Film Score: John Barry Cinematography: Adam Holender
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro and Sylvia Miles
Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture. But it’s not really what it seems. Though we now exclusively associate it with pornography, the rating was initially intended not only for sex, but thematically disturbing or overly violent content. In fact the British used the rating for decades to label horror films that had no sex at all. The story was based on the novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy and director John Schlesinger had a difficult time finding a producer who would finance such an daring film for the time. While Warren Beatty expressed interest, Schlesinger felt he would be wrong for the part and eventually settled on newcomer Jon Voight. Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, lobbied for the part, donning makeup and wardrobe to convince the director he would be right for it. Ultimately the film won three Oscars, not only for best picture but for Schlesinger as best director, and for the screenplay by Waldo Salt. One of the unique aspects of the film is the way in which it almost presages Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. In that film Altman had sort of a running commentary going over the camp loudspeaker. In Schlesinger’s film he does something similar with the radio advertising that Voight listens to, but also takes it further by using images from film and television, along with store windows, to act as a Greek chorus commenting on the action.
The film begins in a small Texas town, with Jon Voight getting dressed in brand new cowboy gear and imagining all of the people at his coffee shop job getting angry and yelling at him when he shows up late for his job washing dishes. But Voight only stops in to quit and hops a bus for New York City. During the trip he has flashbacks showing him as a little boy being told by his grandmother how beautiful he is, and his sexual encounters with young women. He believes that there are women in New York who would pay a lot of money to have sex with him and so he plans on becoming a gigolo. But this isn’t Texas. Not only do the women on the street not strike up conversations with him, they don’t even notice him and he quickly feels lost in the big city. He manages to catch the eye of Sylvia Miles, who knows what he wants and is willing to give him a little. Only instead of getting paid he winds up giving her money for cab fare. That afternoon he shares his fate with Dustin Hoffman at a bar, and his sympathy creates a bond between the two. Hoffman knows of an upscale pimp that he can introduce Voight to . . . for a small cash advance. But the man he introduces him to, John McGiver, is not a pimp but a religious nut who wants to save fornicators, and Voight’s flashback to being baptized has him quickly running out the building.
Soon Voight runs out of money and is locked out of his room. He can’t stand the thought of washing dishes again, so he steels himself to pick up gay tricks, but when he goes with Bob Balban into the movie theater he’s stiffed again and has to leave without any cash. It’s not until halfway through the film that Voight meets up with Hoffman again, and the story turns into a bizarre variation on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with Hoffman taking him in to live in a condemned apartment building and dreaming of moving together to Miami. Obviously there’s a part of Jon Voight’s character that is a hayseed, but the film won’t let the cliché stand alone. The flashbacks of Voight’s childhood and time as a young adult are gradually revealed to the audience in a way that makes his outward stereotypical behavior all the more complex underneath. This, too, replicates Steinbeck’s use of brief discussions to gradually let the reader in on the backstory of George and Lennie. Schlesinger does this by visualizing Voight’s imagination. In the opening it’s what the employees at the diner will say, and then on the streets of New York he imagines going up to a woman’s apartment with her. Later, after Hoffman has tricked him out of money, he imagines chasing him through the city--primarily in black and white--seeing him in every doorway, and eventually strangling him. This last scene, however, is also intercut with flashbacks of him being attacked back home by some men who rape his girlfriend--as well as him--while he is forced to watch.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Jon Voight’s characterization of Joe Buck, as stated earlier, defies convention. He’s certainly naïve, but he’s not stupid. In fact, because of his experiences early in his life, it allows him not to be swallowed whole by New York, and his final speech to Hoffman is especially satisfying because of it. Dustin Hoffman’s Rizzo, also seems to defy convention. The crippled aspect is not very well done, and the affectation in the voice is equally unconvincing, and yet his character doesn’t take advantage of Voight after the first time, instead choosing to throw his lot in with him. The rest of the cast interacts with Voight in a series of set pieces. John McGiver’s wide-eyed fanatic seems at first as if he’s going to be gay, and then his character defies convention also. Bob Balban is wonderful as the young boy who goes into the theater with Voight, and Barnard Hughes is also good as the homosexual who wants to quit. Surprisingly, the two actresses in the film had relatively little screen time and yet both were nominated for Oscars in a supporting role. The great Sylvia Miles is a wonderful free spirit while Brenda Vaccaro is stunning as the party guest who finally pays Voight for sex. Midnight Cowboy might not seem as controversial as it was when it was first released, but it is a fascinating piece of cinema that is also and entertaining work of art.