Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1969, and picked up another two for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (a relatively low tally, and exceeded that year by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). It lost in four other categories – both leads were nominated for Best Actor, Sylvia Miles for best Supporting Actress, and also for Best Film Editing.

The other Best Picture nominees were Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello, Dolly! and Z. IMDB users rate it second on both systems, with Easy Rider first on one ranking and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid first on the other. The Hugo that year went to the (real) Moon landings. There were a lot of good films that year; I have not seen any of those mentioned so far, but I have seen The Brain, Oh! What A Lovely War!, The Bed-Sitting Room, Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way and A Boy Named Charlie Brown (the one with the dramatic spelling bee). Midnight Cowboy is better than any of them.

Here’s a contemporary trailer.

New York is by far the most popular setting for Oscar-winning films, though this is actually the first for eight years, since West Side Story – the longest gap we’ve had. (Seven years separate The Broadway Melody and The Great Ziegfeld.) It’s the story of a young Texan who tries to make his fortune in New York in the swinging Sixties, and makes friends with a local; but both of them are chewed up and spat out by the naked city, and they end up heading to Florida with one of them dead on arrival.

I’m not going to write a lot about it. I liked it very much, and it’s going in my top ten (ahead of A Man for All Seasons, but behind The Bridge on the River Kwai, since you ask). There are no returning actors from previous Oscar-winning films, and none who also appeared in Doctor Who. The film is about the friendship between two white male characters, but the women characters are on the whole empowered. Literally the first thing the protagonist does after the credits finish rolling is to greet his black colleague. There is a strong visibility, if not always positive, of gayness. It’s a story of broken dreams, and decline and fall, and it’s told very well.

I think there are three things to mention in particular.

First, the music. My god. I had a real double-take moment about halfway through when this came up on the soundtrack:

For me and for many people of my age and a bit younger, this is the theme tune for the BBC children’s nature programme Wildtrack.

I now know that all the hip adults in the room were nudging each other and muttering, “That’s the music from Midnight Cowboy!”

Before I get onto the two stars, the two women who stood out for me were Brenda Vaccaro as Shirley, the girl with whom Joe actually manages to perform after a false start, and Sylvia Miles as Cass, his first New York lover. This is not a feminist film, but these two roles are actually pretty empowered women. Cass got an Oscar nomination for it.

The only other film I’ve seen Jon Voight in is Catch-22, though of course I’ve seen his daughter in a few things as well. He is billed as the star here, and certainly his is the character with the most interesting arc, but I think his co-lead puts in the more memorable performance. It’s a high threshold though, as Voight manages to put in a thoroughly convincing performans as a wannabe cowboy with or without his clothes on.

I should say here that the received wisdom about the film is that it’s about a “male prostitute”. This is simply not on. First of all, I think we say “sex worker” these days. Secondly, he’s not actually very good at it. The first woman he has sex with in New York actually gets him to give her money, the young man with whom he has a sexual encounter refuses to pay him, and when he finally does get paid for sex he finds he is impotent. Joe describes himself as a hustler; I think I would call him a wannabe hustler, given his lack of success.

Dustin Hoffman simply rules as Ratso, the disreputable chap who becomes Joe’s friend and eventually more or les dies in his arms. He gets the single most memorable line of the film – “I am walking here!” – and he’s the one your eye is drawn to in their scenes together.

Incidentally there are a number of good websites detailing the New York locations of the filming. Here’s one with various other incidental details about the film.

All of the music is good, so is the acting, but the cinematography is the best. The Texas flashbacks, Joe’s miserably unsuccessful attempts to trade sex for money, New York as a place that consumes its inhabitants, and the Andy Warhol party, and the final scene on the bus, all superb viewing. The plot is simple and told visually as much as by the script.

As I said, one of the good ones. You can get it here.

Next up is Patton, of which I know nothing, but I guess it is about the general.

As usual, I went and read the novel on which the film is based, Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy. The second paragraph of the third chapter is :

She was known as Chalkline Annie, suggesting the order that had to be maintained in order to serve efficiently the large numbers of boys to whom in a single half hour she made her body available.

It’s a rare case where it’s actually rather difficult to decide which is better between the book and the film (which sticks closely to the last two-thirds of the book). The book does give us a lot more details of Joe’s early life (mostly in fact in New Mexico rather than Texas) and takes us deeper inside his head. The descriptions are vivid and somewhat unssettling. On the other hand, that tight-third narrative gives us a more restricted view of events than the camera can do, and the fact is that Joe is not all that interesting or nice a person to spend time with. It’s a memorable (and short) read all the same. You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)

One thought on “Midnight Cowboy

Comments are closed.