Movie Project #23: Midnight Cowboy [1969]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Midnight Cowboy [1969]

Midnight Cowboy [1969]
Director: John Schlesinger
Writers: Waldo Salt (screenplay), James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
Running Time: 113 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had heard so much about this film over the years, and it has a longstanding reputation as one of the finest American films of the 1960s.

Accolades: Won three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay), nominated for four other Oscars (Best Actor – Hoffman and Voight, Best Supporting Actress – Miles, Best Film Editing), six BAFTA awards, National Film Registry

Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only X-rated movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Watching the film 40+ years later, it’s a bit surprising that it managed to snag such a controversial rating. Obviously, times have changed, but there is little in this film that seems shocking, even for its time period.

Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck, a naive young Texan who quits his job as a dishwasher, packs his bags and heads to New York City in hopes of being a male prostitute. Once there, his classic cowboy look draws more laughs than anything else, and he struggles to make ends meet. He does manage to make a new friend, however: Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a similarly down-on-his-luck grifter. Ratso has a bum leg and an undisclosed illness, and his current place of residence is a condemned building.

Midnight Cowboy [1969]

Joe and Ratso form an unlikely bond, perhaps driven by their loneliness and shared dreams of getting rich and moving to Florida. The two men become business partners of sorts, and they work together to hustle their way through the urban jungle that is 1969 New York.

What drew me into Midnight Cowboy were the fantastic lead performances from Voight and Hoffman. Both play incredibly complex characters. Joe’s naivete is heartbreaking, but it’s hard not to be charmed by his confidence and Southern drawl. I can’t think of another character like him, and Voight plays this masterfully. It is Hoffman, however, who truly impresses. Just two years removed from his Oscar-nominated performance as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Hoffman puts together an even better performance here. Ratso is such a depressing character — a dirty, disgusting shell of a man that certainly lives up to his nickname. Yet Hoffman manages to make him *likable*, eliciting great sympathy as he aimlessly drifts through life.

Midnight Cowboy [1969]

In many ways, Midnight Cowboy feels like the perfect transition from the free-spirited 1960s into the dark, gritty 70s. Joe Buck seems like a relic of a different time, and the poor guy has no idea what he’s getting into with the seedy underbelly of New York City. The grimy city streets were used to perfection in many 70s films (i.e. The French Connection, Taxi Driver, etc.), but this serves as something of a precursor to this decade.

As such, John Schlesinger’s film is an interesting curiosity of its time. There are a few issues that plagued other post-Graduate films — Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” is played a few too many times, and the film could have done without one or two flashbacks — but this is 100% worth seeing because of its two lead performances.


14 thoughts on “Movie Project #23: Midnight Cowboy [1969]

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Fine look at this one, Eric. Believe me, the X-rating for this film was indicative to the changing times and the Academy’s reaction to it. As well as, the MPAA’s belief its content was not suitable for children (teens included). Typical. Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ and its breakthrough amount of violence garnered just an ‘R’. But because there was sex (straight and gay), Midnight Cowboy had the rating’s board literally flipping out of their chairs to castigate its content. To this d, they still see sex as the greater threat.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Thanks, Michael. It is mind-boggling that sex is still considered far worse than violence in the eyes of the MPAA (and the ESRB, among others). At least they eventually came to their senses on this one and re-rated it R.

  2. jackdeth72 says:

    Great work, Eric!

    ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is one of the best on location Manhattan films. Subways, traffic, warts and all. I was surprised by Hoffman’s ability to look deep and make an unlikeable, skeevy character, Ratso Rizzo; likeable. While Voight shows great versatility projecting limitless shades of naivete amongst shabby surroundings.

  3. Alex Withrow says:

    Nice review here. I love this film. It’s so raw and brutal and risky. I still can’t believe Schlesinger was able to get it made. And the fact that it won Best Pic… I mean, wow. Glad you dug the performances.

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