Midnight Cowboy

So… if you’ve been following along with The Oscar Project you will recall how I wrote about how the best picture winners of the 1960s have begun reflecting the more loose and provocative attitudes of the decade.

The Apartment used some spicy language and gave us a more realistic and natural look at male/female relationships.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story dialed up the sex appeal.

Tom Jones was a cheeky monkey jumping in and out of bed with different women.

At the center of In the Heat of the Night was a promiscuous girl and an unexpected pregnancy.

1969 - Midnight Cowboy - posterWell those movies all pale in comparison with Midnight Cowboy and its raw and gritty look at the sex, drugs and disillusionment of the 60s.

The movie is legendary for being the only X-rated film to win best picture. However, that is a bit misleading as the rating was revised 2 years later to R which still would have been a first.

But to put that in context, the ratings system had only been in place for 2 years so technically Oliver! (the previous year’s winner) was the first G-rated best picture winner even though several other winners, like The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady have since been classified as G-rated films. Even Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur are now G-rated films.

But whether you give Midnight Cowboy an R or an X, the nudity and graphic sexual content in this film was WAY beyond anything even remotely seen in any best picture before or (to my recollection) since.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not fifty shades of anything. It’s barely 5 shades of anything. But In the Heat of the Night’s Delores Purdy standing in front of the kitchen window with the window pane covering up her naughty bits isn’t in the same ballpark with Midnight Cowboy.

To paraphrase Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction… It ain’t the same league. It ain’t even the same sport.

But as strange as what I’m about to say may sound… None of it is gratuitous, out of place or disconnected from the story. It may be a little graphic but it isn’t pointless.

I had seen this once before, probably 20 years ago. My memory of the film included an orgy scene of some kind but no such scene in Midnight Cowboy exists. In fact, there are only a couple of scenes with garden-variety, above the waist female nudity and a few others with Jon Voight’s naked hindquarters. There is other provocative and explicitly sexual themes and situations, but as far as nudity goes that’s about it.

For all the hype about the “X-Rated Best Picture,” Midnight Cowboy isn’t a very salacious movie. What it is is a remarkably well-written, acted and directed film. Which is probably why, even with its X-rating, it was the 2nd highest grossing film of the year. THe #1 movie at the box office featured a couple of different kinds of cowboys, ones named Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The story begins with a young Texan named Joe Buck (Voight) polishing up his boots, straightening his hat, tying his kerchief and donning his fringed jacket as he prepares to quit his job as a dishwasher and head to New York City with dreams of becoming a male prostitute. And he’s not too picky about his clientele.

“There’s a lot of rich women back there Ralph. Begging for it. Paying for it too. And the men? They’re mostly tutti fruttis. So I’m gonna cash in on some of that, right?” – Joe Buck

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The first act of the film centers on the ride from Texas to New York. Joe is alone but interacts with different passengers along the way. They come and go. He is exceedingly likeable, polite and charismatic. His “Aw shucks” charm is endearing.

On the bus Joe reflects back on his life. After his mother abandoned him he was raised by his grandmother who often had a new beau-of-the-moment that hogged her attention. But she seemed to genuinely love Joe and want only the best for him.

We learn later in the film that at one point, what seems to be high school, Joe had a relationship with a girl named Annie who had some mental illness or at least instability. Joe has a nightmare which reveals his relationship with Annie ended tragically with Joe being assaulted and Annie being taken away in a straight jacket. How much of that is symbolic and how much of that is memory is hard to say. The film it does an amazing job throughout of revealing the critical things that shaped Joe into who he is today. Or maybe more accurately, who he is becoming.

But Joe’s not too successful when he arrives in the Big Apple. At first he is resoundingly turned down, even laughed at, by any woman he approaches. When he does finally succeed in finding what he believes is his first customer he’s the one who ends up giving her money when he discovers that she is actually a high-end call girl herself.

The second act begins when Joe goes to a bar and meets a man with a wicked limp and a complete catalog of health issues named “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), although he doesn’t like the nickname and prefers to be called Enrico. Rizzo is a con man and quickly relieves Joe of $20 on the promise of introducing him to a pimp (John McGiver) who can help him get his hustle up and running.


It’s on the way to this meeting that Hoffman almost gets hit by a cab as he and Voight are crossing the street and improvises* the film’s most famous line.

“I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” – Ratso Rizzo

Joe meets the pimp only to discover he’s actually a religious fanatic eager to recruit Joe into the army of the Lord.

He runs off and winds up just wanders New York or sits in his hotel room. But that doesn’t last long before he’s locked out with all his belongings impounded. Desperate for money Joe tries to work the streets but it gets him nowhere.

Eventually Joe catches up with Rizzo who feels bad but has already spent the $20 so he offers to let Joe stay in the apartment in a condemned building in which he’s squatting.

Thus begins the tale of two broke hustlers trying to survive. From stealing from fruit vendors in the street to breaking into shoeshine stands in the subway to make a buck to conning hat repair shops out of a new chapeau they form a bond. And although it’s not quite Rick and Louis’s “start of a beautiful friendship” from Casablanca it is actually surprisingly sweet.

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But just when it looks like Joe’s career is about to take off Rizzo’s health continues to decline. He can no longer take care of himself. Rizzo has always wanted to go to Miami (there’s even a funny little dream sequence) and Joe realizes he needs to get Rizzo out of the freezing cold of New York and down there where he can recover.

He gets them both on a bus heading south. Just before they reach Miami the bus stops in Hollywood, Florida near the Great Southern Hotel (less than 10 miles from the house I grew up in by the way). Joe buys some new clothes, ditching his cowboy outfit for a camp shirt, slacks and loafers. He gets Rizzo a new outfit as well complete with a bright Hawaiian shirt. Rizzo is still so weak so Joe gets him changed on the bus.

As the bus gets closer to Miami, Joe starts envisioning a new life in south Florida.

“I got this damn thing all figured out. When we get to Miami, what I’m going to do is get some sort of job. Cause hell, I ain’t no kind of hustler. There must be an easier way of making a living than that. Some sort of outdoors work? What do you think? Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.” – Joe Buck

But it’s too late for Rizzo to hear Joe’s plans having succumbed to his illness. All Joe can do is put his arm around Rizzo and hold the body of his friend as the bus pulls into Miami. Joe Buck is once again on a bus on his own illustrating one of the central themes of the film: loneliness.

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This is a really remarkably good film. Much better than I remember. The editing and visual style is absolutely revolutionary. Flashbacks, fantasies and radio and television broadcasts are used to make Joe Buck a deeply layered and complex character unlike any seen in best picture winner. And Voight gives one of the most exceptional, subtle performances in a best picture yet.

But Hoffman is great too. They problem was they were both up for best actor.

If they’d put Hoffman in the supporting category where he belonged he most likely would have won and maybe given Voight a better chance in the lead category.

Although Peter O’Toole was up that year (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) and if he couldn’t beat John Wayne (True Grit) it’s proof the fix was in. They were giving best actor to John Wayne not matter what. It was his “lifetime achievement award.”

But all of the acting awards were a little wonky that year. None of the four winners came from best picture nominees. That wouldn’t happen again for another 26 years.

Those top two box office hits of 1969 were also the big winners on Oscar night. Although Anne of a Thousand Days and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? had more nominations (10 and 9), the cowboys parlayed their 7 nominations each into 4 wins for Butch and Sundance and 3 for Joe and Ratso.

It’s no coincidence that they both won screenplay Oscars, part of why they have endured as classic films for almost 50 years while Anne of a Thousand Days and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? have been largely forgotten.

Oh, and about that phantom orgy scene. I think what I was misremembering as an “orgy” was a wild, drug-fueled, Warhal-esque party Joe and Rizzo go to at one point. I was so young and innocent 20 years ago I probably thought that’s what happened at orgies!

So with the 1960s about to be in The Oscar Project’s rear view mirror it’s time to look back on the 10 best picture winners and see how they stack up.


*There’s some dispute over whether or not it was ad-lib. But I’ll go with the way Dustin Hoffman tells it.


6 thoughts on “Midnight Cowboy

  1. Pingback: Patton | Captions

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