Posted review in tribute to Dustin Hoffman’s birthday today (August 8th).
MIDNIGHT COWBOY, 1969
Directed by John Schlesinger
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Ruth White, Jennifer Salt
A naive young man from Texas named Joe Buck packs up and leaves for New York City to find fame and fortune as a hustler. Upon arrival, he begins a slow, downward spiral into the lowest depths of the city , struggling to survive in what becomes a desperate existence mired in hunger and humiliation. His life takes a slight turn upwards when he accepts Ratso Rizzo’s invitation to share a condemned building as living quarters. Ratso is a slimy con-artist who’s already conned Buck in a previous meeting, and is making a last ditch effort to reach out to another human being for the sake of simple companionship.
Based on a book written by James Leo Herlihy, MIDNIGHT COWBOY is probably one of the most courageous films ever to have been made. Its look at the seedy underbelly of New York City life focused on themes and issues that, back in 1969, were considered so taboo that the film earned an X rating, a first for a major Hollywood studio theatrical release. MIDNIGHT COWBOY was shocking in its honesty and frankness through its depiction of its characters’ harrowing experiences. Back in 1969, it took courage to make such a daring and candid motion picture, specifically because everyone was unsure of what public reaction would be upon its release. Ultimately, although not a major box-ofice success, it was critically acclaimed and won a well-deserved Best Picture Oscar.
Director John Schlesinger follows a naÔve, sexually ambiguous young man named Joe Buck (played impeccably by Jon Voight in his first major role) as he hops onto a Greyhound bus in Texas headed for New York City. On the bus, Schlesinger subtly introduces us to Joe through flashbacks of his past and his forced conversations with his fellow passengers, who seem to become more distant and unfriendly as the bus approaches its destination. These flashbacks continue throughout the film, giving us split-second glimpses into his traumatic childhood and subliminally offering us a better understanding into Buck’s psyche. MIDNIGHT COWBOY’s quick editing style pre-dated MTV by a dozen years and, through cross-cutting, makes implications of rape and abuse in his not too distant past. Little details of his life are hinted at in these flashbacks without explanation, left for the audience to interpret its dizzying juxtaposition of images.
His chance encounter with a slimy con artist named Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman in a heartbreaking performance) is his ironic salvation from loneliness. Together, they bond out of desperation, and stay close to each other simply because they have no one else. Their uneasy union in time turns into a poignant friendship and that, in essence, is the true heart of the film.
MIDNIGHT COWBOY is groundbreaking on many other levels. Although the use of song to narrate portions of a film had been done before, Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” perfectly echoed Joe Buck’s despair. Ironically enough, the producers were waiting for Bob Dylan to compose a song for the movie. That song was “Lay Lady Lay”, and was finished too late for inclusion in the film. No matter. Although “Lay, Lady Lay” is indeed a rock classic, “Everybody’s Talking” worked better in the film, specifically because of its bouncy melody served as a direct contrast with its sad lyrics.
Jon Voight almost didn’t get the part that made his career. Originally, the producers had decided on Michael Sarrazin, but when they called the actor’s agent to offer him the role, Sarrazin’s agent wanted to re-negotiate the actor’s fee despite the fact that it had been already agreed upon. It made the producers so angry that they literally hung up on him and subsequently offered the part of Joe Buck to Voight.
Dustin Hoffman’s decision to play Ratso Rizzo was both risky and brilliant. He had already achieved superstardom with THE GRADUATE just the year before, so for his second film, Hoffman purposely went in a completely different direction. He decided not play it safe and played a character totally unlike his last. Risky at first in the sense that the audience might reject such a different character, it ultimately cemented his reputation early on as one of the most brilliant and versatile actors in Hollywood. Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo is a down on his luck slimeball. He’s the kind that, if you would see him on the street you’d probably cross to the other side just to avoid him. But Hoffman manages to find Ratso’s humanity, inspiring compassion in us as we witness this poor, wretched character slowly disintegrating in front of both our and Joe Buck’s eyes. Hoffman didn’t win an Oscar for his performance (although both he and Voight were nominated), but Ratso Rizzo is arguably one of the most memorable, tragic characters in film history.
The ending of the film is purposefully similar to the beginning, but Joe Buck is now a changed individual, brought on by the hard experiences he’s suffered and the sins he’s been forced to commit. There’s a glimpse of redemption, yet the film remains heartbreaking, leaving us with a feeling of lost friendship between two lost souls that would have otherwise never met.
Schlesinger had tremendous trouble making the film. His seasoned Hollywood film crew, not used to modern movie themes, were convinced that they were making a “dirty” movie and subsequently made work very difficult for him. His triumph in completing the movie his way was a gift to cinema. MIDNIGHT COWBOY is a milestone in film. Hundreds of movies have followed over the decades that have mimicked its style and content, and many of those films have been successful and well-regarded, yet nothing has ever come close to its power and performance.