Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy (repost from my previous site)
Director: John Schlesinger
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman

Notable as the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture (there, I’ve said it, obligatory historical context mention done), Midnight Cowboy is typical of American films coming out of the late 60s and 70s.  A personal, character-driven drama with a decidedly downbeat turn, this is not a film to watch if you want cheering up.

Joe Buck (Voight) is a Texas good ole boy who dreams of striking it rich in The Big Apple.  Deciding that he’ll be able to make it as a hustler (re: male prostitute), he journeys across the country only to realize pretty quickly that he is not accustomed to city life.  He gets taken in by the aptly nicknamed ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Hoffman) who promptly cons twenty bucks off Joe then abandons him.  Eventually, however, Ratso takes Joe under his wing and helps him survive in the harsh city.  Both dream of better days, better times, better places.  Needless to say, this being an American drama from the late sixties, their dreams are never realized.

The performances are easily the main attraction in Midnight Cowboy.  Voight takes Joe, a naïve prostitute, and turns him into much more than a two-dimensional caricature.  Joe is over-confident and arrogant, but watching him realize his dreams are crumbling is very sad.  And yet, Joe manages to maintain some pluck and positivity along with a profoundly caring personality despite all the stones that life throws at him.  When he finally throws away his cowboy boots at the end of the film, there is an overpowering sense of a boy who has been forced, against his will, to grow into a man.  

Schlesinger, the director, uses a wonderful technique to give us background information on Joe Buck.  Instead of traditional flashbacks, he uses flashback montages, for lack of a better term.  Every now and then, Joe starts thinking about his life thus far in a nonlinear manner.  He recalls one memory which then prompts his recollection of a different memory from a completely different time.  We cut back and forth between Joe as a young child and Joe as a teenager, all in one very fast clip.  What I love most about these montages is how they very slowly and very indirectly reveal things about Joe’s past.  We are left to piece together certain details.  Highly significant events are not spelled out in painstaking detail; rather, Schlesinger trusts his audience to get the gist without beating us over the head with it.

Hoffman is, as always, great in his portrayal of Ratso Rizzo, but not for the base characterization.  Rizzo is a cripple, an outcast, a rat who has learned how to live on the scraps of society.  Hoffman’s physical performance and nasal voice creep to the precipice of ridiculous stereotype, but he manages to pull back at the very last moment, creating a surprisingly nuanced character.  Rizzo is, sadly, very real.  Unblinkingly, he takes a funeral wreath from a neighboring headstone and drops it at his father’s grave.  Joe looks judgmental.  Rizzo never flinches or looks apologetic.  He wants his father to know that he was there.  He gets annoyed at Joe for buying medicine for him when he could just as easily have pinched it.    And when his sickness grows worse, he shakily admits to Joe that he wet his pants.  So far from cartoon stereotype. 

The relationship between Joe and Rizzo is clearly the central relationship of the film, and it is a complicated one.  Joe is a male prostitute – there’s no escaping the sexuality there.  But Joe is a bad male prostitute; in his very first outing, after finally finding a rich Park Avenue honey, she starts crying when he asks for the money and he winds up paying HER twenty dollars.  He is also forced to take a few male clients, making his personal sexuality vague.  It is this that drives the ambiguity of the relationship between Joe and Rizzo.  Is Joe in love with Rizzo?  Is Rizzo in love with Joe?

To me, that question is answered with a single still from the film.  Joe and Rizzo are invited to an Austin Powers-esque party (an Andy Warhol scene that feels jarringly out of place in the film).  At the bottom of the stairs, before they head up to the party, Joe looks at Rizzo.  “We have to clean you up,” he says.  Joe has been laundered, washed, and shaved by Rizzo so that he is more appealing to women; Rizzo, on the other hand, reeks of the squalor in which they have been living.  Joe untucks his own shirt and uses it to clean off the top of Rizzo’s head.  Rizzo, for his part, leans in and lets Joe clean him.

Look at Rizzo in this shot.  What strikes me about this is how Rizzo is positioned.  He doesn’t just sit there and let Joe wipe his forehead.  He leans in, then puts his arm around Joe’s waist.  Look at the expression on Hoffman’s face.  It is peaceful, content; it is as if Rizzo is thinking, “This.  This is what I want.”

This scene epitomizes this film to me.  It sums everything up.  These are two disparate characters living in abject poverty; they are dirty, they are filthy, they are unsuccessful.  But they have each other.  It is achingly poignant, the look on Hoffman’s face.  This is a phenomenally quick scene, a throwaway scene, but it’s my personal key to the film.  Others will interpret the relationship in other ways, but this one sadly beautiful image sums up my take on it.  Rizzo is very much in love with Joe, but doesn’t know what to do about it.  He finds a tiny moment of happiness here.

As much of a downer as this film is, there are surprising moments of humor and lightness as well.  In particular, a dream sequence of Rizzo’s, imagining a luxurious life in Miami with rich women, is downright funny.  I love how, even in his own fantasy, Rizzo is cooking for others.

Midnight Cowboy is not the greatest example of American filmmaking from its era, but the pair of incredibly strong performances easily make it worth seeing.  It’s worth watching to remember that there’s much more to Jon Voight than Transformers.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10


  1. I liked this movie quite a bit when I saw it many years ago, but it's not the kind of film I've ever wanted to see a second time. It's a downer.

    My personal opinion of their relationship is that it was neither sexual or romantic, but rather parent/child with each taking turns being the parent when the other needed it.

    1. I like the parent/child angle. I hadn't thought of that, but you're certainly right.

      I agree this isn't a "watch it over and over again" movie, at least not for me. It's TOO depressing. Life sucks, then you die. Literally. The worst, though, is that one teeny tiny faint ray of hope that we get at the end - and then NOPE! Just when you think things are finally turning around for our pair, we get the punch to the gut.