Midnight Cowboy (1969)
I’ve known about this classic film since my conversation with Professor Neil Campbell during my final year at art school, that marked a real turn in the western genre. I never gave wanting to see this film, know that it placed a cowboy in modern-day New York. Also known as the first X-rated film to win the best Picture Oscar. One that is far different in tone and style than any of the past winners to the point of film making. Midnight Cowboy (1969) is that film.
I knew the basic outline of the film a cowboy moves up north to New York, short on cash, taking on what he only knows how – prostitution. A desperate act of a man, who should have been able to offer so much more. Not the most appealing of films on the face of it.
It’s the face of Jon Voight whose innocence to the path ahead of him is perfect. A Texan born and bred we see decides to leave all he knows for a better life thousands of miles away in New York. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Until through the first of many visceral montages we learn more of his past, his decisions and the life he has chosen to leave behind. It’s all quite melancholic, and modern, a young man coming from a broken family, brought up by his grandmother who cared little more than his mother did before her. We have a wide-eyed and bushy tail young man ready to explore the big bad world. Fascinated by all that the open road had to offer him, as it passes by on the open road courtesy of a coach. He meets all sorts of people, whilst we learn more of him as he listens to his only real companion, a radio that changes as he moves through the states.
On his arrival in the big city, the big man knows what he wants, sex and plenty of it. A task that back home seemed so much easier to achieve, until he meets the women that are hard-nosed independent women who are far wiser to the advances of a country man. On getting his first potential customer he goes about the transaction all wrong. A learning curve that he is just starting to go on and only begins to understand at the end of the film.
It’s not until he meets ratty looking Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) that the possibility of the cowboy reaching his dream. All this is to fall through into another flashback, a path of religion that he doesn’t want to engage with. Ratso or Ricco is not just a passing character in Joe Buck’s (Voight) time in New York. He becomes his only friend who helps and reveals to him the truths of life that he has been unaware of. The innocent cowboy is not ready just yet to accept this.
The macho image of the Cowboy, as personified by John Wayne over the last 30 years of film, has been adopted by the gay community, thus attracting the wrong kind of clientelle. Something that he had not anticipated. He perseveres and carries on, in hoping to be a prostitute, taking on different angles, unaware of to how to really treat women in this part of the country.
It’s after the two friends who have lived in a condemned building are invited to an arty party where Buck’s luck changes, surrounded by people who accepted him as someone who was different, a larger than life figure who was confident enough to be him self in terms of self-expression. The height of the art world culture, can be found within this psychedelic sequence that sees them almost worshiped and adored. Buck finally has a client who falls for his country charm.
Whilst all through this we see the decline of Ratso who we see having temperatures into the loss use of his legs. It’s a dramatic change in tone for the film, from self-preservation and finding money, Buck changes his priorities to that of his very ill friend, a figure in his life who had faith in him wanting him to succeed after first taking advantage. Everything he has achieved would not be possible were it not due to Ratso’s friendship, all else falls away to save this man.
It’s a shock to the genre, a massive wake up call that taste have changed in the audience who first grew up with cowboys and Indians. Wanting sex and violence more than the simplistic tales of the wild west. We have a wide-eyed figure who still believes in that way of life, and its language. He admits he wasn’t a cowboy, more a studd, waking up slowly to the modern world, growing up into manhood and the present day. At it’s time of release Midnight Cowboy was an innovative film, shaking up the genre into something new, to the form it is in today. An awareness of the passage of time and tastes. Two opposites meet, the optimistic and pessimistic in life collide, with all their differences which is the heart of the film. For me it’s the montages that distort the passage of time, to create a possible direction of the film, as if parts of the film were discarded and recycled into a new form for the film. It’s a film not to be missed in short.