By Marc S. Sanders
There’s an irony to John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. At first, the film centers on a Texas bumpkin eager to relocate to New York City and succeed as a hustler. Upon his arrival though, he could not appear any more virginal. The cowboy’s name is Joe Buck, portrayed by Jon Voight in his Oscar nominated breakthrough role.
The first act of the film follows Joe on his long cross country bus ride. He’s dressed in his finest country western shirt, stitched with floral patterns. He’s got his black leather cowboy boots and of course the cowboy hat. His origin bred Texas twang completes his image. He meets a variety of comers and goers on the bus and then finally he reaches his destination.
Schlesinger’s camera follows Voight as he treks through the city. A man is passed out (heck, maybe he’s dead) on the street in broad daylight. My Cinemaniac pals that I watched the film with noted how it’s funny that the streetwalkers don’t take one look at the poor fellow. Rather they’re looking at Joe’s get up as he clearly stands out among the masses. Joe is the only one looking at the guy on the street.
Interspersed within Joe’s travels and entry into the city are quick flashbacks to where he stemmed from. It does not look like a favorable upbringing spent with his grandmother. There are flashes of Joe being victimized by possible sodomy. There also appears to be a gang rape that he might have participated in. None of it is made completely clear. Though, it is evident that Joe has been trying to escape that environment for good.
Eventually Joe encounters a sleazy, squat fellow who calls himself Rico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), addressed by others as Ratso. Joe is so naïve that he’ll trust Ratso to get him some action where he can earn some money. In exchange, Joe is completely willing to surrender the cash in his wallet. He’ll learn from that mistake once he’s drained of everything but a few coins, locked out of his hotel room he can’t pay for and denied of his cow skinned suitcase that contains his possessions. Eventually, he has no choice but to live in a condemned tenement building with Ratso. Joe Buck is about to lose a second virginity as he experiences how hard it is to live within the city. He’ll also realize the value of friendship as he sees no choice but to take care of Ratso who is very sick. Hoffman’s appearance shockingly changes as Ratso’s health submits to a harsh, unknown illness. The sweat all over his face is palpable. The chilling, sickly feeling he exudes is clearly felt.
Waldo Salt’s award-winning script, based upon a novel by James Leo Herlihy, explores the good nature found within two different walks of life despite the dodgy pasts that follow them. Ratso and Joe are one of the oddest couples in cinematic history. There’s no way these two would want to be together unless one was trying to take advantage of the other or one was left with his guard down, open to being taken for and deceived. Jon Voight has a tall youthful stature, a handsome man. Dustin Hoffman is scrawny and significantly shorter with greasy hair, an uneasy limp and a weird squawk to his voice. The often-times method actor seems to make himself increasingly hideous.
Perhaps I needed to see Midnight Cowboy at the time of its release. It surprises me the film merited the prestigious accolades it collected, including Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. The two actors also received Oscar nominations. It remains an honest film of its time in the year 1969. Yet, it is disturbing and ugly too as it captures the seedy side of New York with experimental drug use and Joe’s victimization for sex. He gets ripped off by who he thought was a kind woman (Sylvia Miles) looking for an intimate evening with his hustler capabilities. Later, he’ll surrender himself to a man looking for oral pleasure in a movie theatre. It’s not the typical glamourous epic of a Hollywood yesteryear. In fact, for a time it was the only film to be recognized for winning Best Picture with an X rating.
The celebration of Midnight Cowboy’s achievements falls upon the relationship between Joe and Ratso. Had Joe not been so naïve to how lowlifes operate and had Ratso not become so ill, yet welcoming to Joe when he needed a place to stay, then a friendship would not have gradually developed.
The ending to Schlesinger’s film is touching, though sad. As the story began, it also ends on a bus heading towards a new destination – another new way of life, different from what Joe experienced in small town Texas or New York City. The two characters sit together in the back seat and the other passengers eventually observe them like they had on Joe’s first journey. Either individually or together Ratso and Joe are simply strange to any sort of environment. Yet, they’ll learn from each other and that’s where Midnight Cowboy triumphs.