OBPC #42: Midnight Cowboy, 1969

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

Midnight Cowboy (1969): Dir. John Schlesinger.  Written by: Waldo Salt.  Based upon the novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy.  Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, and Brenda Vaccaro.  Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, some drug use and brief violence.  Running time: 113 minutes.

cowboyI can’t believe the Academy acknowledged this film within its typical pantheon of pandering prestige films (Mrs. Miniver, cough cough), but boy howdy am I glad they did.  From its lilting, free-flowing tone to its Dali-esque dream sequences, Midnight Cowboy represents an uncompromising artistic vision of characters I couldn’t help but love, flaws and all.

Joe Buck is our star, a naïve Texan dishwasher who quits his job to try his luck as a gigolo in the Big Apple.  Thwarted by an unforgiving environment, Joe strikes up a friendship with small-time con man Enrico Rizzo.  They hustle their way through life, meeting successes and (especially) failures.

An offbeat premise transforms into a profound artwork in the hands of director Schlesinger and screenwriter Salt.  Flashbacks to Joe’s past (steeped in neglect and abuse) create interesting parallels with his struggles to survive on the streets of the city.  Schlesinger utilizes quick cuts to paint vivid, visceral portraits of his characters that make dreamlike sense, and accurately portray the twisted logic of their psyches.

And what personalities!  Joe is delusional, yes, but he’s so sincere and respectful, you want to see him succeed in his delusions.  Jon Voight doesn’t just show us Joe’s naivete, but his self-doubt as well.  His chemistry with Dustin Hoffman is a wonder to behold—our expectations of their relationship constantly shift, as the two forge an unlikely bond that supports and challenges each other.  They are at the center of a film that finds such sadness in poverty—but so much humor as well.

No film on this list has affected me as much as this story of two people who long for acceptance but still possess the level-headedness to accept life as it comes.  We find strength and weakness, intelligence and stupidity, in Rizzo and Joe.  It makes the heart burst and break simultaneously.

Next film: Patton, 1970