From my perspective thirty years on, I can only guess that it was Midnight Cowboy’s shock value at the time of its original release that created its reputation as a “great film.”
Sure, with Midnight Cowboy film took a further turn into the sordid and personal in a way that hadn’t been done perhaps since 1945’s The Lost Weekend. Here is a movie that focuses fully on, you know, That… It… As Monty Python would say, Thingy. It’s full of naked butts and French kissing and women talking about their sexual needs, fleshed out with memories of rape and not very veiled hints of homosexuality.
At its heart, though, Midnight Cowboy is a buddy movie of rather unlikely characters falling into a rather forced friendship. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) heads east from Texas to New York City looking to meet rich, lonely women. Joe is hopelessly naive and a bit dumb (“I ain’t a fer-real cowboy, but I am one hell of a stud!” he says), and instead of hustling he gets hustled himself, first by women and then by oily Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). But Joe falls further and further down on his luck and ends up bunking down in Ratso’s squat in an abandoned tenement. And so we get to watch the increasing desperation and downfall of these unsympathetic characters, right through to the incredibly contrived ending.
We’re offered some clues to the roots of Joe’s loneliness and despair through his memories of growing up an ignored child raised by a trampy grandmother, but it’s never enough to make us really understand Joe — he always just seems like a big, dumb dolt getting his fantasies about the big city crushed. And we’re never privy to what makes Ratso tick — Hoffman’s performance as the grown-up street urchin with a limp and a constant hacking cough has become iconic, and yet the actor really has nothing here to work with. Ratso is always a mystery, as is Joe’s unexplained attachment to him.
In 1969, the suggestion of oral sex in a movie theater — as one of Joe’s Times Square pickups has him perform — must have been scandalous. Today, it’s the subject of a hit pop song. Without that kind of outrageousness to distract from the actual story, Midnight Cowboy is a bland disappointment.
Oscars Best Picture 1969
AFI 100 (1998 list): #36
unforgettable movie moment:
Joe wanders late-night Times Square, his illusions shattered by the presence of all the male prostitutes dressed as cowboys — just like him.