I was recently at dinner with a top studio executive,” John Schlesinger told The New Yorker in a 1994 interview. “
And I said, ‘If I brought you a story about this dishwasher from Texas who goes to New York, dressed as a cowboy, to fulfil his fantasy of living off rich women, doesn’t, is desperate, meets a crippled consumptive who later... dies on a bus, would you be interested?’ And he said, ‘I’d show you the door.’”
Schlesinger’s film has, of course, long since vindicated its scratty, down-at-heel subject matter and a pitch that would have had even Cassavetes or Corman hammering at the elevator buttons in terrified desperation.
These days it’s hailed as an unassailable cult classic – which is a bit weird, given that not many cult classics win Academy Awards (for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay), especially X-rated ones, of which this was famously the first...
And therein lies the contradictory rub of Midnight Cowboy. From a certain angle, it’s a study in grim kitchen-sink realism worthy of a Loach or a Leigh (Schlesinger himself started out helming ’60s Brit-grit affairs such as A Kind Of Loving and Billy Liar).
Yet it’s candy-coated in all the stylistic artifice at the disposal of the age, from its seasick New Wave intercutting and none-more-hip contemporary soundtrack, to its sparked-out, Warholesque ‘happenings’ and picaresque background characters.
Then there are the stylised flashbacks that hint ever so vaguely at the haunted past and fevered dreams of sequined rodeo lunk Joe Buck (Jon Voight), the guileless rogue who heads to the city to seek fame and fortune.
Scams of New York
Critics of the time deemed all this avant-garde window dressing rather unnecessary. “Magnificent performances... dropped into an offensively trendy, gimmick-ridden, tarted-up, vulgar exercise in fashionable cinema,” bitched Roger Ebert. Rather unkind, but he had a point – based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, in its guts Midnight Cowboy is the kind of classic fable that doesn’t require much adornment.
But the passage of time has both softened its stylistic affectations and made them an indelible part of the film’s withering condemnation of its heartless social landscape.
You could almost turn it into a pantomime – if the streets of Dick Whittington’s city weren’t paved with gold but the grubby, disenfranchised rejects of an uncaring society; and if Whittington didn’t become mayor, but a male prostitute (and not even a very good one), and hooked up not with a friendly cat, but with an initially less-than-amenable rat...
Well, a Ratso anyway. The casting of Dustin Hoffman as the scrawny, limping, wheezing con artist who bilks Joe out of his last dollars, then offers him room and board in his horrible condemned apartment in exchange for simple companionship, is a well-worn Hollywood anecdote, repeated in the solid, if brief extras. (These are stripped from the 2007 Cinema Reserve edition and comprising a half-hour doc and two 10-minute featurettes cribbed from the same cast interview, as well as producer Jerome Hellman’s commentary).
Schlesinger was concerned that Hoffman’s reputation as the clean-cut all-American superstar of The Graduate would make it hard for audiences to accept him as a tragic bum – so Hoffman told the casting director to meet him at a junction of 42nd Street in Manhattan, then turned up in rags and ranted at passers-by – not being recognised, of course, until he introduced himself...
The littlest hobo
Indeed, strip away everything else and it’s the performances that make Midnight Cowboy what it is – and the way Schlesinger, the Englishman abroad, dropped his two stars into his piercing outsider’s take on the Dante-esque hell of 1968 NYC. (The new BD transfer’s sharpened soundtrack lends a tinny angst to the cab-honking street scenes).
After weeks of rehearsals, screenwriter Waldo Salt eventually just took to trailing around after Voight and Hoffman and recording their rambling improvisations, weaving them into a cracking script that sets off the pair’s rich, natural chemistry.
Hoffman’s hobo exercise in Method suffering – the pebbles in the shoe, the fake teeth – is well documented. Ratso’s filthy coat, greasy hair and reedy Bronx whine… Dusty carves out a character every bit as distinctive as preppy Ben Braddock.
But Voight is just as good – his slapstick buck-toothed swagger, good-natured cocksure charm and collection of rodeo shirts hiding a touchingly naïve, sensitive soul.
He’s also a man heading for a fall, from the moment he tells the camera where to stick the dirty dishes, boots open the door of his crummy Texas motel and saunters into the sunrise.
On some levels, Midnight Cowboy might resemble another bitter by-product of the death throes of the 1960s, to file alongside the grim likes of Easy Rider, Gimme Shelter and Medium Cool.
But it’s more expansive and less inward-looking – at the centre of its maelstrom of poverty and bleakness beats a generous spirited, socially conscious tale of human warmth and friendship that only a heart of ice could fail to be thawed by.
The elegiac ending offers one of the most tender, understated goodbyes in American cinema. Only the loudest of superlatives (and shirts) will suffice…
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