Wednesday 12 May 2010

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The only X rated movie to ever win for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Midnight Cowboy kicks off with Harry Nilsson singing Everybody's Talkin', hardly the sort of extreme music you'd expect to hear on a cutting edge film today, but the lyrics are telling: 'Everybody's talkin' at me, I don't hear a word they're sayin', only the echoes of my mind.' This explains the mindset of the naive hero of the piece, but it could easily be a reference to the establishment and that may be why the film succeeded so well. This picture was something very new, a wake up call for the new decade with a story utterly unlike anything that mainstream cinema was used to. A story of naive optimism being met with harsh reality, it still carries a seedy punch and I really didn't want to go back to it. It's one of those films that sits in my memory as a set of moments that I was happier not revisiting, but doing so anyway highlights that the film is entertaining nonetheless.

The hero, or rather the anti-hero because there isn't a traditional hero anywhere to be found in this picture, is a naive small town boy called Joe Buck, about as American a name as could be conjured. He's from Texas so he thinks big but all he's managed to amount to thus far is a dead end job washing dishes at a greasy spoon. So he decides to make it big by catching a bus all the way to New York City to become a high class male hustler, the midnight cowboy of the title. He certainly looks the part, or at least what he thinks the part ought to look like, not just with his Stetson, tasselled jacket and ornate cowboy boots but with his cheeky grin too. He's so cowboy that he even has a cowhide suitcase. He's ready for his take on the American dream, because he's heard that the women back east are rich and the men are mostly tutti fruttis. This is the seventies so fancy embroidered shirts don't fit him into that category, at least not in Texas.

He's popular back home, believably given that he's played by Jon Voight. The bus even passes a water tower with 'Crazy Annie Loves Joe Buck' painted on it, the beginning of a whole host of flashbacks and nightmare remembrances that gradually fill in a picture that really doesn't fit the happy country song feel that water tower messages tend to suggest. In these Grandma calls him loverboy and leaves him money. His girlfriend got raped while he was forced to watch. If I didn't blink and miss something I think he got raped too. No wonder he ends up on 42nd St in New York hustling his body for change. If Texas was the dark world he leaves behind at the beginning of the film, New York is the dark world that he's heading to, where the dark is more obvious. A man lies on the ground outside Tiffany's. There are protestors in the streets. Even the TV in the hotel needs a quarter to kick it off. Nothing is as he expects and he's naive enough not to adjust.

In fact he's so naive that the fact we care about him even a little speaks volumes on its own. In lesser hands than those of Jon Voight, at this point a rising stage name off-Broadway, we'd say he's so stupid that he deserves all he gets and quit paying attention. This was Voight's first major role in film, after a bit part in Hour of the Gun and a lead role in a little seen movie called Fearless Frank, and he really makes it count. At heart he's a nice guy, a quality that carries over to us as well as the characters he meets, but he has precisely nothing else going for him except his looks. He makes all the wrong decisions. He trusts everybody he shouldn't. He never learns from his experiences. He can't ever seem to find a way to help himself. It's apparent from moment one in New York as he wanders the streets as if expecting women to fall into his arms but after one very minor and entirely misunderstood success everything goes rapidly downhill.

The success comes in his seduction of a rich woman, precisely what he feels he was put on this planet to do. However, outside the bed it goes utterly wrong. He hasn't realised that she's a kept woman, in her way doing precisely what he's doing. He hasn't realised that she feels that she seduced him rather than the other way around. He ends up giving her money instead of taking it, feeling sorry for her when she gets angry and weepy all at once, a performance that garnered Sylvia Miles an Oscar nomination for a mere four minutes of screen time. The experience should have taught Joe Buck plenty but it doesn't. 25 minutes into the movie he meets Ratso Rizzo, a streetwise dropout from society, to whom he gives twenty bucks to set him up with O'Daniel, who apparently runs a stable of hot young studs. By the time he discovers that he's just a crazy man with a flashing Jesus on the inside of his bathroom door, Rizzo is long gone, yet another mistake.
Enrico 'Ratso' Rizzo is played by Dustin Hoffman, an utterly different role to the one that made him a star a couple of years earlier in The Graduate, something that almost lost him this part until he auditioned on a street corner in Manhattan by surreptitiously arriving early dressed as a bum and spending his time hustling change from passers by before letting the poor studio exec in on the truth. Hoffman was an off-Broadway actor too and knew Voight well. One play, A View from the Bridge, was co-directed by Hoffman and starred Voight and Hoffman's roommate at the time, Robert Duvall. In fact Voight was the bigger name on the stage until The Graduate turned that around in no uncertain terms. The way their two characters connect is the point of this film and its greatest success. Director John Schlesinger, who was gay, didn't want it to become a gay film and saw it instead as what producer Jerome Hellman described as 'an oddball love story.'

'Love story' is misleading, because this is more like a symbiotic relationship but it's certainly all about the connection between these two male characters. The success of this connection relies almost entirely on the connection between the two actors and benefits from the fact that they weren't stars, merely stage actors who saw the art as more important than the stardom. 'We were like Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard,' explained Hoffman, 'two fighters going at it. We knew the movie depended on the bond between us. All through shooting, we'd say to each other, out of the side of our mouths, like a fighter in a clinch, 'Buddy, is that the best you can do?'' Both performances are deep and substantial pieces of work, but bizarrely the actors came from surprisingly inappropriate backgrounds. Voight, who plays the outsider lost in New York, is actually a native, while Hoffman, who plays the experienced local, is from plastic Los Angeles.

Neither are the sort of characters we expect to see in a mainstream movie. Joe Buck is an idiot stuck on a downward spiral. He starts out in Texas with a wad of money but it soon disappears in New York through attrition and stupidity. When he gets locked out of his room at the hotel, he can't even get his suitcase because the house keeps everything until he can settle up. Nothing turns out how he expects. Even ketchup bottles won't do what he wants. Without the expected bevy of rich beauties throwing themselves at his feet, he ends up so low that he lets a young male student who looks like Rick Moranis go down on him in a 42nd Street theatre. Even then he fails to learn from his experiences so doesn't get the money ahead of time. The student doesn't have any. It's hardly what you expect from a handsome young actor like Jon Voight but it's also hardly what you expect from anyone except an actor seeing a challenge to his artistic skills.

If Buck is an unexpected character, what of Rizzo? He's a small time hustler and thief, a bottom feeder who lives, if you can call it that, in a condemned building, dreaming of life in Miami Beach with its abundance of sunshine and coconut milk. His story arc is even lower than Buck's, given that he begins the film crippled from polio yet continually deteriorates, getting sicker and sicker until he dies of what might be a mix of malnutrition, tuberculosis and the cumulative effect of his seedy life thus far. Before long he becomes coated in sweat and stubble; the longer the film runs, the more sweat and the more stubble. He's prone to coughing fits, which Hoffman put so much effort into that on one occasion he ended up vomiting by accident. It's a powerful acting performance but it's a bizarre one for anyone we might consider a star. Could you imagine Clark Gable, John Wayne or Sean Connery wetting their pants on the bus to Florida? I didn't think so.

What we quickly find is that the pair of them are nothing without each other, their only potential coming through teaming up to form a symbiotic relationship. Initially Rizzo is the hustler and Buck the hustled, just another easy target to fleece of twenty bucks. When Buck rediscovers Rizzo, sitting in a diner with a mere 64c to his name, he pressures him into giving him twenty bucks worth of management instead and they start to discover how they can help each other and how, in not going it alone in an attempt to take something from the world, they can find their own kind of redemption. Rizzo brings the street smarts, Buck the physical ability, meaning that to a large degree they're brain and brawn, though that's far too simplistic a summary for these two jigsaw piece characters. We gradually discover their other compatibilities through the numerous flashbacks, nightmares and odd revealing comments that pepper the story.
You can see that a story of this seediness and depth really needed actors, real actor's actors rather than big names from Hollywood, and that's what the production got, but it could easily have been so different. The original choice for Joe Buck was Lee Majors, back when he was a TV star on The Big Valley, but he had to drop out when that show was renewed for another season. Schlesinger even received a studio memo suggesting that, 'If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley.' Needless to say, with Joe Buck played by either of those actors, the end result wouldn't have been Midnight Cowboy. Voight even lost out on the screen tests to Michael Sarrazin, but was luckily reconsidered when Sarrazin's agent held out for a higher salary and Schlesinger went back to the audition tapes. 'The more I see these tests,' he told Hellman, 'we may have been spared a terrible fate. I think Jon is our cowboy.'

While both Voight and Hoffman were Oscar nominated, it's the latter who has gone down in film history as most memorable, ranking as high as seventh on Premiere's list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. He was the only actor already in mind while the script was being written, Hellman having seen him in an off-Broadway farce called Eh? in which he played a Liverpudlian, the accent formed from multiple viewings of A Hard Day's Night. However by the time the film was coming together, he'd found fame as a preppy and so didn't seem to be right for the part of Rizzo any more. 'The truth was, I saw The Graduate as a setback,' Hoffman said, 'because I was determined not to be a star.' He saw the role of Rizzo, so unconventional that it needed a new adjective to describe it ('scuzzy', a portmanteau of 'scummy' and 'fuzzy'), as his way out from the restrictions that such quick and huge success was bound to land him with.

It succeeded, of course, and so Hoffman didn't spend the rest of his career stuck playing more and more versions of Benjamin Braddock. Perhaps The Graduate ended up being a blessing after all, half of a pair of utterly opposite parts that set the stage for such an eclectic career. If it had never happened and he'd been introduced to the screen with this film, maybe he'd have been stuck in pessimistic roles instead, ones that wouldn't have lent him the same degree of success because this one is very much a product of its time. It was a timely highlight of just how much society had changed over the preceding decade. It's hard to realise just how tumultuous the sixties were and just how much they shook up, but this film was part of it. The only X rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar, it followed Oliver!, the only G rated film to win. Hollywood had gone socially aware in 1967, briefly relapsed and only here accepted the floodgates had opened.

No wonder so much of this film takes place in dreams. It could easily be interpreted as saying that the American Dream is a phony. When the lead characters are invited by chance to a drug fuelled Andy Warhol style happening, which wrenches both of them out of their element, a society girl called Shirley hires Buck's services for a night. 'Joe could be anyone,' she tells him, suggesting that it isn't just his naivete that led to his downfall, perhaps it was inevitability. In fact until the stark finale, where Joe keeps his promise to Ratso and in so doing finds a way out of the downward spiral he's been descending, the only promise that's ever kept is the one about the Duracell bunny going on and on and on because the batteries in Joe Buck's portable radio are the only things that never give out and never seem to need replacing. Of course they have to hock the radio anyway because they're powered by other things.

With characters in turns naive and pathetic, stupid and addicted, sordid and criminal, this could hardly be seen as a pleasant evening's viewing. Yet as I returned to it for this project, I found that it wasn't as depressing as I remembered. While it's utterly centred around Buck and Rizzo, at least one of which is on screen at almost any given moment, it does tell more than just their stories. The only other fascinating character to me is Shirley, played by Brenda Vaccaro, as in her way she represents the rest of the world. She isn't on screen for long but she's there for long enough to provide a window to everything that the lead characters don't know. It isn't just the happening itself, which they utterly don't get, Buck mistaking marijuana for nicotine and Rizzo stealing free food. It's that she's a professional woman utterly confident in herself, in charge of her life and fascinated by what's around her. She isn't looking for anything except what turns up.

Perhaps that's what led to this film. The character of Joe Buck was created by Hollywood. The film opens with him practicing a speech in front of his mirror that he plans to use on his boss at Miller's Restaurant, just like he's a movie star. He's dressed up like Hollywood tells him a cowboy stud should look like. He's following an imaginary vision of life in the big city that was fed to him by the movies. What he finds is something else: reality. Fed a steady diet of wholesome fare by an industry regulated by the Production Code, Americans saw it all crumble in the latter half of the sixties. Suddenly they didn't know what was out there because the fantasy of Hollywood had been exposed as a fake. Suddenly life wasn't all about apple pie, the Beatles and Andy Hardy. It was about Vietnam, Woodstock and Charles Manson. This film could easily be seen as Hollywood finally acknowledging, with a budget and a string of Oscars, that it had found reality.


Anonymous said...

I found the film sad and thought provoking. I honestly think my life changed just a little after I first saw it all those years back, whenever I hear the beautiful title song sung by Nielsson it always make me think of the film and brings a tear to my eye.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a number of the above themes in Midnight Cowboy. What a ground-breaking film it was. The theme of redemption stands out the most. Simply put, Joe Buck starts out as a very self-centered and vain person. He goes to New York, a modern-day Babylon, to pursue and feed that vanity. But New York turns out to be a gritty and ugly crucible, one which tears him down and strips away his vanity. Along the way he meets Ratso Rizzo and starts to befriend him, at first out of desperation. This turns gradually to genuine closeness and brotherly affection by the time they leave New York. By the time Ratso dies on the bus, Joe has become a real person. His demeanor has changed, he's cast off his old clothes and become "a new man". In essence, he needed to go through Hell to become truly saved.

A couple of things. The movie begins and ends with a bus ride, symbolizing Charon taking him over the river Styx. Ratso's death could symbolize the taking on of Joe's sin's, including the murder of the businessman, with him. And the change of clothes at the end was poignant. A new pair for Jow, representing baptismal garments, and for Ratso, representing a new suit for the corpse. If anyone has anything to add to this synopsis, I would be appreciative...

Anonymous said...

No one seems to have caught the symbolic "echo" between Ratso's famous line, spoken with gusto, "I'm walkin' 'ere!" and his pitiful admission to Joe Buck late in the film: "My legs aren't workin' -- I don't think I can walk no more!" And with that, Ratso bursts into tears.

This triggers Joe's decision to do whatever it takes to get the money for the bus ride to Florida (Ratso rejects getting a doctor because they'll send him "to Bellevue," he says). This decision is a major turning point: Joe was sexually exploited as a child and his mother was a hooker. As a teen, he had to watch helplessly as his girlfriend was raped and the same gang also raped him. He has been a victim his whole life. Ironically, his decision to New York to "take control" of his life, was a pathetic extension of the sexual role chosen for him by others.

The rage that comes boiling up when he assaults (kills?) the self-loathing homosexual in the hotel room is therefore understandable, though it is doubtful that Joe understands where it comes from. For Joe, it is a kind of purging of all the anger he's felt, and it releases him from the stud role forever.

The bus ride to freedom is the visual symbol of his liberation. Ratso, however, dies on the ride to his vision of freedom, and here again, I don't think anyone has pointed out the irony that he didn't want to die like his father, "coughing my lungs out," and yet that's exactly what he did, except, tragically, as a much, much younger man.

Also recall that Joe was just about to achieve his dream -- Brenda Vaccaro ("Shirley") was about to set him up with a string of her girlfriends -- when Ratso's crisis interrupted Joe's progress along his chosen path, and thereby SAVED his soul.

I think the reviewer who says that Ratso's death might represent a kind of absorption of Joe's sins is on to something, but Ratso's role as Joe's pimp can't be forgotten. Another irony. Ratso manifested the practical side of Joe's dream. In that sense I see Ratso as another side of Joe's character. This is what gives their friendship and codependency such pathos.

Ironically, the one who sets out to help Joe achieve his dream becomes his savior from it in the end. As Joe purges his anger and becomes conscious of himself as a human being, not a sex object, his pimp self must die away. That is the symbolic content of Ratso's death.

At the same time, Ratso arouses pity, but it is in much the same way that Joe's naive quest to become a stud arouses pity. Each of them is trying to survive by relying on a false self generated by circumstances beyond their control: Ratso the hustler and Joe the stud. Ratso's role consumes him, but he gives life to Joe by holding a mirror up to him, something that only an expert in human nature such as a hustler could do.

Incidentally, another tipoff to Joe's transformation is the female clothing store clerk in Florida who flirts with him: It is the first sign of a healthy relationship we've seen in Joe's life since the beginning of the film. It is a very understated moment, but it is a blazing contrast with what has gone before. The film is filled with subtle symbolism like this, and I only say subtle because it hasn't -- so far as I know -- been noted in other reviews.

I would qualify a film for greatness on its staying power, among other things, and by that I mean its ability to reveal new shades of meaning as you watch it over and over through the stages of your own life. "La Strada" is one such film. "Midnight Cowboy" is another. Neither are particularly happy prisms of life, but then what is life but loss?

It is some consolation to find that every once in a while a Fool (in the Tarot sense) such as Joe can somehow find the bus to Florida because he listens to his better self and sacrifices his dream to help another human being.

Unknown said...

I don't know how many times I have watched Midnight Cowboy. Each year I relive the magic of this picture. There's so much reality and insanity going on. Is there a better reflection of life's surprises . When you watch this movie you forget it's just acting and you are absorbed into that terrible and lonely world . Joe and Rico live in a world of do unto others before they do it to you. Society's message is take all you can , when ever you can . A message we can all relate to in our money driven lives. Joe and Rico escape from that cold and empty world but for Rico it's only a dream never to come true.