News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films (2): Midnight Cowboy

Here at Mid Century Cinema we continue to shadow my “Politics of the 70s Film” class this semester; film number two is Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969).  The X-rated film (years later reclassified as an “R”) about the doomed friendship between a dim-witted would-be hustler from Texas and a homeless, tubercular, New York City street-survivor (that was less than twenty-five words, but not quite what the studios mean by “high concept”), was a surprise hit at the box office and a big winner at the Academy Awards.

Midnight Cowboy was also an exemplar of what the seventies film aspired to be: focusing on characters – from top to bottom – that the Old Hollywood wouldn’t touch, raising questions that were previously unasked, and searching for the truths that might be revealed by staring down grim realities.  Speaking of grim realities, Cowboy was also, like many New Hollywood films, shot on the mean streets of a desperate New York City that had fallen on very hard times; much of its action takes place in “the poorer quarters/where the ragged people go,” as Paul Simon put it in The Boxer—most vividly the hollow, strung-out Times Square that Travis Bickle would drive through a few years later in Taxi Driver

People of a certain age, it must be said, have mixed feelings about what has become of Times Square, which for some of us is a little like Robert Downey Jr.  Yes, back in the day it was unsafe, diseased, in ruins, and teetering on the brink of an abyss.  Nevertheless, there is something about the cleaned-up version, dominated by Disney, teeming with tourists, home to a 25,000 foot M&M store and fenced-in by loud, ugly buildings (only the Paramount remains of what was once an architectural feast), that fails to move the soul.  It sure is safe – even sterile – and much less interesting. 

But I digress.  Like many great films, Midnight Cowboy was the result of a great collaboration, with producer Jerome Hellman, writer Waldo Salt, director Schlesinger, and lead players Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight prominent among those making essential contributions to the finished product.  (The fine cast also includes Barnard Hughes, Brenda Vaccaro, and Bob Balaban in his big screen debut.)  Salt, who had been a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist, would go on to write Serpico and Coming HomeSchlesinger, then a hot property coming off seriously-taken features such as Billy Lair and Darling, would turn next to Sunday Bloody Sunday.  That very fine, sophisticated, modestly-scaled film can be seen as a reaction to those critics who suggested that Schlesinger (a then-closeted gay man) lacked the courage of his convictions in portraying the relationship between Ratso (Hoffman) and Joe (Voight).

I don’t share those sentiments.  Despite the production team’s explicit sensitivity to such concerns (intimations of the couple’s sexuality) as the film was in development, the relationship between Ratso and Joe is the film, and it is all there.  In fact, as I have written, for all its avant-garde daring, Midnight Cowboy has the structure of a classic romantic comedy, with the plot points of meet cute, separation and chance reunion, ultimate crisis, and final resolution no different from those of When Harry Met Sally.  Of course, since Cowboy is a seventies film, it ends a little more sadly – instead of Harry and Sally’s married bliss we get Joe and Ratso on a bus – as more-or-less illustrated by Seinfeld.    


tough town

Tough Town


Joe, Castrated

Joe is Symbolically Castrated . . .


Joe Knows

 . . . And Knows What He has to do


Selling the Radio

Selling their Last Possession


Ratso Reels

Crisis: Joe’s success sends Ratso Reeling



Ratso Rizzo