The Midnight Cowboy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because hustling isn’t easy either.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The New York City in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, like the New York of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, is the stuff of fever.
Populated with freaks, con men, hookers and hustlers, New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, pre-AIDS, was a playground for every immoral impulse anyone ever had. Ever.
While possibly a conceptual hoot in 2013, Midnight Cowboy radiated a real kind of menace. One that had very little to do with homosexuality — and very much to do with the corrupting influence of very filthy lucre. And luckless-ness. So with a reptilian Dustin Hoffman as the Sancho Panza-like sidekick, Ratso Rizzo, Jon Voight’s Joe Buck stumbles from misadventure to misadventure, each progressively worse. Like a fun-loving trip through hell.What Lou Reed did for it in song in 1972’s “Walk on the Wildside,” Schlesinger and his cinematic hustler of note, Jon Voight, did in film. Following the misguided exploits of an erstwhile Texas hustler who’s come to New York to strike it rich turning tricks, Midnight Cowboy got slapped with an X rating. Courtesy of execs at United Artists yielding to the MPAA and psychologists who thought its “homosexual frame of reference” would corrupt the youth of America.
The MPAA relented and re-rated the film as R when it was re-released on a wider scale in 1970 after its big wins. The ratings board asked for cuts, but the director stood his ground and the film remains in its original form. – Sound On Sight
Which people took in droves. Three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay), six BAFTA awards and a box office take of about $45 million on a $3-million budget, Midnight Cowboy, X rating notwithstanding, was an adult movie in the truest sense of the word. With deep and dark moral colorations, it perfectly matched Vietnam-era ambivalences and America’s quasi-sexual awakening.
The great, Grammy-winning theme song by Harry Nilsson, “Everybody’s Talkin’” didn’t hurt either. Director Schlesinger went on to direct at least one other ode to New York, the spy-tinged and award-winning Marathon Man, but his Midnight Cowboy stood as towering testament to an almost perfect depiction of a New York state of mind.