Midnight Cowboy (1969)

A review by Shlomoh Sherman
March 23, 2015

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Plot Synopsis: A naive male prostitute and his sickly friend struggle to survive on the streets of New York City. [A small town dreamer. A small time con man. An unlikely friendship. An uncommon bond. Oscar winners Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman star in this Academy Award winning drama for Best Picture.]
Director: John Schlesinger
Writers: Waldo Salt (screenplay), James Leo Herlihy (based on his novel)
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
Plot Keywords: hustler - new york city - male in shower - aging prostitute - big city life (252)
Taglines: Whatever you hear about Midnight Cowboy is true.
Genres: Drama
Certificate: X
Official Sites: MGM
Country: USA
Language: English - Italian
Release Date: June 16, 1969 (Brazil)
Also Known As: Perdidos en la noche
Filming Locations: Holy Name Cemetery, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA
114 East 72nd Street, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA (Sylvia Miles' Apartment) 2 of 2 found this interesting Filmways Studios - 246 East 127th Street, East Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA (studio), Miami, Florida, USA, Big Spring, Texas, USA, Stanton, Texas, USA (flashbacks), Sweetwater, Texas, USA, Hollywood, Florida, USA, Lincoln Tunnel, New York City, New York, USA, Mercer Street, New York City, New York, USA, Miami Beach, Florida, USA, Times Square, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
Box Office:
Budget: $3,600,000 (estimated)
Company Credits:
Production Co: Jerome Hellman Productions, Florin Productions
Technical Specs:
Runtime: 113 min
Sound Mix: Mono
Color: Black and White - Color

I have seen MIDNIGHT COWBOY at least 5 times and each time I see it, I marvel at the wonderful cinematic production in which every scene, every frame is meticulously and beautifully coreographed and executed.

The two films [both Staring Dustin Hoffman] which cracked open the Hollywood censorship barricade were THE GRADUATE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY but MIDNIGHT COWBOY completely shattered it. After its appearence, Hollywood movies were no longer the so-called "family values" affairs which insulted the intelligence of audiences but now reflected real life. Before reading up on the film a few days ago, I did not realize that the original rating for this film was X, usually reserved for porography, and later changed to R [17 and older without an accompanying adult].

The first time I saw the movie, I went with my ex-wife, Pamela, who had not seen Dustim Hoffman before, and when I told her that he really does not look like Rizzo but is really quite handsome, she remarked that she could tell he must be goodlooking.

As for Jon Voight, who auditioned for the role only after more well-known auditioning actors failed to get the role, the casting people could not have chosen any better. Not only is Voight an accomplished actor; his looks in 1968 were more than handsome. He was a beautiful man much like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

The basic plot of MIDNIGHT COWBOY is about the growing friendship between two most unlikely characters; Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo [Hoffman], a New York seedy hustler, and Joe Buck [Voight] a rural Texas would be male prostitute. Against the backdrop of an unfriendly and hostile "Big Apple", both men are drawn together in a fraternity of need to "beat the system" by preying on older, lonely, sexually needy women. After initially attempting to bilk Joe of his money and failing to do so, Rizzo agrees to become Joe's "manager" and pimp.

Unfortunately both characters turn out to be losers. Both are so out of their league as hustlers in a city rife with hustling. They are both simply unsophisticated and boorish to pull off the hustle, Rizzo because he lacks the emotional resoucres and contacts necessary for the project, and Joe because he is really too soft and decent a human being to actually take advantage of people and thus always winds up being taken advantage of by his marks, both male and female.

As Joe finds the money that he brought with him from Texas dwindling away and as Rizzo finds himself daily succuming to a respiratory illness brought about by his lifelong unhealthy lifestyle, both friends draw emotionally closer and closer together, each only wanting the best for the other whereas in the same situation two different men would abandon each other just to survive. Towards the film's unhappy ending, it is clear to the audience that both Rizzo and Joe, due to their mutual interdependence, have come to love each other.

Some of the scenes are quite intense and you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable with their vivid sexuality. For example, as stated below, Hoffman once revealed that "when the movie was first previewed, the audience started to leave in droves during the movie theater gay encounter scene between Jon Voight and Bob Balaban." After growing up with the Hayes Office Roman Catholic suppression of any kind of explicit reference to sex, I myself was astounded by the explicit portrayal of gay felatio actually appearing on the screen before me.

There are other scenes which give some kind of comic releif from the film's intensity and one reviewer thinks that they detract from the seriousness of the movie and cause it to be too long.
In MovieAddict2014's (UK) December 2004 review, he writes,
"Just about the only scene I felt was a bit too long and unnecessary was the drug party - it makes the film seem extremely outdated (similar to the drug odysseys in 'Easy Rider') and really harms its flow because it's not needed." But he also ends his review, stating, "Midnight Cowboy is an almost flawless motion picture. It does have its flaws (flashbacks are a bit tacky and never used as well as they could have been, for instance) and some of the scenes are a bit uneasy (such as the gay movie theater sequence) but if you can handle its content, Midnight Cowboy is a truly great motion picture, an uncompromising examination of life on the streets in the late '60s/early '70s. It's a depressing movie, yes, and by today's standards might seem a bit outdated and heavy on the liberal perspective of 'life is horrible, etc.'...but I still love it and particularly the extremely touching ending will stay with me for a long, long time."

I can not praise this movie enough, and if you have never seen it, please go to your local library and borrow it.

Jon Voight, a wonderfully versatile actor and true friend to Israel in an increasingly antisemitic world.
Dustin Hoffman, whose accomplishments are too numerous to mention; he has been entertaining us for many decades and we never tire of seeing him.
Sylvia Miles, as Cass, Joe's first unsuccessful attempt to exploit a NYC mark.
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Miles, Best known for her role in Midnight Cowboy as a hooker on a busman's holiday, who invites Joe Buck (Jon Voight) up to her apartment for sex, seemingly unaware he is in the same line of business. The role earned her an Oscar nomination in 1969 for Best Supporting Actress, despite only appearing on screen for about six minutes.
Bob Balaban, as the young gay man whom Joe approches in an attempt to act the part of a gay prostitute. Bob's career took off and we have seen him in many fine roles.
Brenda Vaccaro, as Shirley, the party girl, who takes pity on Joe and tries too late to help him in his pursuit as a hustler. Ms Vaccaro is a sweet, lovely woman who has been very underrated as an actress. In later years, I saw her portray Ethel Rosenberg in a television play.

Did You Know?

The film was rated "X" (no one under 17 admitted) upon its original release in 1969, but the unrestricted use of that rating by pornographic filmmakers caused the rating to quickly become associated with hardcore sex films. Because of the stigma that developed around the "X" rating in the ratings system's early years, many theaters refused to run "X" films and many newspapers would not run ads for them. The film was given a new "R" (children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian) rating in 1971, without having anything changed or removed. It remains the only X-Rated film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, be shown on network TV (although the R reclassification had taken place by then), or be screened by a sitting U.S. President, Richard Nixon.
Dustin Hoffman was originally chosen for the role of Ratso on the basis of an off-Broadway one-man show called "Eh!" in which producer Jerome Hellman saw him in 1965.
Before Dustin Hoffman auditioned for this film, he knew that his all-American image could easily cost him the job. To prove he could do it, he asked the auditioning film executive to meet him on a street corner in Manhattan, and in the meantime, dressed himself in filthy rags. The executive arrived at the appointed corner and waited, barely noticing the "beggar" less than ten feet away who was accosting people for spare change. At last, the beggar walked up to him and revealed his true identity.
Dustin Hoffman kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure his limp would be consistent from shot to shot.
Dustin Hoffman put in so much effort portraying one of Ratso's coughing fits that one time he actually ended up vomiting.
In one scene, Ratso and Joe get into an argument over cowboys. Ratso states that "Cowboys are fags!" Joe's response is "John Wayne is a cowboy! Are you calling John Wayne a fag?" Coincidentally, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for their roles as Ratso and Joe, respectively. They lost out - to John Wayne for his role in True Grit (1969).
On the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary in 1994, Dustin Hoffman revealed on Larry King Live (1985) that, when the movie was first previewed, the audience started to leave in droves during the movie theater gay encounter scene between Jon Voight and Bob Balaban.
Lee Majors was originally cast as Joe Buck, but had to pull out when his TV series, The Big Valley (1965), was renewed for another season.
Warren Beatty was very interested in playing Joe Buck but John Schlesinger thought he was too famous to be believable as a naive street hustler.
Michael Sarrazin was cast as Joe Buck but shortly before filming he pulled out over a wage dispute. Jon Voight was then brought in to replace him.
John McGiver played the religious fanatic, Mr. O'Daniel, with Jon Voight as Joe Buck, who'd been led to believe that O'Daniel is a bigtime pimp. McGiver had also played "Sen. Thomas Jordan" in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In the remake of that film 42 years later (The Manchurian Candidate (2004)), Voight played "Sen. Thomas Jordan".
M. Emmet Walsh's and Bob Balaban's film debut.
One studio executive sent director John Schlesinger a memo stating, "If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley." Presley wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and was interested in the role of Joe Buck. Presley went on instead to do Change of Habit (1969) with Mary Tyler Moore, which bombed, and became his last theatrical movie.
Dustin Hoffman stated during a 1994 interview with Larry King that Jon Voight (being from Yonkers, New York) originally did not get the part of Joe Buck because he was having trouble mastering the character's Midland, Texas accent.
Robert Blake was offered the part of Ratso, but declined.
Teenage girl fans of The Graduate (1967) would scream when they saw Dustin Hoffman filming in the streets of New York, even though he was in his filthy costume as Rizzo.
Harry Nilsson wrote the song "I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City" specifically for this film, but John Schlesinger preferred a Fred Neil song, "Everybody's Talkin'", which Nilsson had previously recorded. Other songs considered for the movie were Randy Newman's "Cowboy", and Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay".
Harrison Ford tested for the role of Joe Buck.
According to music producer Phil Ramone, Harry Nilsson's version of " Everybody's Talkin'" was originally used as a placeholder on the early edits of the film while waiting for his composition, "I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City" to be ready for slotting in to the final cuts. As often happens, the directer and producer got so used to hearing the filler song they ultimately stuck with it. Both have similar rhythms and melody lines.
In the bus scene M. Emmet Walsh told a dirty story to Jon Voight, but the scene was cut because of censorship considerations. The movie initially received an X-rating anyway.
Clearly alluded to in Vance Joy's 2013 hit single "Riptide": "There's this movie that I think you'll like / This guy decides to quit his job and head to New York City This cowboy's running from himself..." Beck parodies the film in the video for "Devil's Haircut" (1996), striding down the streets of NYC with a transistor radio, wearing a Stetson.

Ceilingless set and lighting equipment can be briefly seen in several shots in Cass' bedroom.
After Joe Buck's encounter with Towny, he and Ratso board the bus to Miami. But the bus then enters the south tube of the Lincoln Tunnel, which only carries eastbound traffic into New York.
As the bus Joe Buck rides approaches New York, the view focuses on the Statue of Liberty. However this shot is from the New Jersey Turnpike's Holland Tunnel-Newark Bay Extension (Interchange 14C) going southbound, away from New York. Minutes later in the same scene, the view from the bus shows the Midtown Manhattan skyline as it enters the Lincoln Tunnel.
When Joe Buck is sitting on the porch, dressed in a military suit, talking about his grandmother's death, he spits backwards.
When the main character, Voight, is hungry and destitute, he stops in a diner and sits with a weird mother and son. The son looks at the tracking camera not once but twice before dialog resumes. Easily edited, but left in, maybe on purpose.

[first lines]
Joe Buck: Whoopee-tee-yi-yo. Get along little dogies. It's your misfortune and none of my own. </p>
Joe Buck: I only get carsick on boats.
Ratso Rizzo: 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.
Joe Buck: Well, I can't say all that.
Ratso Rizzo: Rico, then.
Joe Buck: I like the way I look. Makes me feel good, it does. And women like me, goddammit. Hell, the only one thing I ever been good for is lovin'. Women go crazy for me, that's a really true fact! Ratso, hell! Crazy Annie they had to send her away!
Ratso Rizzo: Then, how come you ain't scored once the whole time you been in New York?
Joe Buck: Uh, well, sir, I ain't a f'real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!
Joe Buck: I'm brand, spankin' new in this here town and I was hopin' to get a look at the Statue of Liberty.
Cass: It's up in Central Park, taking a leak. If you hurry, you can catch the supper show.
Ratso Rizzo: Frankly, you're beginning to smell and for a stud in New York, that's a handicap.
Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Who the hell do you think you're dealing with, some old slut on 42nd Street? In case you didn't happen to notice it, ya big Texas longhorn bull, I'm one helluva gorgeous chick!

Fun City (uncredited) Music by John Barry
Joe Buck Rides Again (uncredited) Music by John Barry
Everybody's Talkin' Words and Music by Fred Neil Arranged and Conducted by George Aliceson Tipton (as George Tipton) Sung by Harry Nilsson (as Nilsson)
Tears and Joys Music and Lyrics by Jeffrey Comanor (as J. Comanor) Sung by The Groop
Midnight Cowboy (uncredited) Music by John Barry
Florida Fantasy (uncredited) Music by John Barry
Science Fiction (uncredited) Music by John Barry
He Quit Me Music and Lyrics by Warren Zevon (as W. Zevon) Sung by Lesley Miller

Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Did Joe and Ratso have a homosexual relationship?
Q: What was wrong with Ratso?
Q: What is 'Midnight Cowboy' about?

Message Boards:
Recent Posts:
"Trying to watch, it's horrible so far" - catdaddyd
"Really didn't like this film" - mrjoelabs
"Anybody else just love this movie?" - jimmyr5595
"Ratso's illness?" - tvcrazeddave
"Best opening scene in movie history" - Trimac20
"Did you find the ending happy or sad?" - This_is_an_outrage

Discuss Midnight Cowboy (1969) on the IMDb message boards

Cast overview, first billed only:
Dustin Hoffman ... Ratso
Jon Voight ... Joe Buck
Sylvia Miles ... Cass
John McGiver ... Mr. O'Daniel
Brenda Vaccaro ... Shirley
Barnard Hughes ... Towny
Ruth White ... Sally Buck - Texas
Jennifer Salt ... Annie - Texas
Gilman Rankin ... Woodsy Niles - Texas
Gary Owens ... Little Joe - Texas
T. Tom Marlow ... Little Joe - Texas
George Eppersen ... Ralph - Texas
Al Scott ... Cafeteria Manager - Texas
Linda Davis ... Mother on the Bus - Texas
J.T. Masters ... Old Cow-Hand - Texas

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