#253 Midnight Cowboy

(1969, John Schlesinger)

“I ain’t a for real cowboy but I am one helluva stud!”

Cowboy? Oh great, another Western, just what I don’t want to watch. Wait, no, this name sounds familiar somehow. Hang on, is this the movie that made Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” famous? I love that song! And it’s not a Western, it’s about a failed male gigolo living in New York? Well, that changes everything!

Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a young Texan man who moves to New York to fulfil his dream of becoming a male prostitute catering to rich women. If that sounds like an odd dream to have, the movie shares details of his past that suggest he may have developed a slightly skewed view of sexual relationships. Failing to sell himself successfully, he ends up meeting a sickly man named Enrico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who steadily becomes his friend.

I’d heard a few things about this movie, including the aforementioned inclusion of “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Dustin Hoffman’s famous “hey, I’m walkin’ here!” line, but on the whole I knew very little about it beyond that. So I was surprised to find the movie being a lot more surreal than expected.

For a movie that claims to be an examination of loneliness and a drama about male prostitution, it makes some incredibly strange artistic choices. Midnight Cowboy is a very disjointed movie, placing us in various scenarios that Buck finds himself in without much connecting plot. The movie also likes to mix in some vague flashbacks to his childhood, sometimes a little too many.

And these flashbacks, while being vague and surreal, are very intriguing, presenting a view that this supposedly self-assured man pursing his dream with a macho cowboy persona might actually a terribly damaged victim of sexual abuse. Shots of his grandmother making erotic noises while Buck as a boy massages her, or said grandmother forcing the boy to have an enema, all flash by the viewer without much explanation, but they certainly leave an impression.

Sometimes this works better than other times. The above scenes are effective, portrayed as partially-suppressed memories bubbling to the surface of Buck’s psyche, but others are less so. There is a flashback to a traumatic rape that is presented without much explanation and left me asking questions instead of viewing it as an insight into Buck’s past.

Of course, this being the sixties and all, LSD is introduced later on to make the flashbacks and general vagueness even more hazy, and this is where Midnight Cowboy gets really surreal and starts to make less and less sense.

The vagueness wasn’t helped by the portrayal of Buck himself. While Jon Voight played him very well, there were issues. There were far too many times where he felt a lot more vacant than he needed to be. While Buck was clearly meant to be naïve, sometimes he was portrayed as simply stupid.

And not just by Voight. The writing makes a great effort to do it to him too. What’s worse, he tends to make a lot of bad decisions as a result, but he always seems to manage to avoid the worst of it. Sure, he ends up broke and living in a squalid flat, but his ill-advised interactions with society women or someone’s actual death don’t generate consequences, and this bugged me a lot.

And yet, despite this, I actually liked the movie. Outside the above issues, this was a great drama about loneliness and failure. While there were issues with Buck’s portrayal, Rizzo didn’t suffer the same fate. Hoffman played him expertly, and turned this dirty, twitchy man into an incredibly sympathetic character, more so than the main character.

The friendship between the two main characters is also excellent to watch, with the ending wrapping it all up nicely with a series of genuinely moving scenes that cemented my opinion of the movie.

You see, there’s a lot wrong with Midnight Cowboy, but it also does a lot more right. Even its vague surreal nature ends up being more intriguing than frustrating. So there we go, I can like serious movies about cowboys, just as long as those cowboys are actually hustlers in the 1960s.

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight & Sylvia Miles
Written by James Leo Herlihy (novel) and Waldo Salt
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Adam Holender
Edited by Hugh A. Robertson

Favourite Scene: The ending scenes are a bittersweet coda to an unlikely friendship, and I loved every minute.
Scene That Bugged Me: The rape scene lacks enough explanation for me to just buy it as it is.

Watch it if: You like hazy but intriguing dramas
Avoid it if: You hate “Everybody’s Talkin’”

Posted on January 16, 2014, in 1960s, Drama and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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