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Saturday, August 8, 2015

John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy

If a single still photo ever summed up an entire motion picture, this one would win hands-down. Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo. Notice the difference in their heights.
The iconic pair pose iconically.
You'll have to pardon me on this, I've never written a review of an X-rated movie before. Actually, I'm not now, in that the rating for director John Schlesinger's 1969 film classic, Midnight Cowboy, was changed to "R" to "X" (for its release), then back to "R" again in 1971. Nonetheless, Midnight Cowboy was the only X-rated film to ever win a Academy Award for Best Picture, and one of only three to ever be nominated. (The other two were Kramer's A Clockwork Orange and Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris.) Midnight Cowboy also won an Oscar for Schlesinger as Best Director and Waldo Salt for Best Adapted Screenplay from the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy. Both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were nominated for Best Actor while Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress even though she was on-screen barely five minutes. In all fairness, the ratings change was as much the result of the MPAA ratings system being relatively new (and untested) at the time as the fact that the movie had an underlying homosexual frame of reference which was thought might be harmful to children under sixteen (who weren't allowed to see it without a parent in any case).
The melting away of illusions.
A sixty-cent paperback--1965
Midnight Cowboy is about a boy and the man, who helps him become a man. It's about Joe Buck, a naïve Texas boy in a man's body, who has grand illusions and "high aspirations" of going to New York and becoming a highly-paid male prostitute (strictly heterosexual, of course). He's spectacularly unsuccessful. He gives money to his first client. It's at this point Joe meets Ratso (Hoffman), who convinces him he needs a pimp and offers to introduce him to one. That doesn't work out so well either. Joe is reduced to receiving gay sex from a man in a movie theater who has no money. With a cash flow like that, Joe is soon broke and accepts the offer to share a rundown apartment with Ratso. Working from a condemned building, they develop a business relationship as two-bit street hustlers even as Ratso's health begins to deteriorate. As a sort of male bonding takes place, the backgrounds of both men are told through flashbacks, with which director John Schlesinger is an artful master. The story continues as Joe is invited to a Warhol-like party where he smokes his first joint and pops an unidentified pill, causing him to hallucinate. It's also where he meets an attractive socialite named Shirley, played by Brenda Vaccaro in one of her earliest roles. She agrees to pay him twenty dollars to spend the night with her. However he's unable to measure up to her expectations. But, when she accuses Joe of being gay, he's suddenly able to prove otherwise. Returning to the apartment he and Ratso share, Joe finds his friend bedridden and feverish, refusing medical help, wishing only to go to Miami "where the weather suits my clothes." After hustling a man, then robbing him, Joe buys two bus tickets to "where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain."

Brenda Vaccaro and John Voight--no more twin beds for Hollywood.
Dustin Hoffman as "Ratso"
It would be pointless to point out that Midnight Cowboy could not have been made just two or three years earlier under the moral restrictions of the old Motion Pictures Production Code (sometimes called the Hayes Code). Even MPAA president Jack Valenti's new rating system mentioned earlier was having trouble coping with films such as Midnight Cowboy, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Blow-Up (which, due to its nudity, was ultimately denied approval even under the new code). Midnight Cowboy broke ground. It was not deemed wise to burden an Oscar-winning picture with a song as iconic as Everybody's Talkin' at Me, an Academy Award winning director, and an $11-million take at the box office with an "X" rating, so the rating was changed. Any number of classic movies and their stars made since then owe their success to Schlesinger's daring endeavor. It didn't hurt the careers of Voight and Hoffman either.

Midnight Cowboy director, John Schlesinger, behind the camera.
Lobby still shots from Midnight Cowboy.
The film boast several interesting peculiarities. Jon Voight received the Screen Actors' Guild minimum wage for his starring role. And who hasn't heard someone repeat the most famous line from the film, "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" The line was an ad-lib on Hoffman's part, by the way, in order to save a take when a wayward taxi inadvertently intruded into the scene (below). In 1994, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Schlesinger chose the song. Everybody's Talkin' by Fred Neil and performed by Harry Nilsson as the movie's theme, inasmuch as it so perfectly underscored the first act. Two songs rejected by Schlesinger included Nilsson's later hit, I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City and Randy Newman's Cowboy. Bob Dylan intended Lay Lady Lay to serve as the film's theme song, but was unable to finish it in time for the release date.

"Hey, I'm Walkin' here!" Making movies can be dangerous.


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