Friday, August 1, 2014

Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture 1969)

No other Best Picture starts out in quite the same way that Midnight Cowboy does: in the shower, with a buck-naked Jon Voight! I guess this is director John Schlesinger's way of telling us, we are about to experience something brand new...!

Midnight Cowboy is a relatively straight-forward film about two losers trying to scratch out an existence in New York City in the late Sixties. For all the controversy about the subject matter, this is a pretty simply little film. The fact is that for late-Sixties Hollywood it was controversial to portray prostitution, homosexuality, and drug addiction, three of the experiences our "heroes" encounter during the course of the film. This film initially garnered an "X" rating; it was eventually down-graded to "R" without any cuts to the film itself.
Jon Voight portrays Joe Buck, a self-styled hustler from Texas. He heads to NYC in order to be a male prostitute. In a series of flashbacks we learn that he was abandoned by his mother, never knew his father, and had something of an odd relationship with his grand-mother. So we begin to think he has something of an odd fetish for older women. We also learn that he did have a girl-friend, and that they had had sex before an incident where she or they were raped by a bunch of faceless men. She went crazy and was literally carted away; he eventually decided to go to New York.

When Joe finally gets to NYC his "cowboy charm" doesn't work on any women. One elderly woman he beds insists on getting money from him! Then he meets Rizzo, a dirty, down-on-his-luck handicapped scoundrel played by Dustin Hoffman. "Ratzo," as others call him, promises to introduce Joe to a pimp who will get him plenty of work, but asks for twenty bucks for the help. Joe pays him and heads off. However, the apartment Rizzo sends Joe to to is occupied by an evangelist with a neon Jesus, not a pimp. Joe is angry at Rizzo, to put it mildly. Broke and thrown out of his apartment, Joe finally tries gay prostitution, but the young man who gives him oral sex ends up not having any money. Angry, frustrated, and feeling dirty, he meets up with Rizzo again, ready to beat him for cheating him. However, when he sees that the crippled and sick Rizzo is in even worse shape than Joe is, he walks off. Rizzo is touched by this sympathy, so offers Joe residence in the condemned building he is currently living in. Together they begin a friendship, selling blood or shop-lifting from fruit-stands or foraging for garbage. Rizzo tries to get Joe an escort job, but Joe is too "country" for the assignment and ruins it immediately. One day they are invited to a studio-loft party by Andy Warhol-like characters, where Joe tries his first marijuana. He goes home with a sexy city girl, a young Brenda Vaccaro, who turns out to be his first "trick." Things appear to be looking up for Joe, as she promises to introduce him to all of her office friends. However, Rizzo, who is dying of pneumonia, has taken a turn for the worse. Desperate to move his friend to better weather in Florida, Joe meets up with a suppressed gay tourist and steals his money. Joe and Rizzo board a bus heading south. On the way Joe buys them both new clothes, symbolically throwing away his cowboy hat and jacket. Unfortunately, Rizzo dies just before they arrive in Florida, leaving Joe alone again. 
This film probably won Best Picture precisely because it was like nothing Hollywood had ever seen before. Jon Voight it definitely naked in the opening scene, and then shows us his ass again later. We see various female breasts during the course of the film as well. And we are faced with pathetic homosexual men; it is clear what they are, what they want, and that we should feel sorry for them. The scene in the theatre where the young man goes down on Joe, and Joe thinks back to when he was having sex with his girl-friend, is still a powerful image nearly fifty years later.

John Schlesinger directed the film in a very straight-forward way when the story demanded it, but also showed off his talent when it was appropriate. The very first scene, for example, appears to be a western horizon; it turns out to be a drive-in movie. Later, when the point is to show how confused Joe is in NYC, scenes are filmed through a taxicab and through and around subway cars. Many angles and scene set-ups feel new; almost avante garde. Sure, fifty years later we've seen most of these things done (again? still?) but I guess here was the first time for a lot of them. It also helps that the movie was filmed on location in New York City. That adds an air of authenticity to the proceedings you wouldn't have gotten if it had been filmed on sets in Hollywood.

Dustin Hoffman is especially captivating as the doomed Rizzo. He doesn't look anything at all like his character from The Graduate, for one thing. And he makes Rizzo so believably pathetic, not only because of his personality and situation, but also because he still dares to dream. Jon Voight is equally enticing as Joe. We see his naivete slowly but surely fade into his eventual cynicism, and then we see that slowly replaced by his actual affection for his odd friend. Both men were nominated for Best Actor, but lost to John Wayne in True Grit. 

The film is not for everyone. Obviously, if you loved Oliver! last week you might not be the targeted audience for this film. If you enjoy wonderful character studies, though, especially of people on the outs of society, you will enjoy this film.

Midnight Cowboy
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1969*
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Directed  by John Schlesinger
Screenplay by Waldo Salt
Based on the book by James Leo Herlihy

This trailer reminded me that I got sick of the song by Nillson,
"Everybody's Talking At Me." They use it too much in the film!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Anne of the Thousand Days
Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid
Hello, Dolly!
This was definitely an odd year for nominees. I have seen Anne, another version of the King Henry VIII story, this one starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold. Both were nominated for their parts but neither won. The film is good, but a tad dull. Butch Cassidy is, of course, that classic Buddy Picture starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, directed by George Roy Hill. Let's just say that this was not their year. Dolly! is an over-produced movie version of the 1964 musical starring Barbra Streisand. I really wanted to like this film, but just couldn't. And Z is an Algerian film that was also nominated for Best Foreign Film, an award that it won.

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