Joe and Ratso live in the conditions they do, you feel the cold and you smell the filth. It’s contrary to the New York City we had been shown and spoon fed in the films before it. The idealistic ‘Big Apple’ was no more in Midnight Cowboy, it’s not that’s it’s the seedy underbelly it’s just the sadness of a witnessing life on the streets. It also hangs on Joe and Ratso’s unconventional relationship and the complexity that it might just be about the reliance on each other rather than them liking one another. Don’t get me wrong there’s some evident affection between the two but I think their relationship, as it is, is much more subject to their fear of being alone and an instinctive feeling of companionship than actually friendship.
Even though you don’t get a lot plot in Midnight Cowboy it’s what I would call a proper ‘journey’ movie because when you compare the beginning to the end and think about the experiences of Joe and what he has lived through it becomes a journey of the soul and humanity. The naïve optimism at the start, the wide eyed Joe travelling to NYC with a mirror cracking smile to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at Me’. It’s so upbeat, so full of happiness that it takes you off guard for what’s about to unfold on screen. It’s such a devastating experience and it’s not until after the movie when you can finally reflect on Joe’s story that you understand the depth of that character.
He is obviously the films anchor and it’s his internal conflicts that make the story so touching and sad. We see his spirit break, his confidence erased and then the insecurities he’s probably buried deep down rise up and take over. Then there’s the homosexual undercurrents, when I look at him I feel pity for a man trying his hardest to be a ‘man’ and believing that the choice to be a prostitute and sleep with lots of women will suppress his homosexual needs. His naivety towards women and sex give me the impression of a man attempting to trick himself into thinking that this is what he wants to be doing. Voight plays him perfectly as well, getting that balance of stubborn dreamer and bitter realisation just right. Then you have Dustin Hoffman, still fresh of the success of The Graduate and showing the world what he is really capable of. His portrayal of Ratso is phenomenal, the limp, the voice, everything is spot on, Hoffman began with a bang and for the next 20 years he would be nothing but an unstoppable force of quality.
Another huge factor is the score from John Barry, or more precisely that famous theme. I’d heard it many times before but now that I have the connection with the film I don’t think I’ll be able to listen to it again without a sense of sorrow. The harmonica harking back to the westerners and the Cowboys that Voight has imaged himself on. You kind of expect him to get on a horse and trot off into the sunset but somehow know that his story will unfortunately not be as poetic. It adds another upsetting layer onto the already overwhelming film that is sure to get a reaction out of its viewer.
Heart-breaking is the word, a film that makes you feel dejected and sad but is made with such an impeccable craft and acted so superbly that it’s another film, like many others in this Film7070 challenge that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to watch.