Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 March

 

Robert Koch announces discovery of the cause of TB, 1882

On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had worked out what was causing tuberculosis, a disease so devastating that it went by several names – phthisis and consumption were also common. Until Koch started his research, it was widely believed that TB was a hereditary disease. But though Koch had observed that TB would often spread through families, its epidemiology was not uniform – poorer families tended to get it more than richer ones. We now know that TB is caused by a slow-growing bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is carried by many people (one third of the world’s population is currently infected). But though it is infectious, it doesn’t progress to the full-blown disease in most cases. People who are fit and live in healthy, well ventilated environments resist it well; it is those with compromised immune systems who succumb. Koch’s suspicions that a bacillus was causing TB were prompted by his work on anthrax in farm animals, which had found that a bacillus – cultivable in the lab (ie his home) – was responsible. But he was only able to prove his TB thesis after getting a position at the German Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin, where he was able to identify, isolate and cultivate the tuberculosis bacterium. Having done that, it was on to cholera, another scourge, the methods for the control of which helped provide the blueprint for the control of all epidemics, still used today.

 

 

 

Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir: John Schlesinger)

Chekhov’s rule about guns in plays – “one must never place a rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” – applies to the nth degree with coughing. A cough in a film generally means something more than just a cough. In films from Hollywood’s golden era it means the person coughing will be dead by the next scene, especially if they have been coughing blood. Midnight Cowboy isn’t from Hollywood’s golden era, which ended any time from the mid-50s back to the late-30s, take your pick, but it deals with death from TB, though differently. Telling the story of two young bucks on the make in New York City, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as street hustler Ratso, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the cock for hire – a midnight cowboy – nervous about anyone finding out that he’s highly in demand by gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Must be the fringe jacket, though the cheekbones (which Voight would pass on to his daughter, Angelina Jolie) obviously help. That’s it, in terms of story – two guys, adrift, losers, hustlers, wandering around New York in the late 1960s in an era that’s suddenly different from the one Ratso grew up in, which offers sights that no one from Joe Buck’s rural hometown has ever seen. And here’s where the film gets either interesting or terrible, depending on your point of view. Interesting if you’re hungry for late 60s hipster parties, Andy Warhol-style blankness, throbbing cameras, the swinging sixties and all that. Terrible if you wish that John Schlesinger and his writers (including Waldo Salt) had made it more about the strange romance between the two stars, an analysis of Joe’s unexamined homosexuality, and less a tour of the fashionable parts of the Big Apple, places which these two losers would in all likelihood never have got to see. There’s the performances, though. Hoffman’s nervy, ADHD Ratso remains as alive now as he was in 1969; Voight is also remarkable as the more thoughtful and internalised of the two – it’s a harder role too, and he doesn’t have a cough to fall back on! Midnight Cowboy has not worn well over the years. Its shocking content – violence, the ugliness of street life, men having sex with other men – is no longer shocking. But it’s an interesting film, not just because of the standout performances, but because it is so clearly of its era and yet is also a clear harbinger of things to come.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Won three Oscars, none for the actors
  • One of the key films that made Dustin Hoffman
  • Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’
  • A John Barry score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Midnight Cowboy”

  1. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest movies ever made in America and it deserved every single award it won and it’s place on the AFI Top 100 list (though it’s shamefully too low on the IMDB Top 250 list, at only #183 as of this writing). If you enjoy acting of the highest calibre (Voight and Hoffman are a superb match), well-drawn characterizations and inventive direction, editing and cinematography, you’ll love this just as much as I did. Schlesinger paints a vivid, always credible picture of the late 60s New York City scene and it’s many victims struggling to overcome personal demons and survive amidst the amorality, poverty and hopelessness of 42nd Street, New York City.

    The filmmaking techniques employed here brilliantly capture the feel of the underground New York film movement (and of the city) and are nothing less than dazzling. I’ve seen many ideas (including the rapid-fire editing, the handling of the voice-over flashbacks, the drug/trip sequences and the cartoonish face slipped in during a murder scene to convey angst and terror) stolen by other filmmakers.

    The relationship between Joe and Ratso is handled in such a way as to be viewed as an unusually strong friendship OR having it’s homosexual underpinnings. I think the director handled this in a subtle way not to cop out to the censorship of the times, but rather to concentrate his energies on the importance of a strong human connection in life, whether it be sexual or not.

    MIDNIGHT COWBOY is a brave, moving film of magnitude, influence and importance that has lost absolutely none of it’s impact over the years, so if you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out on a true American classic. I recommend this film to everyone.

    Score: 10 out of 10.

  2. Young, handsome, muscular Joe Buck (Jon Voight) moves from Texas to New York thinking he’ll make a living by being a stud. He gets there and finds out quickly that it isn’t going to be easy–he goes through one degrading experience after another. At the end of his rope he hooks up with crippled, sleazy Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Together they try to survive and get out of the city and move to Florida. But will they make it?

    Very dark, disturbing yet fascinating movie. Director John Schelsinger paints a very grimy portrait of NYC and its inhabitants. In that way it’s dated–the city may have been this bad in 1969 but it’s cleaned up considerably by now. He also uses every camera trick in the book–color turning to black & white; trippy dream sequences; flash forwards; flash backs (especially involving a rape); shock cuts; weird sound effects…you name it. It keeps you disoriented and off center–but I couldn’t stop watching.

    There isn’t much of a story–it basically centers on the friendship between Rizzo and Buck. There is an implication that they may have been lovers (the final shot sort of shows that). It’s just a portrait of two damaged characters trying to survive in a cold, cruel, urban jungle.

    This was originally rated X in 1969–the only reason being that the MPAA didn’t think that parents would want their children to see this. Nevertheless, it was a big hit with high schoolers (back then X meant no one under 17). It also has been the only X rated film ever to win an Academy Award as Best Picture. Hoffman and Voight were up for acting awards as was (mysteriously) Sylvia Miles who was in the picture for a total of (maybe) 5 minutes! It was eventually lowered to an R (with no cuts) when it was reissued in 1980.

    Also the excellent song "Everybody’s Talkin’" was introduced in this film–and became a big hit.

    A great film—but very dark. I’m giving it a 10. DON’T see it on commercial TV–it’s cut to ribbons and incomprehensible.

  3. Virile, but naive, big Joe Buck leaves his home in Big Spring, Texas, and hustles off to the Big Apple in search of women and big bucks. In NYC, JB meets up with frustration, and with "Ratso" Rizzo, a scruffy but cordial con artist. Somehow, this mismatched pair manage to survive each other which in turn helps both of them cope with a gritty, sometimes brutal, urban America, en route to a poignant ending.

    Both funny and depressing, our "Midnight Cowboy" rides head-on into the vortex of cyclonic cultural change, and thus confirms to 1969 viewers that they, themselves, have been swept away from the 1950's age of innocence, and dropped, Dorothy and Toto like, into the 1960's Age of Aquarius.

    The film's direction is masterful; the casting is perfect; the acting is top notch; the script is crisp and cogent; the cinematography is engaging; and the music enhances all of the above. Deservedly, it won the best picture Oscar of 1969, and I would vote it as one of the best films of that cyclonic decade.

  4. Watching Midnight Cowboy is like taking a masterclass in acting/ directing/ cinematography/ editing/ writing. I was too young to watch it when it was originally released, and only saw it for the first time a couple of years ago, but it has absolutely stood the test of time, and I have watched it several times since.

    Everything about this film is brilliant, from the poignant performances from Voight and Hoffman (even though I know this movie well, I still find myself welling up every time Voight flashes one of his innocently pained looks, or Hoffman coughs in his sickly and ominous way) to the stunning cinematography and superbly edited dream sequences.

    It’s a shame that more of our contemporary filmmakers aren’t prepared to take a risk on making movies that are as visually and aurally interesting as this one. Midnight cowboy should be required viewing at all film schools.

    10/10

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