Midnight Cowboy: satirical character study of two men pursuing their particular American Dreams

John Schlesinger, “Midnight Cowboy” (1969)

Over forty years ago when this movie was released, it was seen as gritty and ground-breaking but these days “Midnight Cowboy” comes across as no more than a straightforward urban-buddy character study of two men of very different backgrounds, each searching for his own version of the American Dream, who join forces simply to survive in the bleak and seedy underground of New York City in the late 1960’s. Naive cowboy wannabee Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his dish-washing job in a Texan diner and travels to NYC hoping to make a living as a gigolo to rich old ladies but ends up being hustled out of money and shelter by various odd characters. He meets up with a small-time crook Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who offers him shelter and together they scrape a living on the hard streets of NYC.

The film consists of various episodes in which Joe tries his luck as a hustler and repeatedly fails. At one point in the film, the men’s luck takes a brief turn for the better as they get an invitation to a party and Joe gets an assignment with a rich socialite type (Brenda Vaccaro). Generally though the direction in both men’s lives is down, down, down as Rizzo’s health steadily deteriorates and Joe does what he can to get money for food and medicines. Eventually they scrape and steal enough moolah to pay for the coach-trip to Miami but even there Fate deals a cruel blow to both men and Joe finds himself pretty much back where he started near the beginning of the movie when he first got off the coach.

Although Voight and Hoffman put everything they have into their characters, Joe and Rizzo do come over as rather stagey and a bit over-acted at times to the point where they are caricatures. At least Joe has enough back-story in various flashbacks that explains among other things his over-reactions to the would-be pimp who turns out to be a religious fanatic and the businessman who offers him a religious icon. Joe’s sensitivity towards Rizzo and his violence towards others are quite credible. The script doesn’t flesh out Rizzo’s background much beyond stating that his father was a shoe-shiner but “Midnight Cowboy” is very much Joe’s story after all. What character development exists seems to be very small though the impression I have by film’s end is that Joe the starry-eyed naif has become more hardened when it comes to surviving yet in a way has learned something about true friendship and the corrupt values of the world. By the time he and Rizzo arrive in Miami, he’s no longer thinking about hustling for a living and is talking about taking on a real job for a change.

The film may be seen as a satire of the American Dream and of capitalist society and its values. Joe imagines he can make easy money by selling his body to bored rich people. Sex is the only thing Joe is good at – his ex-girlfriend has told him so – so that’s what he tries to sell by trading on his “cowboy” image … which only attracts homosexual men. Even then, selling sex requires Joe to, uh, “position” himself correctly in the market and research what his would-be clients require, and that’s what he fails to do. Rizzo dreams of leaving New York and making easy money in Miami doing the kinds of odd jobs Joe was doing in Texas (that’s an irony). Of course the reality is that life in The Big City is hard and unforgiving and grinds down the individual. Only by bonding together do Joe and Rizzo survive (but only just). Money is the only thing that gives the men an entree to the life they dream of. There is an underlying subtext of Joe not coming to terms with his latent homosexuality as a result of his upbringing and a past traumatic experience of gang rape.

The use of flashbacks (mostly in black and white) with quick editing is very good and the party scenes are psychedelic as would be expected of films made in the late 1960’s that feature parties where guests spend most of their time smoking joints and popping pills. The movie is very colourful, maybe too colourful actually, and scenes of poverty and desperation might have come across better if they had a more bleached or grey-ish look.

Overall this film is a modest effort at recording something of the marginalised underbelly of New York City in the 1960’s. If it had covered some of the poverty and discrimination faced by other individuals, particularly other gay men, black people or other minorities, the movie would have been a more valuable historic snapshot of what conditions were like for the underprivileged.

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