I’ve never seen New York (or America in general) look this ugly in any other film before until I chanced upon John Schlesinger’s 1969 hit Midnight Cowboy, a film that I would not recommend to an outsider looking to move to New York anytime in the near future, because there’s a chance that he would feel very distressed upon seeing some of the imagery in it. There is nothing even remotely pleasing about the film, visually that is, and one can be easily put off by the overwhelming squalor and some of the unappealing characters in it. It managed to capture the dark and seedy underbelly of New York City in a way that only very few films have managed to. The place where Dustin Hoffman’s character lives is literally a dump.
The New York depicted here is a hellish and frustrating place to be in – a place of squashed dreams and endless misery. However, regardless of all this, it’s a very impressive film precisely because of its ugliness. So, to a viewer watching it for the first time, I would request him/her to be patient because it’s ultimately a rewarding experience. I must admit I didn’t know what to think of it after my initial viewing of it many years ago because I was slightly put off by its ugliness. But I knew for certain that I didn’t hate it because I recently found myself going back to it because I got bored of all the current crop of Hollywood films which all had something missing – that raw and gritty feeling that was typical of many films from the late 60s and most of the 70s. I wanted to experience it all over again.
I thoroughly loved the film this time around. I embraced its ugliness; I let all the dirt and grime wash over me. I was awe-struck at how brilliantly made it was and I cried at the ending. And after I was done, I lamented the fact that we don’t get to see films like this from Hollywood anymore. Midnight Cowboy was one of the few films that kick-started the Hollywood Renaissance a.k.a the New Hollywood movement along with The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. It was the first X-rated film to win 3 Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This rating has since been changed to an R. The adult content in the film is tame by today’s standards. It’s nothing compared to The Wolf of Wall Street.
Aside from Dustin Hoffman – the other truly great actor of that generation apart from Al Pacino and Robert De Niro – the film starred Jon Voight in his prime. Now before I start singing praises of Hoffman, let me put in my two cents about Jon Voight’s performance. It’s sad to see this talented – and overlooked- actor being wasted these days in so many blockbusters like, for example, Transformers. If a twenty-something youngster from the current generation, who claims to be a movie freak, is asked about one Jon Voight film that he saw, he might mention either Transformers or Mission Impossible or perhaps Enemy of the State. What you wanted to hear was Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance or Coming Home but instead, you get these titles.
I consider Voight’s performance in Midnight Cowboy as his best. Dressed flamboyantly in cowboy attire, he played a naïve and clueless hustler from Texas with big dreams and a nice heart while Hoffman played a sickly and poor grifter from New York whose path crosses with the other’s and become unlikely buddies. They get off on the wrong foot but eventually, a strong bond develops between them that bring forth some genuinely moving and light-hearted moments. Just like Voight’s Joe Buck character, we initially dislike Hoffman’s Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo – upon first meeting, he cons Joe out of twenty bucks and disappears – but later realize his kindness when we see the way he looks after Joe despite the extreme poverty and ailments he is suffering from.
The film was Hoffman’s second outing since breaking out with 1967’sThe Graduate and it announced that a major talent was here to stay. With a nasal, whiny voice and a limp, he made you forget that he was in The Graduate. It’s such a heartbreaking performance. His “I’m walking here, I’m walking here” line has now become iconic and the film cemented his reputation as an outstanding character actor. Hoffman’s effortless performance was brilliantly complemented by Voight, who conveyed his character’s desperation, frustration, dumbness and good-heartedness – all done with equal finesse. His character has a disturbingly intriguing, and evidently traumatic, backstory which is told through flashbacks – psychological triggers – that appear in quick succession instead of exposition.
Some of these flashbacks imply that Joe was sexually abused as a child by his grandmother which, I imagine, set up the main motivation for his primary aim to be a high-class male escort. He leaves Texas and comes to New York, walking the streets day and night looking for lonely, rich and often middle-aged women who might invite him to their chambers. While there is no scene that implies that Joe is bisexual or gay, there are times when, out of sheer desperation, we see him hesitantly accepting the invitations of gay men, both young and old, in the hope of earning a quick buck. The film provides a nice peek into, and also reflects, the counter-culture movement that was prevalent at the time.
Midnight Cowboy reminds you of that fabulous era when American filmmakers used to be much more daring and innovative. They came up with new ways of telling stories. It’s a pity that today producers and studios are not willing to take risks like they did back then. I guess Jaws and Star Wars are to be blamed for that. Even someone like Martin Scorsese is finding it hard to make films like this today. Have today’s audiences grown impatient? Has their attention span been severely affected? Do they want everything spoon fed to them? Well, while we wait patiently to see history repeating itself, let’s be content, for the time being, with watching these classics over and over again. As they say, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.