29 December 2005

100 films: Midnight Cowboy

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starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles, and Barnard Hughes
written by: Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy
directed by: John Schlesinger
X, 113 min, 1969, USA

The only X-rated film[1] ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture[2], John Schlesinger's poignant Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a wannabe cowboy and male prostitute from Texas who's come to New York City to make his fortune. His sales pitch, if you can call it that, is "I ain't a f'real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!" Problem is he's a pretty bad businessman. His first attempt results in giving the woman $20 and his second--allowing a young Bob Balaban to give him a blow job in a movie theatre--doesn't make him any money either. Enter "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sleazy degenerate who offers to manage him, but ends up conning him. After Buck hunts Rizzo down, they slowly form a friendship based largely on co-dependence as Buck tries to help a dying Rizzo get down to Florida.

Visually and narratively Midnight Cowboy operates from the same film DNA as Easy Rider and a host of other films from the auteur era. Schlesinger employs flashbacks both to fill in Buck's tortured backstory and provide a venue for Rizzo's delusions of grandeur. He even cuts occasionally to black and white to tell certain horrible parts of Buck's history. They filmed on real New York streets will real pedestrians, so when Dustin Hoffman gives his famous line, "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" after a cab almost hits him, it's actually Hoffman improvising to a real cab driver who's driven into the shot. It isn't entirely out of the question to assume they filmed in a real condemned building. The film has that sort of feel. And it works in every way. For Buck to get so quickly as easily beaten by the city, it has to look like a real menace and there's no other way to do it. You can't mimic that sort of thing with extras and cranes and fifteen production assistants running around. You have to get a cameraman and a small crew and just shoot it like some French New Wave film.

Contrast this with the opening scenes in Texas centered around a proud, optimistic Joe Buck. He has all the confidence in the world and why wouldn't he? He's good looking, young, and apparently a great lover. The sky is always blue and it's always a beautiful day. Nothing, it seems, will prevent him from being the toast of New York. Jon Voight, in his breakout role, plays him as a man who can have any woman he wants, all he has to do is tip his hat and flash his big smile and they'll come running. But in New York, he finds his success rate is much, much lower. Cowboys aren't in high demand outside of the gay community and big smiles are easy to come by. So slowly his smile loses some luster, his clothes get a little ratty, he starts to smell. His confidence gets low enough that when he finally does score at a Factory party[3] he suffers a temporary bout of erectile disfunction[4].

He gets $20 for his time, though, thanks to Rizzo's negotiating. When Buck tracks down Rizzo to get his money back from the early con, he demands repayment in management services. Rizzo offers to let him stay in his condemned apartment, where Buck wisely keeps one eye on his few possessions. Eventually they form a fast friendship, teaming up to steal small items from the neighborhood. Hoffman plays Rizzo as a limping slimeball who knows all the angles, but there's a part of him that just needs to be needed, so he takes Buck under his wing, as it were, and Buck begins to worry about Rizzo's declining health. Hoffman's performance is easily the best in the film and perhaps the best of his storied career[5].

Eventually Buck makes a big enough score to get his close friend on a bus to Florida, but after a New York winter in a building with no heat, it appears to be too late for anything but miracles. For the duration of the trip this self-proclaimed hustler looks after his sleazy friend the way a mother would look after a sick child. What began as a friendship of convenience has developed into a lasting love between two men who would be completely lost without each other. At the last stop before their destination, Buck gets out to buy Rizzo a change of clothes and in the process abandons the cowboy outfit, boots and all, shoving them into a trash can. He remarks to Rizzo that maybe he'll get a real job in Florida; there's got to be an easier way to make some money. Rizzo then quietly passes away and Buck puts his arm around him, holding him up as if to say this is his friend and he's proud to say he loves him. Joe Buck, who used to be one helluva stud, is now one helluva changed man. A real man.

[1] The film was released in 1969 during a small window of time after the onset of film ratings and before the X rating was dominated by the porn industry and subsequently abandoned by Hollywood. The film has since been re-classified without undergoing any changes. It was given an M rating (Mature) in 1971, which later became R. But, for the sake of authenticity, we list it here as X.

[2] It ended up with 3 Oscars (Picture, Director, and Screenplay) against 7 nominations (Hoffman and Voight in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category, Sylvia Miles for Supporting Acress, and Hugh Robertson for Editing).

[3] Andy Warhol was supposed to make an appearance in the film, but was killed prior to filming. The rest of the scene remained as planned, so you can pretty much figure out what the party was like.

[4] Never good in that line of work, especially if you're starting out.

[5] The Muppets, if I remember correctly, named a rat after his character. It is a fitting likeness.

Note: This is not in the original list (which I've been sticking to), but I just saw it for the first time and it fits the criteria of the extended list.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good review. But Andy Warhol did not appear in the movie because he was shot by Valerie Solanas. He survived and died in 1987 after complications of gallbladder surgery.

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