Logline: Joe Buck, a young Texan, forges an unlikely friendship while trying to make it as a hustler in New York City.
John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy is a great example of what made the 1960s such an incredible decade for cinema. It is groundbreaking and experimental and it transcends film conventions. The film is legendary for being the first X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Midnight Cowboy is a story of friendship, one’s man journey of finding himself, and a deconstruction of what it means to be a man in America.
Many films communicate a specific image of masculinity in which manliness is measured by bravery, lack of emotion, expertise with women, and a moral obligation. This traditional image of masculinity is epitomized by the American cowboy. In Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck dons a cowboy outfit, his facade of masculinity, in New York City where he is sorely out of place. Joe is a tall, handsome hustler who is naïve and simple minded. In contrast to Joe, Ratso Rizzo, or Rico, is a short, crippled, con artist. The two forge a friendship. With the help of Rico, Joe reaches a new level of maturity and in the end, throws away his cowboy façade. Joe and Rico are reflections of one another. Only through his friendship with Rico does Joe learn to truly accept himself. It seems fitting then that the final shot is of these two men as seen through the reflective surface of the bus window. Midnight Cowboy features two actors at the top of their game. Both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are remarkable in their portrayals of these men and the film is a wonderful showcase of their acting talents.
It is hard to imagine that Midnight Cowboy received an X rating. It is tame by today’s standards. The main culprit for the film’s rating, though was not its frank depiction of sex but its homosexual undertones. Society was not very accepting of homosexuality in the late sixties and its depiction was rare in American cinema. There was a lot of shame associated with being a homosexual, which is depicted in the film. After my initial viewing of Midnight Cowboy, I was convinced that Joe Buck was a repressed homosexual. Though I no longer necessarily believe that to be true, there is no denying that the film grapples with homosexual repression, homophobia, and homoeroticism. Schlesinger himself was an openly gay man.
There are instances throughout the history of film where a song becomes synonymous with a particular film. Some examples include Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sounds of Silence in The Graduate (1967), Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild in Easy Rider (1969), and Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me in The Breakfast Club (1985). In Midnight Cowboy, there are two iconic songs-Harry’s Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ and John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy. The former is a cover of the Fred Neil song while the latter is a melancholy tune with Toots Thielemans’ harmonica.
Midnight Cowboy feels very much like a product of the sixties. No where else in the film is this more evident than in the psychedelic Andy Warhol party scene. The film is very much a time capsule of life in 1960s Manhattan. Ambitious, honest, heartbreaking, and beautiful, Midnight Cowboy takes an unflinching look at two men living on the fringes of society. It is one of my favorite films from not only the sixties but of all time.