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Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy holds the record for the most time covered by a two-minute song in cinema history, with Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ taking up approximately 83% of its nearly two-hour runtime. The reason that doesn’t sound true is that it isn’t, but I can’t be far off. On a more serious note, this is one of the earlier productions from what is probably my favourite era in film history, The New Hollywood. Though there are critics of The New Hollywood, it is considered by some, myself included, as the time that American cinema grew up. Rather than taking inspiration from the Americans that came before them, it’s charactised by a group of filmmakers who took inspiration from foreign films with more mature themes instead. Midnight Cowboy is a fantastic example of a film that wouldn’t have existed without that happening. It may come across as quite tame in the context of more modern films and how far they have to go to shock us nowadays, but in the late 60s, this really was something that broke new ground and told a story that just didn’t exist in mainstream America cinema before it. It was even rated X upon its release, a rating which has largely been reserved for porn since the 80s. An X rating in 1969, though, meant that most theatres refused to show it and newspapers refused to run ads for it, but even with that kind of reputation proceeding it, it remains the only X-rated film in history to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

The reasons for the controversy it caused really come from one of the main characters, Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight. We meet him as a happy-go-lucky dishwasher who quits his job and jumps on a Greyhound bus to New York City, where he has aspirations to become a male prostitute. There’s a really great scene near the beginning where Joe encounters a middle-aged woman who he sleeps with right away. When he asks for his payment as part of the transaction, she’s offended because it turns out that she’s a prostitute herself. Joe’s polite nature then takes over as he pays her instead. The economy of storytelling in this sequence is wonderful, as not only is it a hilarious setup, but it also shows just how out of his depth Joe is in his new city and his new profession. Dustin Hoffman stars as another character who shows the contrast between Joe and his new city, a conman with a limp who goes by the nickname “Ratso”. In their first encounter, Ratso manages to extort $20 out of Joe as a commission fee for introducing him to a pimp who turns out to be nothing more than a religious fanatic. It isn’t long before Joe’s broke, turning to a huge taboo of the time to make money – gay sex. It can all come across as quite miserable as what follows is a series of events where Joe is taken advantage of until he’s in a situation where he needs Ratso to almost take him under his wing. As such, they form a partnership with big plans, but it doesn’t get any lighter from there. As we learn more about the two of them there are a number of experiences that both of them that have shaped the characters that we see, and none of them are for the faint-hearted. It really is a beautifully woven story about two outcasts who find kinship in one another after a rough world pushes them together, though.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight actually both received nominations for Best Actor for their performances, with John Wayne eventually winning it for True Grit. Perhaps that’s fitting, though, as the strength of the film is how much the screenplay allows the actors to give such strong performances. It isn’t necessarily that the actors are enough to blow the audience away, it’s just that the film allows them to, and that Hoffman and Voight are two actors that were completely capable of doing it. It’s a real shame that Voight went on to endorse Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, given his involvement in a film such as this which is one of the earliest examples of an American film that challenged right-wing biases, but perhaps that’s why “never meet your heroes” is such a popular phrase. One thing that I wish I could experience again is the realisation that this is where the famous “I’m walkin’ here!” originally came from, though it’s disputed whether it was written in the screenplay or if it was improvised by Dustin Hoffman.

Outside of the repetition of Everybody’s Talkin’, it’s a technically sound film that does a number of things very well. The score is iconic, and the cinematography is brilliant. What’s really nice from a modern perspective is that the majority of it is filmed on location, so it’s almost like entering a time machine to a world that most people now would never have experienced. Just looking at shots from Texas and New York is a wonder in itself as you can spot adverts, billboards, and street furniture from a time gone by.

Midnight Cowboy is a very important film for a number of reasons, but the most important of them is that a lot of films that we know and love today might not exist without it, even if its content seems tame by more modern standards. There is a certain bracing necessary in order to cope with its very dark, very deep themes and topics, but if a story such as this was told without that kind of abandon for the lighthearted then it wouldn’t have done itself any justice whatsoever. This is a film from a time where American cinema grew up, and this is a great example of exactly how it did.

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