Director: John Schlesinger / Screenplay: Waldo Salt (from novel by James Leo Herlihy) / Editing: Hugh Robertson / DP: Adam Holender / Score: John Barry
Cast: Dustin Hoffman / Jon Voight / Sylvia Miles / John McGiver / Brenda Vaccaro / Barnard Hughes / Ruth White / Jennifer Salt
Bright Lights, Big City…
Honestly? Who amongst us hasn’t had the old dream about running-away from our humdrum lives and into something totally different, just to see ‘what it might be like’?
For most of us, a dream is all it’ll ever be. But there are those who, through boredom, circumstance or any number of dire reasons, see no way out than the pursuit of those dreams. Midnight Cowboy is, then, a cautionary tale for those who need it: and a reassuring hug for those who don’t.
Adapted from a controversial novel about hustlers in New York, it was picked-up by far-sighted producer Jerome Hellman, who drafted-in veteran screenwriter Waldo Salt to adapt. An interesting choice, Salt’s career had lain dormant for years, following a refusal to testify before HUAC during the McCarthy purges. ‘Cowboy was to be his rehabilitation and for good reason: it takes an outsider to write about marginalised characters.
The last piece of the production’s puzzle was filled by British director John Schlesinger. After years spent honing his craft in TV, Schlesinger had found his metier in film, with a baggy, but good-looking take on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Despite the talent on-screen (Julie Christie & Terence Stamp), the film struggled to find an American audience. However, Schlesinger’s handling of the downbeat text, DID pique Hellman’s interest: no-one reads Thomas Hardy for the laughs….
With Schlesinger aboard, the film had to be cast. Or, rather, someone had to be found to play against Dustin Hoffman. I learn that his involvement with the project started around the time of The Graduate (1967) and I can see why. As an adherent to the ‘Stanislavsky Method’ of acting – that is, discovering & reacting to the ‘truth’ in a given scene – there’d be plenty to latch-onto here. That left the other half of this unlikely double-act to be found. In the end, this career-making spot was filled by Jon Voight, whose selection stands testament to the casting director & Waldo Salt, for having the wit to see the character within.
So, then. To the pursuit of dreams.
Joe Buck (Voight) is a young man who appears all-out of them. Throughout, Schlesinger drops vignettes like a breadcrumb trail, showing how Buck ended-up in this hick, Texan town. Raised by a polyamorous grandmother, Buck’s own mother left to pursue her own dreams (his father’s never seen, which leads to its own conclusion). Turns-out, that the first – and perhaps real – love of his life, is the local slut, Annie (Jennifer Salt); in a small town possessed of smaller minds, she’s a liability to be around. After a local gang attack them both, the traumatised Buck escapes by joining the army. We see him in uniform just once, having returned (from Vietnam, one imagines) to find his Grandma had died in his absence. So Buck washes dishes in a grubby diner and dreams of escape once more. First it was the army: now it’s the Big Apple.
And why not? It’s as good a place in which to get lost, as any other.
Which is where we join him: scrubbing-down and dressing-up as a walking cliché of a cowboy, in the deluded belief that his old-timey, folksy charms will have New York girls falling over themselves. So, clutching his cow-skin suitcase and with Cuban-heeled boots polished to a sheen, he sets out like Dick Whittington, pausing only to say goodbye to his old friend Ralph back in the kitchen, who can’t understand why Buck would want to leave. Some folk just don’t have vision after all…
Watching Buck endure the misery of a two-day ride on a Greyhound bus with such open-hearted joy, is to see a man going wide-eyed to the scaffold. The weightlessness of zero-expectation sits behind his glee. He has left drudge and misery behind, so what is there to fear? Just look at his joy, when his trusty portable radio picks-up its first NYC station: even the nun alongside can’t help but smile at the big goof.
However, if you’re after drudge & misery, then Buck’s hotel room doesn’t disappoint, with its coin-fed TV and complimentary postcards. These are so uninspiring (featuring a photo of the hotel) that, rather than write back to his old friends, all Buck feels up to, is drawing an arrow pointing to his room and scrawling ‘This is me’. No wonder Ralph looks puzzled on-receiving it. Drawing on the resources at-hand, Voight is convincing as a country bumpkin out of his depth in the big, bad city. With every indifferent brush-off from women he was hoping to pick-up, to the indifference paid to a man laying prone outside Tiffany’s, Buck is beginning to see how flawed are his dreams. There’s a great zoom-shot as the stetson-wearing Buck ambles down a busy New York street, towering over the commuters; a fish-out-of-water.
This fish is landed after he meets Cass (Sylvia Miles). She’s a drab, blonde man-eater with an accessorised poodle who, after a vigorous romp in the sack, takes Buck for twenty dollars. The would-be player has just been duped by a professional who only had to turn-on the waterworks to elicit both sympathy and an open wallet. Look at the practised ease with which she plucks the twenty from amidst the cheap-seats. Still, at least Buck now knows the going rate…
Understandably down-in-the-mouth, he ends-up at a bar for a consoling drink, where he meets Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Hoffman). Using a mesmerising catalogue of Method tics, Hoffman will invest Rizzo with anything and everything that might flesh-out this neurotic, tubercular wastrel. It begins with a club-footed limp and doesn’t stop. To watch Hoffman in this, is to see where Richard E. Grant ‘found’ Withnail two decades later; ironically, Withnail & I (1987) is set in 1969, the same year ‘Cowboy was released…
After a while, Hoffman’s over-acting is all you end-up seeing: a talented actor ‘doing’ a turn, instead of the more naturalistic, understated approach taken by Voight. That your reviewer opted to forgive the excess on this occasion is, I think, because I came to see another, deeper interpretation. Joe Buck is acting-out his fantasy of what he believes the ladies of New York might like: a Rootin’, tootin’ cowboy.
Maybe – just maybe – Rizzo’s assorted neuroses are just another act, if more subconsciously deployed. For aren’t we the summary of the stories we tell ourselves?
Rizzo takes Buck to see his father’s modest tombstone; putting his boy aside, it’s the only evidence he was ever around. Rizzo Sr. died of wax-fumes accumulated over decades brushing shoes in a subway station. Little wonder, that Rizzo Jr. would want to go his own way, even if all he knew was how to shine a shoe. Kudos to the material’s rich loam, for suggesting such an idea in the first place.
So they have some adventures, stealing coconuts and the address of a client of an uptown Gentleman’s Escort Agency. This is the break, these deluded hucksters think they’ve been waiting for. Unsurprisingly, in his embroidered Roy Rodgers shirt and fringed suede jacket, Buck turns-out to be as ill-suited to the role of escort, as I’d be for the lead in a production of the Beijing Opera.
Yet while he waits, optimistically, on the street outside the swanky hotel, it gives Rizzo space to dream: of sprinting over a Floridian beach, serving coconut dishes to a grateful crowd and generally being healthy. Just as Buck dreamed of finding himself in NYC, Rizzo’s own ‘Shangri-La’ is Miami. The dingy, fetid interior of his condemned tenement is littered with posters extolling the quality of life in ‘The Sunshine State’; the idea’s seeped-in, alongside the tuberculosis. Schlesinger echoes that; I even caught a radio commercial for ‘enjoying Florida orange juice with ice’.
Seasons change. As Winter draws-in, the mood darkens. A demolition crew working on the tenement next-door, have reduced it to its very bricks, laid-out in a truck, like a mortuary slab after an autopsy. Rizzo & Buck can see the writing’s on the wall for their ruined hovel: a wall that won’t be around much longer. They’re surviving, NOT thriving.
Things are so bad, that Buck pawns his beloved radio for a pittance; his last possession, since the hotel kicked him out for unpaid bills and confiscated his beloved suitcase. He picks-up a shy student (Bob Balaban) but, once again, he emerges from the risky, degrading experience with no money; just a reduced sense of his own worth.
The defining moment in their lives however, comes when a vampish brother & sister photograph Buck in a diner and invite him to a ‘happening’. Populated by faces drawn directly from Warhol’s circle, either at The Factory or elsewhere, the ensuing party sequence is the film’s weak-link. Viewed now, some fifty-years on, it has tipped over into a parody of ‘the scene’, thanks to cultural recycling (think: Austin Powers). It’s all kaleidoscopic lighting, weird camera tricks & exposures. Atonal, ‘ambient’ music. Tripping members of the ‘It crowd’ who, I learn, weren’t required to do much ‘acting’, as they were just ‘being’.
And the promised defining moment? That is, aside from the free food and open bar?
Rizzo falls-down a staircase, just as Buck is leaving with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro). It’s the fork in the road. For Buck, it heralds his first-ever spell of impotence. Turns-out he’s mortal, after all, which isn’t good news for someone looking to make a career of being a gigolo. Things improve, thanks to a little TLC and Buck makes enough to salve the wounds to his ego and buy medicine for Rizzo.
Ah, Rizzo. By this point, Hoffman is pulling-out all the stops to convince me that Rizzo’s decline has descended into pathos; a trick he’ll pull again a few years later in Papillon (1973).
A thought here: had Schlesinger possessed greater authority over Hoffman, he might’ve seen the mugging for what it was and got his actor to tone things down a little. Trouble was, after The Graduate, Hoffman was a rising star and having him on the posters was one way of ensuring the movie – a difficult sell from the outset – would find an audience. So, either the director indulged Hoffman because of the power-dynamic at-play, or because he was blind-sided by his virtuosity. It’s interesting to compare Hoffman’s performance to the effortless grace deployed by Voight throughout and telling that, in this review, it’s Hoffman who gets noticed: which might very well have been his plan all along…
We’re going-out the same way we came-in: with Joe Buck aboard a Greyhound bus. Except now, the pretence has gone. During a rest break on the long trip South, he has time to visit a store and emerge in a short-sleeved shirt and regular trousers. Into a bin, go the boots and jacket. They were part of his original costume; a disguise behind which he was hiding all along. And now it’s gone. He has no need of them; not for the new life that awaits him: that of a ‘normal guy’.
This is Buck’s redemption. Thanks to Shirley and her bulging address book, he was on the verge of realising his ambition, but instead he’s leaving with the one true friend he has in the world and the only one he trusts. Miami calls them both like a siren’s song. But only one of them will soar in answering the call.
It’s time to put away childish things.
And Rizzo? Well, Rizzo gets to see Florida for a while…
Always an underdog of a movie, thanks to its ‘X-rating’, Schlesinger’s choice of material was vindicated in the end, scooping a trio of Academy Awards for himself as a Director, for Salt’s vibrant screenplay and, sweetest of all, Best Picture. To this day, ‘Cowboy remains the only ’X-rated’ picture ever to win the Academy’s top-prize; a record that’ll never be beaten, since the ratings board dropped the rating years ago.
They might not have walked-off with awards on the night, but a word for musical supervisor John Barry, who’s theme remains a quintessential part of his canon. Then there’s Harry Nilsson, who’s version of ‘Everybody’s talkin’’ is the perfect accompaniment to key scenes. DP Adam Holender, was also able to bring a certain sheen to proceedings that hold-up to this day. There’s a tonal variety between the wind-blown, over-exposed scenes in Texas and the dark, glowering view of New York and it’s credit to both Holender and Schlesinger, that their shared vision was able to survive unscathed.
For a long spell, Midnight Cowboy was the poster-child for edgy cinema. It shone a light on ‘difficult subjects’, such as male prostitution and recreational drug-taking; areas that a notoriously conservative Academy might’ve been expected to dismiss out-of-hand. But 1969 was an interesting time. Vietnam was still aflame, but the USA had just put a man on the moon. ‘Peace and love’ might not have changed the world as some might’ve hoped, but a new, empowered & enlightened generation were assuming their place in the world. For a time, anything seemed possible.
Midnight Cowboy as Best Picture? Why not? Let’s show the kids – and, more importantly, an emerging cadre of independent Producers & Directors – that the Academy remains relevant.
It wouldn’t last.
But Midnight Cowboy would continue to shine.
‘You got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita, on a given day, there’s probably, eh, three hundred of ’em on the beach. In fact, you can’t even scratch yourself without getting a belly button there up the old kazoo there.’