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Midnight Cowboy - An Urban Classic Featuring the Music of Nilsson

Updated on May 29, 2011
"Where is that Joe Buck?"
"Where is that Joe Buck?"
Best Director, 1969.
Best Director, 1969.
There is nothing like a hotel room to make you feel all grown up.
There is nothing like a hotel room to make you feel all grown up.

The 1969 film which won best picture, best director and best screenplay, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, is not glamorous or pretty, but Jon Voight is delightfully captivating as Joe Buck. A frisky Texan, he swaggers to the song, Everybody’s Talkin’, sung by Nilsson, conjuring for the audience a kind of sweet nostalgia and delectable surprise in actually liking the Country & Western tune .

The opening scenes with Joe singing cowboy songs in the shower are priceless. He buttons up his new duds, hearing the frantic cries of his disgruntled, restaurant employers, “Where is that Joe Buck!?”

As if they can here him up in his room, Joe grins tauntingly into the camera: “You know what you can do with those dishes”.

From a small town in Texas, Joe heads off to New York City with the bright, expectant look of candid naivete.

And though he appears, to us, innocent in contrast with the nefarious streets of New York, Joe Buck comes to the City with a lot of emotional baggage, which is revealed, intermittently, through flash-back vignettes that are disconcerting at best.


High-stepping cowboy.
High-stepping cowboy.
Ricco Rizzo and Joe Buck.
Ricco Rizzo and Joe Buck.

In a sentimental moment, Joe writes a postcard to one of his co-workers back home; then, flashing forward to the person’s bewildered reaction to the postcard’s strange exuberance, Joe tears up the missive and throws the pieces out of his hotel window, watching them scatter and float down through the air like confetti on New Year’s Day. But, as Joe finds out, you can scatter your past to the wind; nevertheless, the past will always come flying back into your consciousness.


Joe has resolved to call himself a hustler, and he literally struts in his polished, cowboy boots. (We know where Angelina Jolie gets her long legs – from her dad). Voight has a sleek grace, like a playful leopard leaping across Fifth Avenue or pouncing at his own image in the mirror – his cherubim smile beaming.


Invariably, he winds up forking out 10’s and 20’s from his cowboy-stitched wallet to people who hustle him, rather than the other way around – as planned. With this kind of trend, the money runs out fast, and he loses the hotel room that may have been lonely, but was at least shelter.


Soon, he is on the mean streets with their dingy diners; downtrodden unfortunates; sunless, cold auras; and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman plays Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, and he prefers to be called Rico; but, everyone calls him Ratso, to his dismay. Two years after The Graduate , Hoffman appears to have weathered two decades. A sickly, hobbled, thieving outcast who also hustles Joe out of a couple of 10’s, Rico eventually becomes Joe’s only friend.

The dream is dwindling.
The dream is dwindling.
"These are spiritual matters."
"These are spiritual matters."

Other movies come to mind, while watching this late-1960’s realism. Joe quickly sees the sparkle of the city diminish just as his dreams begin to dwindle. He walks down Fifth Avenue along that fast-stepping corridor with all the work-force passing him by, when he comes upon a man in a business suit face down on the sidewalk. Joe breaks the rhythm of the side walk traffic by stopping, while the passers-by continue straight ahead indifferently, in step with the fashion of typical big-city antipathy. And, Joe finds himself standing in front of Tiffany’s – he gazes at a well-dressed woman who gazes at a gorgeous jewel in the window: A somewhat humorous nod to the movie, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, (1961).

But, unlike Holly Golightly’s decent apartment with a quirky landlord, Joe finds himself in a squalid situation with Rico in a condemned building of barren, dirty floors and no heat. Joe’s Texas-sky-blue eyes dim at the sight of his forced set of circumstances. The past comes up stronger through dreams and flashbacks, in this shabby, ignoble place.

Through Hitchcockean camera work, we start to understand why Joe is struck with a kind of terror at the sight or sound of anything to do with religion. With the exception of nuns: to them, he shows a boyish politeness. But, God and Jesus are guilty by association. And all those associations lead back to the strict religion of his childhood.

Rico, a New Yorker through and through, can see the psychological beatings that engulf Joe like a brutal wave. Rico’s all-knowing, mild, brown eyes hold the wisdom of someone who sees into the soul. Indeed, he tries to engage Joe in conversation about the afterlife.

“It all depends on what you believe in”, Rico says. “Sometimes the spirit goes up… sometimes it goes other places.”

Joe answers, “now you’re talkin’ priest-talk”. But Rico defends his point; “I’m just sayin’, maybe you’ve gotta think about those things for a while.”

Where is the love?
Where is the love?
"I've got this whole thing figured out."
"I've got this whole thing figured out."

Rico foresees the sun-blanched vistas of Miami; the blissful strolls on the beach, wherein he no longer limps but obtains a kind of game-show host personality; the new, healthy life that he and Joe will live once they get out of New York. Through his sad, sagacious eyes, Rico sees it all – including, it seems, Joe’s pivotal mistake of giving-in to violence for money.

Both Hoffman and Voight chose to explore the outer limits of human frailty, and they did it so well – to the degree that the message transfers clear and distinct over the decades.

Midnight Cowboy defines the reality of the human condition through New York City pathos, Southern “moralism”, 1960’s psychedelics; and an Andy Warhol-like party. And as Women’s-lib was still just at the dawn of its emblematic title, the film expresses some of the fear and unease with the power and confidence of the modern woman. Joe becomes almost completely emasculated while in bed with one, played by Brenda Vaccaro.

Joe Buck is the hero of the story; but, his heroic acts are tinged with violence, placing his character among the ranks of tragic heroes, even as he and Rico roll into sunny Miami.


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    • tracykarl99 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, saddlerider! I'm so glad that this hub inspired you. I can only imagine how the miliue must have been when "Everybody's Talkin" was floating over the airwaves ~ it must have been wonderful! I just love this movie ~ can watch it over and over again!

    • saddlerider1 profile image


      8 years ago

      Very well done and the pictures are great. I was hanging out in the sixties and seventies in Montreal. This most definitely was a cult classic back then and more so now. Two fine actors, Dustin being my favorite. Even though they lost out the Oscar to John Wayne for his True Grit and also my favorite cowboy of all time. Both Hoffman and Voight went on to great careers and my cowboy John Wayne rode to the sunset.

      Everybody's Talkin was a hit and I sang it and listened to it for years after the movie. Thank you for this wonderful hub. I rate it UP UP and more UP

    • tracykarl99 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      eilander, I missed that episode. Their are some priceless scenes in the film. I love the beginning scenes of Joe Buck dressing in his room, mocking his boss. Then, on the bus driving through Texas - the laconic conversation between Joe and the old man. Joe Buck was something of a frisky innocent!

    • eilander1542011 profile image


      8 years ago from Everywhere

      John Voight is an excellent actor,but it is funny that I always initially think of the Seinfeld episode with his bite marks in George's pencil! HAHA!

      But nonetheless, I feel I am witnessing a developing trend in your subject matter tracykarl99 and I must say that it is intriguing to this reader. Write On!

    • tracykarl99 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      You are always welcome, Shinkicker! The movie truly is one of the great, classic films. I had no idea when I picked out the DVD recently; but, the story and acting affected me so strongly, I just had to write a hub ~ thanks for stopping by!

    • Shinkicker profile image


      8 years ago from Scotland

      Classic film Tracy

      I haven't seen it in years, great acting and direction

      Thanks for the Hub

    • tracykarl99 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks so much, Kosmo. I agree: they don't make movies like this anymore! Thank heaven for DVD's ~ "Everybody's Talking" stays and stays in my head after listening to it ~ a wonderful song! You mentioned John Barry, and epgramman mentioned Fred Neil's song, Dolphins. Will have to look into these. Thanks!!

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley Marks 

      8 years ago from California

      "Midnight Cowboy" is truly as classic film, and the first X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture and, along with "The Graduate" and "2001" the best of the 1960s. Moreover, "Everybody's Talking" has always been one of my favorite tunes, and don't forget John Barry's remarkable musical score. They don't create such movie music these days; all that money goes into special effects and chase scenes. Thanks for the nostaligia. Later!

    • tracykarl99 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, epigramman! I'm with you ~ not sure whether we need a remake; I am so attached to the original. It would be impossible, I think, to capture the era and to find extras like the Texan man on the bus, for example. How ironic that John Wayne got best actor that year, when Joe Buck idolized him so much in the movie! Though, I think it would have been tough to choose between Jon and Dustin ~ perhaps it was divine justice.

      I'm so glad you enjoyed this. Yes, I think that it can be watched over and again. Thanks so much, fan ~ waiting on your list.

    • epigramman profile image


      8 years ago

      ah ha! John Schlesinger !

      See you tomorrow with my top ten list!

    • epigramman profile image


      8 years ago

      I heard the rumour they were planning a remake - gee I hope not - it's perfect the way it is - just like your hubs which are like a virtual art gallery and museum.

      I love the score by John Barry and the opening song by Harry Nilsson - everybody's talking - became a big hit for him - which by the way was written by Fred Neil - who wrote one of the most beautiful songs you'll ever hear - Dolphins - check him out on You Tube!

      Both Jon and Dustin as you know were nominated for best actor (oscars) but lost out to John Wayne that year for True Grit.

      Yes it's one of my favorite films - you have brought back many memories for me - and I may watch it again tomorrow night - lol - and the irony behind 'Midnight Cowboy' - it was directed not by a native New Yorker but an englishman - John S

    • tracykarl99 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, drbj. The film really does convey a note of nostalgia, whether you remember the times or not. I think it is a beautiful, classic American film, though it is incredibly sad.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      I remember this film which I loved and your review captures it beautifully. Thank you, tracykarl, for this remarkable stroll down memory lane.


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