Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)

“You know, in my own place, my name ain’t Ratso. I mean, it just so happens that in my own place my name is Enrico Salvatore Rizzo”

Introduction

Back in the early days of the DVD, my younger brother and I watched a free-DVD which was crammed with trailers. It had a trailer for Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies (“sound the general alarm…”). It also had more Brosnan with a trailer for The Thomas Crown Affair too (“…and waltz straight out the front door”/”oh, thats good”). It also had a trailer for Midnight Cowboy. Clearly the free DVD was from MGM because that was the studio behind all these films, but as you can see by my quotations (and I didn’t need to look them up … and I could rattle off a few more…) I knew these trailers back to front – but alas, in the case of Midnight Cowboy, only a decade later have I managed to watch the film. And now I have watched it, it is possibly one of my favourite films…

The American Dream

The story revolves around young Joe Buck (Jon Voight). He decides to get out of his small-town community in Texas and make it big (in a male-prostitute kind-of way) in New York. Thats the basic set-up and, akin to Easy Rider of the same year, it shows how the idea of starting a-fresh and gaining a new perspective on the US is actually much more difficult, and much more corrupt, than it may appear. The entire opening shows Joe travelling by bus – he thinks back to his girlfriend and family at home and see a little hint at a horrendous rape comitted against Joe’s girlfriend, (and we find out later against Joe himself too). This gritty realism is what puts this film head and shoulders above the rest as Joe’s time in the Big Apple is not what he thought it would be, becoming more tragic as the film progresses. We see how ‘prosperity and success’ is not as easy to find as it might appear. You cannot just up-sticks and move out to the big city and expect everyone to simply pay you for sex – people want money from you and Joe finds this out the hard way. We see drugs, prostitution (heterosexual and homosexual), extreme poverty, disability and homelessness. We also see how society is reluctant to help this side of the urban city – instead we see see huge billboards claiming “everybody can eat at [insert diner name here]”. The capitalist and consumer nature of the American dream has eaten up the morality and soul of the people.

Oscar Worthy Performances

The year Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture (the first X-rated film to win the award), both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were additionally nominated for Best Actor – losing out to John Wayne and his role in True Grit. Dustin Hoffman plays the disabled ‘Ratso’ – a name which he despises, clearly aware of the connotations and disgusting nature of the rat. Hoffman constantly berates Joe Buck demanding that he call him Rizzo or, at least in his own home, to be called Enrico. Ratso is disabled and a conman – the pickpocket and thief who takes advantage of Joe Buck when they first meet.

Jon Voights performance as Joe Buck is equally fascinating – naive and innocent, despite such tragedy in his home town, he aims to forget and move on. He is confident about his love-making ‘skills’ and, when down and out and desperate for money, even turns to male-prostitution himself. The clients, are of the time, and clearly have difficulty accepting who they are whilst Joe is simply trying to define himself – is he the cowboy? the New York gigolo? Schlesinger shows brilliant fluidity in showing the reality of the situation and juxtaposing this with cut-aways to what the characters want: a one-second shot of Joe Buck walking into a womans house disorientates you until it cuts back to Joe Buck watching the woman enter the house alone.

In one stand-out sequence, Ratso waits for Joe to build up the client-base for their male-escort business. Ratso see’s himself on the beach with women surrounding him, Ratso serves up gourmet food and gambles with style and edge … before we see the business fold in minutes as Joe Bucks forward-move in groping a womans ass backfires. We see how delusional the characters are – and how the American dream, in this way, does not exist.

Starting A-Fresh

The constant theme that repeats itself throughout the film is the idea of starting again. Joe Buck, following the trauma in Texas, hopes to start again. Ratso, continually aims to start again by being called Enrico – and desperately hoping to get to Florida and start again. In the huge space and land of the free, you can start again. The question is whether it is too late. On the surface, the story appears to be about Joe Buck – but as the film closes you realise it is Ratso who we need to think about. He is who has been let down – constantly involved in the recurring nature of poverty – a father who shined shoes so much he damaged his back, a resentment towards those with money and opportunity – as he has never had usch freedom and choice. Even Joe Buck has more opportunity than he. Ratso feels he is the lowest of the low – and no one will change that, as even Joe puts him in his place multiple times by continuing to refer to him as Ratso. He is ‘beneath’ everyone and that will not change. It is only in the final act that Joe Buck puts his selfish, business-mind to the side and thinks about Ratso. He does ‘what he needs to do’ to ensure that Ratso has his opportunity to realise his dream.

I think it is “hope” that we are discussing. Ratso never gives up hope about his Florida dream – but it seems that society has given up on Ratso. The quote from the film “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” seems, on the one hand tongue-in-cheek as it is a character who physically has difficulty walking, but then has the subtext that, as he is part of the underbelly of NYC, he is not seen or considered. He is ignored and not helped. The health service requires money – which he does not have.
I could go on – the incredible music by John Barry with the unforgettable ‘Everbody’sTalkin’ by Harry Nilsson. The fact that Dustin Hoffman – fresh from starring in The Graduate – hails from LA but is playing a native New Yorker so perfectly. In fact, the newcomer Jon Voight, a native New Yorker is playing a Texan! So many facets of this film make it even stronger and I am well aware that, over the next few years, the more I watch the film, the better it will get.
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