If films were food, my relationship to them would be that of a pregnant woman’s. By that I mean the oddest ‘cravings’ for films can strike me at inopportune times. A horror film on Christmas Eve, a historical epic on Valentine’s day…and in this case, for no real reason at all two nights ago, a sudden fiery desire to finally watch ‘Midnight Cowboy’…a bleak drama about the world of male prostitution.
Anyone who has been a frequent reader of this blog should know me well enough that whenever I say what a film’s ‘about’, my definition is twofold. What a film’s about and what a film’s really about should be separated as quite different things. It’s the same difference as between the look of an orange and the taste of an orange (another food analogy, I must be subconsciously hungry). Let’s make this simple.
What ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is about:
A young, handsome and naïve Texan named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) quits his job to head the big apple to follow his dream of being a hustler. A dream people who know little about the film may snigger and scoff at but Joe’s passion and belief that he has a real gift in pleasuring women, and that this is his calling is as sincere as my writing and academic ambitions. Frankly, I rooted for him. Things don’t quite go quite as smoothly as he anticipated though, a hustler without a manager is like an amateur actor without an agent. He meets a sleazy and conniving small-time thief/conman named Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who initially scams him before they form a bond, forged by the scale of their dreams and poverty-ridden living situations. They go through the motions of survival. Rico’s health is continually deteriorating, and the two men decide to relocate once again to Florida where they will renew their ambitions.
What ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is really about:
For me, the prominent underlying theme is those on the other end of the American dream. Those that have to scrounge for money and do so perpetually in a bid to inch their way to success so far out their grasp yet a trick of the light makes it somehow seem close. People who somehow never had a chance. The very image Joe chooses for himself – a cowboy – is the epitome of the American hero. He grew up idolising John Wayne (who in an odd turn of events beat Voight and Hoffman to the best actor Oscar) and aspires to be like his onscreen idol – again, that illusion of something seeming so near – the TV screen – yet being miles away.
I’ve reviewed two Dustin Hoffman films back to back – both in extremely different roles – and cannot stress my awe enough at his versatility and dedication to his profession. I’ve often pondered what his finest acting role was. Most would say ‘Rain Man’ (understandable), or possibly ‘Tootsie’ (a film I wish with all my heart I was reviewing in this blog). One might lean towards his more down-to-earth roles, such as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ or ‘The Graduate’…for me though, I think I’ve made up mind on ‘Midnight Cowboy’. It’s a role like no other he’s ever played. He makes his character ooze a sort of slimy charisma. He is a fundamentally unlikeable and un-admirable and yet amazingly sympathetic character.
For those who don’t know, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was rated X upon its release. Nowadays it could probably pass for a 15 (in Britain). The sexual content and immoral thread if you will, not to mention the fact that the film breached homosexual themes was too much for censors in the 60’s but seems pretty tame now. But one aspect that most certainly hasn’t changed is the emotional impact. The characters and their situations are just as relevant and devastating now. I can honestly say ‘Midnight Cowboy’ may be the most depressing film I’ve ever watched. Not depressing as in traumatically sad like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ or ‘Schindler’s List’. Depressing as in unapologetically bleak. I’ve seen one other film of director John Schlesinger’s: the British New Wave movie ‘A Kind of Loving’. While he certainly exhibited his talent with honest and gritty portrayal of real-life in that, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is a crowning achievement, in cinema as well as for him personally.
It may make you deeply melancholy, but you will not regret watching ‘Midnight Cowboy’.
(Oh, and please stop fighting over whether “Hey, I’m walking here!” was improvised or scripted. Who cares, it’s a great moment. And it was improvised. Full stop.)
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