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Midnight Cowboy - An Urban Classic Featuring the Music of Nilsson
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.
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.
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.”
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.