Archive Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969) – 4/5 Stars

Forty years later, it’s much harder to call John Schlesinger’s film “Midnight Cowboy” avant- garde, but the greatest X-rated film of all time is as much a reflection of the ’60s as it is a study of unusual and pitiable characters.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a cowboy by attitude, hustler by trade who travels to New York City in hopes of making a killing on the massive numbers of sexually frustrated urban married women. Unfortunately, Joe is not only naive, but all kinds of stupid and he’s haunted by a difficult past that comes to us in trippy flashbacks edited like a classic horror film. In the city he meets Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a scummy pickpocket with a bum leg who offers to be his “manager.”

The sexuality of the film is nothing surprising to the modern viewer, but for 1969 it’s conceivable that it was. The original tagline was “Whatever you hear about “Midnight Cowboy” is true.” That gives you a sense of what it was perceived as upon its release. Prostitution is a constant (although nudity not as gratuitous as one might expect), homosexuality is suggested on more than a couple occasions and the sexual liberation of women is acknowledged. That’s a lot for that era, which combined with Woodstock makes ’69 the beginning of a new one.

Look behind the shocking social issues in “Midnight Cowboy,” however, and there’s a much simpler quality story that most film-lovers watching today will tap into. Religious fanatic Mr. O’Daniel (John McGiver) gets it out early when he questions Joe about his loneliness. From then on, despite the conscious objectives of the film and its characters to try and make a living and survive in a downtrodden NYC, “Midnight Cowboy” is about all the characters having the satisfaction of companionship in every sense and on every level.

Very little positive happens to Joe because of his lack of street smarts. He keeps getting screwed over or taken advantage of by everyone in the city until Rizzo changes his mind and the two look out for each other. The way these two handle their adversity is the most interesting part and what really allowed Voight and Hoffman to earn their Oscar nominations.

Another way the film stands out as groundbreaking is through Schlesinger’s direction. Although we’re left wanting more definitive answers and insights regarding Joe’s bad dreams and flashbacks about his past, they’re still edited in a way that makes them critical to the story. We’re able to draw our own understanding from how the past and present are stitched together, able to like or be interested in Joe because this abrupt style communicates the psychological impact it has on him.

“Midnight Cowboy” isn’t a cathartic story, but more a simple one shrouded in social issues and more radical film-making decades ahead of its time. The way it’s best appreciated now is in that light, not in the way it pushed our boundaries and took a bite out of censorship back in its day, but in the fundamental and universal message it comes to and instills in its audience about loneliness by way of unique characters that many of us might find morally questionable.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: John Schelsinger
Written by: Waldo Salt, James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Starring: John Voight, Dustin Hoffman


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