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Cowboy Joe Buck moves to New York City from Texas to make his fortune as a hustler servicing rich Park Avenue women. Shortly after arriving, he is hustled by homeless con man Ratzo Rizzo, who had said he would manage him for a $20 fee. Bent on getting his money back, Buck finds the rapidly deteriorating Rizzo, ends up feeling sorry for him, and moving into Rizzo's room in an abandoned building to care for him. The two remain hopeful of striking it rich with Rizzo managing Buck's career, but it soon becomes obvious that they are no match for the urban jungle.
The first, and only, X-rated film to win a best picture Academy Award, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy seems a lot less daring today (and has been reclassified as an R), but remains a fascinating time capsule of late-1960s sexual decadence in mainstream American cinema. In a career-making performance, Jon Voight plays Joe Buck, a naive Texas dishwasher who goes to the big city (New York) to make his fortune as a sexual hustler. Although enthusiastic about selling himself to rich ladies for stud services, he quickly finds it hard to make a living and eventually crashes in a seedy dump with a crippled petty thief named Ratzo Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, doing one of his more effective "stupid acting tricks," with a limp and a high-pitch rasp of a voice). Schlesinger's quick-cut, semi-psychedelic style has dated severely, as has his ruthlessly cynical approach to almost everybody but the lead characters. But at its heart the movie is a sad tale of friendship between a couple of losers lost in the big city, and with an ending no studio would approve today. It's a bit like an urban Of Mice and Men, but where both guys are Lenny. --Jim Emerson
- 8-Page Collectible Booklet
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Most critics would agree that a motion picture need not be identical to the story from which it's derived. A film can correct significant problems with the source material ("Treasure Island", "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", "Forrest Gump"), or expand on the original in a way that enriches and deepens it ("Brokeback Mountain").
Then there are films that badly and pointlessly distort the stories from which they're derived. "Midnight Cowboy" is one of those, a consciously perverted misreading of its source.
The novel begins with Joe Buck's backstory. A dish washer in a cheap restaurant, he's the ignorant, uneducated -- frankly stupid -- son of an unwed mother, raised by his vaguely seductive grandmother. His principal role model was a man who taught him how to piss vertically, but little else. He leaves cigarettes in front of a picture of Jesus as an offering.
Though lacking intellect or marketable skills, Joe nevertheless has a lot going for him, things a vulgar, materialistic society will pay for -- he's strikingly handsome and exceptionally well-endowed. Convinced that most New York men are fags, he figures there must be a passel of wealthy women who'll pay royally for stud service from a _real_ man. With a newly purchased suitcase and cowboy duds he sets off to find his fortune.
Once in New York, he falls prey to a hustler, Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo. Ratso is short, homely, partially crippled by childhood polio, and has a shrivelled penis -- not to mention suffering from tuberculosis. But Ratso has something Joe needs -- he can pimp for the Texan (though the tricks are mostly men), earning both of them a living.
They develop a friendship out of necessity. It's not clear how Ratso feels about Joe (Ratso is no doubt jealous of Joe's physical perfection, but the idea that there might be any sexual attraction is never even hinted at -- Ratso portrays himself as hetero, and we have no reason not to believe him), but Joe gradually comes to have some affection for Ratso, if only because, in a city of strangers, he's someone to spend time with and talk to. And Ratso is not about to abandon his meal ticket. He also seems to take some pleasure in helping Joe (rather than just taking advantage of him).
Joe's dream is to find a hotel full of horny women who'll pay for his services. As his dream fails to materialize, and the whether gets colder and Ratso's cough grows worse, they decide to move to Florida, where the weather will be pleasant and (Ratso thinks) they'll be able to pick oranges off the trees. (For all his street smarts, Ratso is as naïve as Joe.)
On the bus, Joe considers their lives together. He'll find a proper job, rent a place for them to live, and get Ratso the medical treatment he needs. Things are looking up, because Joe has someone to help (and thus, a purpose in life beyond merely looking after his own interests). Then Ratso dies, and Joe slides into despair. The end.
It's critically important to understand that there is _nothing_ sexual between Joe and Ratso, _nothing_ homoerotic about their relationship, implicit or otherwise. I emphasize this because James Leo Herlihy was gay, and would have had a strong self-serving motivation for adding such elements to the story. That he didn't is significant.
"Midnight Cowboy" is not a novel about male-male friendship. It's a novel about a man learning what the real values in life are. Joe Buck grows to have a sincere, heartfelt concern for another person, and finds -- for a moment -- that this concern is what gives meaning to existance.
Unfortunately, Joe isn't a character who thinks very much, and wouldn't be able to articulate that realization. (As the novel tells us, he does his best thinking in front of a mirror.) He has no "inner dialog", no way of reasoning through things in his head -- and no one to talk with about them if he did.
This renders "Midnight Cowboy" virtually unfilmable. A movie cannot have an omniscient narrator informing the viewer about the characters' internal lives. (Well, it can, but it wouldn't be a very involving film.) Consequently, at the end we see only Joe's unhappiness at the loss of a friend. We do not see the deeper "existential" distress he's going through -- Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? How am I supposed to treat other people? -- which is what the novel builds to.
Hollywood has an appalling proclivity for altering novels and short stories to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or to fit the writer's or director's view of what would "improve" the story. The latter appears to be what happened with "Midnight Cowboy". Not seeing an easy way to reveal Joe Buck's inner life to the viewer, Waldo Salt penned a script that ignored the subtleties of how Joe sees the world. (Though it seems presumptous to claim to know what a deceased writer was thinking, I have no problem believing that Mr. Salt perceived the plain meaning of the novel as I did, and chose consciously to sidestep the -- admittedly difficult -- problems in faithfully adapting it.)
Salt might have further distorted the story under the influence of John Schlesinger, whose idea it was to film the book. Though the gay Schlesinger was a talented director who ought to have known better, it seems the implicit homoeroticism of two outcast males turning to each other for support and friendship seduced him into treating the novel as a "buddy" story with sexual undertones. Schlesinger's explicit claim that there is nothing homosexual * between Joe and Ratso is belied by the plot alterations.
We see this distortion in several ways, starting with Dustin Hoffman's miscasting. Hoffman's Ratso is not the homely polio victim of the novel. Under the dirty makeup, he's boyishly cute -- arguably better-looking than the Howdy-Doodyish Jon Voight -- and the audience knows this. Hoffman's good looks -- when added to his comic overplaying of the role -- badly unbalances the film. I wish I could format the following sentence in bold, but I'll settle for giving it its own line...
"Midnight Cowboy" is about Joe Buck, not Ratso Rizzo.
Although the novel is narrated by the omniscient author, Joe Buck is the protagonist, and we see the events primarily through Joe's eyes. In the film, Ratso's exuberance overpowers Joe's fundamental blandness -- he is, after all, an empty-headed pretty face. However much we care about Ratso as a person, he's doomed from the start -- we know he's going to die. (It's not an accident he has tuberculosis.) He is _not_ Joe's dramatic "equal" in this story. In the novel, it's how Joe _reacts_ to his relationship with Ratso -- and its loss -- not the relationship itself, that matters.
Making the relationship between Joe and Ratso the focus of the story -- which is partly the side-effect of the visual nature of a motion picture that makes it difficult to focus attention on Joe (in the way a novel can), ** and partly a conscious alteration on the part of the filmmakers -- leads to the general misinterpretation of the film, as is seen in the following Wikipedia comment:
>> Some modern critics assume an unstated homosexual relationship between the main characters, and at the 2006 Academy Awards, host Jon Stewart joked about "Brokeback Mountain" being an Oscar contender despite its subject matter, saying "It's been more than 35 years when people would watch `Midnight Cowboy' and say 'What the hell was that all about?' Well, now we have fully accepted this new genre of cinema: gay westerns!" <<
Anyone who reads the novel knows that "Midnight Cowboy" is about something deeper and more signficant than sexual attraction, explicit or implicit, between men.
Another way the flm distorts the novel's meaning is its altering of Joe and Ratso's reasons for moving to Florida. Brenda Vacarro's character, delighted with Joe's sexual prowess (which, tellingly, she enhances by suggesting to him that he might be gay), recommends him to another woman. The assumption is that, at least for a while, Joe will have more paid action than he can handle. It is at this point that Ratso becomes deathly ill, and asks Joe to just put him on a bus for Florida. Joe _could_ do that, but gives up the opportunity to be "stud deluxe" to go with Ratso -- to remain with his friend.
This isn't the way it works in the book. Joe doesn't become "Mr. Stud" to a coeterie of lustful women. As Ratso falls increasingly ill and the New York weather worsens, they decide they have no choice but to go to Florida, simply as an escape. Joe _does not_ give up something important to be with Ratso. The two are simply trying to survive.
This renders the film virtually pointless, because it doesn't reveal the depth of what Joe has gone through. (As hard as it might be to believe, the novel is harsher and darker than the film.) Joe's proclamation that there must be an easier way to make a living than as a hustler is too facile. (Though prostitution might be a bad way to spend one's life, it is a fairly easy way to make money, especially for someone as attractive as Joe.) In the novel, we are privy to Joe's mental state, and we see him progressing to a higher view of himself and others, only to have it torn away at the end.
Although a terrible adaptation of an exceptional novel, "Midnight Cowboy" is, in fairness, a good film. But it nevertheless has aged. "Midnight Cowboy" is so earnestly -- even self-consciously -- "gritty" and "significant" that I find much of it embarrassing to watch. (I didn't react that way in 1969, when I saw it first-run.) I refer interested readers to Roger Ebert's review. Though Ebert apparently had not read the novel, he caught many of the things that are wrong with the film.
There is one moment that almost redeems the film, when Ratso tells Joe that he can't walk any more. "I'm scared." In delivering those two words, much as a child crying to his mother, Dustin Hoffman captures a profound fear of dying, of having his existance wiped out, better than I have seen any other actor reveal it.
If I were rating "Midnight Cowboy" on its own, simply as a film, I'd give it four stars out of five. My one-star rating is for its shallow and self-serving treatment of a truly great novel. Read it and see what you think. (All 14 Amazon reviewers give it 5 stars, and most remark on its superiority to the film.)
"Midnight Cowboy" ought to be remade, if only in an attempt to do the novel justice.
Joe Buck as a Stand-In for America and American Society
James Leo Herlihy undoubtedly saw Joe Buck as a mirror of and for American society and attitudes. (A "buck" is not only a studly young man, but a dollar bill.) Joe is like most Americans -- good-natured and not particularly selfish, but fundamentally self-absorbed and ignorant of the rest of the world, more interested in making easy money than in developing relationships. The novel never states, or even hints at this. It is implicit metaphor, not explicit satire.
Schlesinger, on the other hand, never lets us forget how much he hates American society. (Its bourgeois elements, at least.) Instead of letting the story's implied symbolism speak for itself, he lays it on with a trowel, to the point where it becomes gag-inducing. It isn't enough to show the blinking Mutual of New York (MONY) sign once -- he shows it three or four times. Hey, John, we got it the first time. And we didn't need it, even once.
The film portrays Joe Buck as society's victim. He _should_ be shown as ignorant and stupid, someone who can't make the right choices, because his values -- like those of most Americans -- are wrong. And that's what the novel is about -- the hollowness at the center of American "values", which the film largely fails to capture.
It is telling that Joe is a prostitute -- someone who attracts interest because of the way he looks, not because of his character, someone whose relationship with other people is wholly superficial. It is also telling that, in the novel, there is nothing even implicitly sexual between Joe and Ratso. To even imply such a relationship would subvert the novel's point.
* Schlesinger uses the word "homosexual", and there is, of course, nothing sexual between Joe and Ratso. But I see nothing wrong in taking that word to imply "homoerotic".
** We see the same thing in the movie of "Lonesome Dove". Woodrow Call is much more visible -- and interesting -- than he is in the novel, whose focus is on Gus McCrae.
Was the "gay for pay" scene, although the character Joe Buck ended up not getting paid, in the movie theater supposed to be groundbreaking or something? Is the viewer supposed to believe that a real cowboy from Texas would do that for money before he would take money for shoot fighting, working as a bouncer or just plain stealing money? Was the Midnight Cowboy adopted on Brokeback Mountain?
The party scene is something only the pot smoking flower children of the 60s could understand. I guess if you are high this is a great movie. I guess?
1969 called and it wants its Best Picture award back.
Jon Voight is cast as Joe Buck, a young man from Texas who comes to New York with the dream of becoming a male prostitute. Dustin Hoffman is Rico Ratzo Rizzo, a the crippled street-wise hustler who first cons the young Texan and later befriends him. Together, these two outcasts form a strange bond as they struggle to survive on the streets of New York. Joe Bucks' story is told with flashbacks and surreal fantasy sequences, which seem unfocussed at times, but give us an understanding of who he is. Ratzo, however, doesn't need this kind of cinematographic background; his quirky character is all right there.
The film is full of memorable characters - Sylvia Miles as an aging Park Avenue woman with a thick New York accent who considers herself "one helluva gorgeous chick", John McGiver, the religious nutjob who Joe Buck thinks will give him connections to rich women, and Brenda Vacarro who takes Joe home with her after a psychedelic party. There's a memorable soundtrack too -- "The Echoes of My Mind". And then there's the memorable conclusion which takes place on a bus headed for Florida.
I loved this video but it's not for everybody. It's downbeat and sad and disturbing. But it says something about human nature and human connection. And it pictures a way of life that might not be pleasant but is a reality. Recommended.
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why, it's the SADDEST film i've Ever seen to date.
so, what else could i say about it?