Movies have been often characterized as innovative, ground-breaking, trend-setting or wildly original, and these terms can be overused, but I cannot emphasize enough what a bold and courageous experiment in cinema was Midnight Cowboy. It is hard to comprehend that it has been 45 years since this Oscar-winning film was released, but May of this year will mark that milestone. Having only seen the butchered and watered-down TV version years ago, I was almost moved to tears at the excellence of this work of art by John Schlesinger. After watching the entire, uncut movie I just sat in stunned silence as I was totally blown away, amazed at how well the film had aged, and am honored to review and analyze this iconic time capsule of a masterpiece.
I will review the DVD 2-disc Collector’s Edition which contains priceless analysis and commentary by the Producer Jerome Hellman, and also words from Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Jennifer Salt and Adam Holender. This will be a lengthy and thorough review and there will be no regard to spoilers.
Midnight Cowboy was both a love story and a tragedy based on the lives of two horribly damaged human beings. Ratso Rizzo was damaged physically by the ravages of childhood polio and Joe Buck was even more damaged emotionally by abuse, neglect and some horrific sexual experiences that left him with a worldview that would only set him up for more abuse. Joe Buck was a strapping, tall and good looking specimen of a cowboy, and he was headed for New York City to make his fortune as a male prostitute, servicing all the horny and neglected women in that city. Joe’s plans and dreams were really just naive fantasies as he was ill-prepared for a city that would chew him up and spit him out in record time. Most business plans that fail do so because of two reasons, under capitalization and poor management and with a mere $245 dollars in his wallet and no clue as to what was going to confront him, Joe Buck went down in flames quickly.
Broke and homeless, Joe soon found himself allied with a former nemesis and the unusual saga of these two horribly failed and desperate individuals unfolds. The incubating relationship between Joe and Ratso was the very essence of the movie. It was a love story, a story of caring and progression of a relationship that both men desperately need. Just at the very point where we think Joe was finally getting a break, he decided to jettison his finally promising career as a gigolo to be a caregiver for his best buddy. Joe had finally turned the corner as a man and a caring human being, but cannot turn back the clock as Ratso finally succumbs to his chronic illness and dies on the very steps of where he perceives to be his salvation and paradise.
Direction, Writing, Production: Midnight Cowboy was the impossible movie that could not be made. No one had any expectations for this film, but through the brilliant and tenacious work of Waldo Salt with his screenplay, cinematographer Adam Holender and composer John Barry, John Schlesinger did indeed create the impossible. Dustin Hoffman was still working on what would be his blockbuster film The Graduate and Jon Voight was a virtual unknown, having only appeared in some obscure TV roles, but I cannot imagine another tandem of actors pulling this off the way they did. There was always this look of quiet desolation and desperation that was enhanced greatly by the lighting, toggling back and forth to Black and White, with the musical score to magnify the dashed dreams and abandoned hopes of these two broken humans.
Joe Buck-Joe was not a “for real” cowboy, but he was “one helluva stud” according to his own assessment of himself. The truth is that Joe was DUMB, real dumb as well as being naive and severely socially retarded. The physical attributes are there as he is tall, blond and good looking, but Joe trying to take on The Big Apple was the greatest mismatch since Adam and Eve took a bite of the red apple in God v. his creations in the Garden. Midnight Cowboy, the movie, gave us stunning insights into Joe’s dark history via flashbacks, but Herlihy’s book went much deeper into his tragic neglect and abuse as he was growing up. This abuse and his horribly depraved introduction to sexuality was responsible for the worldview that he took to New York City, and he had it all wrong, terribly wrong.
It was immediately obvious that Joe was seeking companionship and out of his element. The bus trip from Texas to New York City reveals this along with his insecurities via his interaction with other bus riders and his many flashbacks. Joe was woefully unprepared for the big city and he immediately over tipped the bellman and was surprised that the TV at the hotel is pay only. This was only the beginning for the hapless Joe. The first trick with a MILF was a disaster as he ended up being the Payor, not the Payee. Not good.
He had arrived and had no plans, no clue, only ill-conceived reveries as to how he thinks things will pan out for him in New York. As you might suspect, his fall was immediate and excruciating. Joe Buck did not process reality, he only processed his fantasies and unrealistic dreams and delusions and the result was cruel failure. After his eviction and failed attempt to hustle a kid in a theater he had hit rock bottom and re-encounters Ratso, who also fleeced him by diverting him to a Homosexual Religious Fanatic. This supposedly Pimp Manager, played brilliantly by John McGiver was the one that he needed to connect him to the older ladies in need of his servicing. Joe’s misguided worldviews were totally destroyed in record time. He was in trouble, he was desperate and he was quite in need of something, anything, even the also damaged Ratso.
Ratso Rizzo- Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, better known on the street as Ratso was a grimy, swarthy, sweaty and crippled bottom feeder from the Bronx. Life had not been kind to Ratso as childhood polio and pneumonia had left him disabled, deformed and unable to function in normal society. His childhood had not been much better than Joe Buck’s and the early death of his father left him to fend for himself as a streetwise drifter and scrounger. Ratso and Joe formed an uneasy alliance, Joe depending on Ratso for his street awareness and Ratso depending on Joe for his physical strength and potential to earn a living turning tricks. The performance by Dustin Hoffman was nothing short of a tour-de-force as he totally nailed the character of Ratso. Ratso in a way was as much of a dreamer as Joe Buck as in spite of his street smarts, he foolishly refused medical care and somehow thought that merely moving to Florida would restore his health. Ultimately, the roles are reversed as Ratso became totally dependent on Joe because of his rapidly declining physical condition. Ratso’s endgame was tragic and heartbreaking and not even the love and dedication of his good buddy Joe Buck could stave off the inevitable.
Homosexuality- There has been much written, speculated and discussed about homosexuality in Midnight Cowboy, really TOO much. The reason I write this is that it is obvious that many who do this speculation have not taken the time to either read the book or to view the film and the associated commentaries. There also seems to be confusion as to the difference between homosexuality, homosexual behavior, homophobia and homoeroticism. All of these exist in the movie, but it is up to the viewer to separate the various behaviors as they relate to the respective characters. There is one basic premise about sexuality that must be understood before you can begin to understand the sexuality that is portrayed in the film. Here is the concept and fact: Sexual behavior can be controlled, sexual preference cannot.
There are three scenes in Midnight Cowboy that vividly showed homosexual activity. All three scenes associated homosexual behavior with violence. The scene in the movie house was haunting and brilliant with the use of the musical score and flashbacks. This scene seems rather innocuous now, but was responsible for the MPAA giving the film an X Rating. Joe was so desperate and naive that he even got swindled by a mousy little college kid played by Bob Balaban, and came away with nothing but more frustration. The second scene was a flashback dream-state that gave some insight to why Joe was so damaged sexually; both he and his girlfriend were brutalized and raped by a gang of his “peers” back in Texas. The third, and most brutal scene was with Towny, played by Barnard Hughes, a self-loathing momma’s boy of a closeted homosexual. Joe robbed and beat his trick because of his desperation for money to get himself and his buddy Ratso to Florida. The novel by Herlihy graphically describes yet another nightmare scene in Texas where Joe was betrayed and brutalized by his newfound friend Perry, but this event did not make it into the movie.
One of the most common questions posed after viewing Midnight Cowboy is “Is Joe Buck gay”? or “Did Joe and Ratso have a homosexual relationship”? The answer to both questions is a resounding “No!”. Now Joe Buck certainly participated in homosexual behavior, this cannot be denied. Yes, he looked gay in his ridiculous cowboy getup, but he was not a gay, he was merely a straight man who was forced to do things that he otherwise would not have done. In desperation, Joe turned tricks with homosexuals to survive, but this behavior did not make him a homosexual. Joe also had some horrific and unimaginable unwanted homosexual experiences in Texas that went a long way in further degrading his already fragile psyche;but none of these things made him a homosexual. As far as Joe and Ratso were concerned, they were both extremely deprived and broken human beings, Ratso physically and Joe psychologically. Joe and Ratso formed a family unit, as bizarre and fragile as it was, nothing more. Ratso Rizzo gave every indication of being asexual, mostly because of his debilitated physical condition, but nothing indicated that he had any sort of a sexual interest in Joe or anyone else. Ratso, being crippled, used his homophobic rhetoric as sort of a bravado because of his own diminished physical condition.
Even Schlesinger himself laughed when questioned about the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Joe and Ratso, noting that the film was hard enough to sell as it was without having that “burden” as well. He (John Schlesinger) knew he was taking on a load with this movie, because he was a rare openly gay man himself. Midnight Cowboy was a bold experiment for not only focusing on male homosexuality, but also attacking the great American institution of masculinity itself, and the celebrated image of the Cowboy as being the very embodiment of masculinity. “Are you going to tell me John Wayne was a fag?” was uttered by Joe Buck when Ratso hit him with the reality that his cowboy gig was not what he thought it was. 42nd Street had spoken and this was not something that Joe was ready to hear.
The Party Scene The Psychedelic Party at Hansel and Gretel’s apartment was one of the defining scenes in Midnight Cowboy. I have read other reviews where the authors have unbelievably suggested that the scene was extraneous and could have been omitted. This is absolutely ridiculous as the events at the party provide a turning point for Joe and a dichotomy of fate and choices that he must make that would affect his priorities and decisions and relationship with Ratso for the rest of the movie. John Hellman revealed in rich detail the making of the Psychedelic Party with use of supporting actors and many of Andy Warhol’s own friends. According to the producer, it was just a week-long orgy with plenty of sex and grass and it is amazing that they could pull off such a magnificent scene.
Joe and Ratso were luckily met by an androgynous pair of leather-bound metrosexuals, Hansel and Gretel Mac Albertson, and subsequently invited to a party. “Flesh and blood and smoke will be served after midnight” was written on the handbill, so seizing the opportunity, the down and out duo made their way to the scene, and what a scene it was. Once up the stairs after a touching moment with Joe wiping the sweat off the feverish Ratso, we were enveloped by smoke, psychedelic lighting and the haunting score of “Old Man Willow” by Elephant’s Memory. As the camera pans the warehouse apartment with the inevitable winding wrought stairs, we got the first look at Shirley, an exquisitely cute socialite with a knit mini, pixie haircut, rings on her fingers and a joint in her hand.
Joe was first a mild curiosity to Shirley, but later grows into an obsession as she wants to take him home like a lost puppy. Brenda Vaccaro was simply smashing in this role, one of many splendid supporting actors and actresses that made this film what it was. Her body language and double-takes in the scene where she passed the joint to Joe were splendid and spoke more words than dialogue could possibly say.
Although it was not explicitly stated, Joe Buck was probably experiencing pharmaceuticals for the first time in his life as the party picked up steam. The music, the lighting, the smoking incense and the crisp film editing created a dreamlike state that culminated with Joe and Shirley introducing themselves in the Dark Room. “Heeyyyy” Shirley cooed in a throaty, sexy voice in the pink lighting of the room that just oozed sensuality. “Did you know we were going to make it”…”Cowboy Whore?” she stated, and they are soon on their way to her place for some heavy breathing, but with a surprise on the way to their inevitable culmination of animal passion. After a night of scribbage, sex and good-natured taunting, it would seem that Joe was finally on his way to making it as a stud, but things do not turn out that way as the inevitable tragedy must be consummated.
DVD/Extras: 10/10 The DVD Collector’s Edition (2006) of the 1994 restoration, is just that as it contains two discs and 8 oversized postcards with impressive sepia photos from the movie and timely quotes on the back. Disc one contains the feature film and the commentary by producer Jerome Hellman;unfortunately neither Schlesinger or Waldo Salt were still living at the time this was done.
The bonus disc is rich with interviews and commentary such as “After Midnight: Reflections on a Classic 35 Years Later” where Hellman, Hoffman, Voight and several of the production crew and supporting actors and actresses give insight on this timeless masterpiece. The second section is “Controversy and Acclaim” which examines the making of the movie with regard to the X-Rating it garnered and the public’s response to the film. There are even some clips of Jon Voight’s original screen test where he was hostilely interviewed by Salt to see what he was made of. He passed with flying colors. Lastly, there is a tribute, “Celebrating Schlesinger” and a photo gallery.
Quotes and notable lines:
- “I’m walking here, I’m walking here!” -Ratso
- “It just so happens that in my place I’m known as Enrico Salvatore Rizzo!” -Ratso
- “I’m brand new here in town and hoping to get a look at the Statue of Liberty” -Joe Buck. “It’s up in Central Park, taking a leak. If you hurry you can catch the supper show.” -Cass
- “John Wayne! Are you trying to tell me he’s a fag?” -Joe Buck
- “Frankly you’re beginning to smell, and for a stud in New York, that’s a handicap.” -Ratso
- “Gee, well you know it’s free, you don’t have to steal it.” -Greta “Well if it’s free then I ain’t stealing it, am I?” -Ratso
- “Uh, well sir, I ain’t a real cowboy, but I’m one helluva stud!” -Joe Buck (to O’Daniels)
- “I know enough to know that the great big, dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street. That’s faggot stuff!” -Ratso
Special Ruthless Ratings
- The number of times you knew you were watching one of the greatest movies ever made? Infinite number.
- Did you cry when Ratso died? Like a little girl getting her first period.
- The number of times the soundtrack made you reach for your knife. Never, are you kidding?.
- Was this the most gutsy cinema experiment ever? Hell yes!
- How hot was Brenda Vaccaro as Shirley? I don’t want to talk about it.
- Do you regret not ever seeing this on the Big Screen? You had better believe it.
- Overall rating? 10+/10 for every category.