Midnight Cowboy is one of key films of the late ’60s, and has endured over the years without losing any of its power. It was British director John Schlesinger’s first American film – he had been an important director of the British New Wave in the ’60s with films like Darling and Billy Liar. Schlesinger wanted to make the jump over the pond and was recommended the James Leo Herlihy novel. While he instantly saw that it could be a great film, the problem was getting a film made and released that dealt with a male prostitute and his disabled swindler friend. Anything that had overt references to homosexuality in 1969 was going to be challenging as well.
The film stars Jon Voight as the brilliantly named Joe Buck, a naïve Texan kid who finds himself in big bad New York City. He soon runs into Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a small-time con man who promises to take him to a pimp, who turns out to be a religious madman (meanwhile, Ratso has made off with Buck’s money). He can’t get a job, and soon is thrown out of his hotel room. He goes to a movie theatre, where he gets propositioned by a young man (Bob Balaban) to receive oral sex but the man doesn’t have any money on him. However, the next day he sees Ratso again, and after trying to get his money back they become fast friends and partners in crime.
The performances are what make the finished film Voight, who ironically is from Yonkers, New York, perfectly captures the Texan kid lost in the big city. Hoffman was by far the bigger star at this point, because he had just come off doing The Graduate, which was an enormous critical and commercial success. However, he is completely unrecognisable as this scruffy dreamer who, like Buck, is broken in other ways and who has this fantasy of escaping to Florida (Jim Jarmusch would add to the New Yorker’s dream of going to Florida in Stranger Than Paradise, which shows how crappy that place really is.) The chemistry and the love story between the two men are completely believable. One of the questions people have always had about the film is if there is a sexual relationship between the two of them. In the end it doesn’t matter, but it’s a still a love story in the same way The Shawshank Redemption is a love story.
Schlesinger was one of the more interesting British directors of his time. He was always interested in outsiders due to the fact he was a gay man. His work in the ’60s and ’70s varied in quality, but even his lesser films, like his bloated adaptation of The Day of the Locust, have the most extraordinary last 20 minutes (which is the whole point of the story). He continued to push boundaries about sexuality on screen with his Midnight Cowboy follow-up Sunday Bloody Sunday. The cinematography by Adam Holender also predates and points to the aesthetic direction films would take in the ’70s, with its down-and-dirty, grainy, almost documentary-like photography.
Even from of this alleged golden era of filmmaking that was New Hollywood, few films have had the longevity of Midnight Cowboy. I think that’s down to the fact that it’s a deeply human story that anybody can relate to. It’s also perfectly cast, and Schlesinger had the perfect material, which wasn’t often the case with his later films. It shows a world that no longer exists: the seedy side of Times Square and New York at large, and is also the only non-underground film that shows the Warhol scene, although in a heavily fictionised version in the famous party sequence.
Criterion has been promising a Midnight Cowboy release for a couple years now, and it was worth the wait. All the previous featurettes and the commentary track from the old MGM release are carried over. The best addition is the Oscar-winning documentary on screenwriter Waldo Salt, who had a career comeback with Midnight Cowboy after being blacklisted. Holender supplies a selected scene commentary track. The rest of the features are mostly archival, including a short film made on location while they shot the film, interviews with Schlesinger and Voight, and much more.