Empire Dreams and the New York City of "Midnight Cowboy"

After decades of Hollywood's glamorous treatment of New York, there needed to be a film that took in the city's good, bad and ugly sides.
Jeremy Carr

Initially a bustling urban backdrop for this new and correspondingly modern medium known as cinema, New York City has been a focal point of American movies since the inception of the form itself. Movies were made to move, and no place moved like NYC. At first, it was the city alone that dazzled filmgoers: the sheer scope and scale of Manhattan’s topography, the size of the city’s towering skyscrapers, the clustered ebb and flow of its lively population. Then stories emerged out of this concrete jungle, stories born from the teeming metropolitan setting: immigrant tragedies, gangster tales, social dramas of class inequality and economic expansion. Before long, Hollywood coopted New York, and suddenly, the bi-coastal portrayal of the Big Apple featured posh penthouses, swanky nightclubs, and a decidedly one-sided representation of the haves and have-nots (Hollywood liked the haves).

As an alternative, independent filmmakers took the city’s cinematic depiction back to the streets, literally and figuratively. Through the 1960s, artists like John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, and a whole host of more audacious underground figures dared to divulge a portrait of the city seldom seen by most, and ignored by just as many. But this wasn’t mainstream, and neither these gritty, subversive features nor the glamorous Tinseltown types conveyed to a wider populace the multifaceted character of contemporary New York City. There needed to be something in the middle, something nuanced, something that was realistic and provocative without being crude and obscure. There needed to be something popular without being frivolous, something that took New York’s good, bad, and ugly and presented it all without pretext. There needed to be something like Midnight Cowboy (1969). 

Based on Detroit native James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel of the same name, adapted by Chicago-born Waldo Salt, and directed by Londoner John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy, like New York itself, benefits from the influence of outsiders, from unique personalities with unique points of view. It’s why the film still feels so fresh and progressive—there’s enough creative diversity to keep its themes unrelentingly relevant. It’s also partly why Texas stud Joe Buck is so sympathetic in his fish-out-of-water predicament. Played by Jon Voight (who was, ironically enough, born in Yonkers), Joe reverses the “go west” trajectory that defined Horace Greeley’s concept of Manifest Destiny. Here is a cowboy who wants to go back east, one who seeks freedom and opportunity where the journey of so many began. He takes his western attire and down-to-earth manner and plans to transfer his homespun creed to a seemingly incongruous metropolis. But not just any metropolis—his boots are bound for New York City, the iconic American hub that emblematizes the land of liberty.

What gets Joe into trouble is his naïve optimism. It’s the kind of idealistic credulity that spoils many a starry-eyed dreamer, leaving them “eaten alive by this city” (as New Yorkers are so fond of cautioning). Fed with the saccharine prospect of prosperity catered by popular movies and television shows, Joe’s romantic view of New York City is bound to set him up for disappointment. It’s never shown where exactly he gets the idea that a hustler’s life is one of ease and plenty (we hear radio proclaiming the virtues of the city, tantalizing Joe and signaling his New York arrival via a WABC broadcast), but that simplicity catches up with him. It starts with what he thinks is his first client. But no, Cass (Sylvia Miles) is no 42nd Street slut. Perhaps sensing his inexperience and peculiarity (aw-shucks Joe marvels at her “real damn penthouse”), Cass turns on the waterworks when the Lothario mentions payment for his services. Maybe she’s earnest; maybe it’s her own hustle.

This isn’t going to go well. Head above the crowd in a long lens illustration of isolation and loneliness, even amongst a vast ocean of Midtown faces, Joe quickly becomes an aimless roamer, less bitter and disturbed than Robert De Niro’s notorious 1976 taxi driver, but suffering from that same alienation. Soon short of ready cash, Joe gets locked out of his room at the Hotel Claridge, with its pay-to-play television set and its Times Square view, both suggesting inaccessible engagement and vibrancy. That’s life. It’s a cutthroat existence that affects and infects all types. It’s certainly what has shaped and toughened Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo, a street-smart New Yawker played by Dustin Hoffman (on the flipside of the Voight irony, he’s a native Angelino). Fresh off his clean-cut role in The Graduate (1967), Hoffman radically transforms into the slick, sticky schemer who wins Joe over with his apparent business acumen—“You really know the ropes,” proclaims the gullible Texan. Like a shark circling fresh blood, the savvy Ratso senses Joe’s innocence and seizes on the opportunity. He sets him up with much-needed management, but that management turns out to be a deranged televangelist/pimp played with frighteningly abhorrent enthusiasm by John McGiver.  

Soon after a vengeful Joe accosts the duplicitous Rasto, the mousy manipulator does rather admirably attempt to set things straight. He puts on a flimsy dignified veneer and offers Joe room and board. This surprisingly kind gesture notwithstanding, further sympathy goes Ratso’s way when his own dire straits are made explicitly evident. Grimy, tattered, and battered, Ratso is a walking syndrome of his environment, a gristle by-product of the unforgiving streets. He touts a “private entrance” to his dilapidated East Village tenement, and finds a silver lining around its decrepit cloud: “The X on the window means the landlord can’t collect rent—which is a convenience—on account of it’s condemned…. The electric’s off. Another convenience. I don’t mess with Con Edison. What the hell, I got candles.”

Joe goes along to get along (he hasn’t got much choice), but it’s not clear if even Ratso buys what he’s selling with this real estate spiel. Either way, it’s a good pitch, and it testifies to Ratso’s persistent optimism. Just as Joe has been hankering for a taste of the big city, Rasto has his own getaway Miami dreams (the grass is always greener). You can’t help but respect his endearing if pathetic determination. After all, it’s gotten him this far. With his blatant disposition to cheat and steal, maybe his ethical standards leave a little to be desired (to say nothing of his dubious hygiene). Still, his scheming pays off. It doesn’t last, but it pays off. He manages to secure Joe a short-lived clientele, then the fates twist. Physically on his way out before Joe ever entered the picture, Ratso’s hacking infirmity deals a deathblow.

Midnight Cowboy

The affectionate and engaging relationship between Joe and Ratso, a charmingly domesticated routine isolated from the external clamor and the corruption, is one of the great miracles of Midnight Cowboy. Just how deeply felt this attachment is becomes apparent when Joe is forced to provide for his ailing buddy. He had already exhibited confidence, resourcefulness, and an incorruptible decency; now, he displays a willingness to do whatever it takes to help a friend in need, however demeaning it may be. By the end of the film, it’s generally implied that Joe would have survived and possibly even thrived. But his devotion to Ratso takes precedence. Their bond usurps his increasingly burgeoning success.

This rapport between Joe and Ratso is one of opposites-attract disparity. It’s also indicative of New York’s characteristic melting pot constitution. Where else could these two end up as unlikely companions? Someone like Joe may be an oddly shaped piece of this municipal puzzle, but in this city, there will always be a place for his type to fit in. It just takes some effort. It’s a town that welcomes odd-ball togetherness and blossoms with improbable connections. Though Warholian “wackos” do make an appearance and do a good deal to define Midnight Cowboy’s quintessential late-60s scene, most of those in the film aren’t quite part of a obvious counterculture (they have far less pretense than that). Yet this is a place where people come together under the social umbrella of kindred quirks and outcast spirits, from eccentric cafeteria personalities to those who populate the film’s marginal gay culture. (There’s something to be said for the unabashed presence of gayness in Midnight Cowboy—likely owing to Schlesinger’s own closet homosexuality—though these figures are still marred by abnormal deviant traits.)

While it’s a patently less Disneyfied picture of what would become New York’s marketable tourist trap, Midnight Cowboy’s portrait of the city itself is not so shocking today. Rather, what’s remarkable is that there would be a film devoted to such a milieu, with its bleak, sordid street-life and its unflattering protagonists. Of all the films made in and about New York City to this point, at least those that fall into a comparatively conventional category, Midnight Cowboy best captures the chaotic and manifold audio-visual essence of the setting’s disorder. Hugh A. Robertson’s rapid, jump-cut montage wildly distorts and distends the film’s spatial and temporal capacity, while the gritty cinematography by Adam Holender underscores a grainy aesthetic rendering of the fantasies and nightmares that drive the film’s central characters. Of course, much of this is heightened by the surrounding city, resulting in a studied capitalist contrast of Tiffany & Co. glitz and Mutual of New York wealth with low-rent diners and dingy flophouses. Nighttime, daytime, if there’s one thing Schlesinger’s film broadcasts, it’s that in 1969’s New York, everything is in view. There is no escape.  

If there’s a downside to Midnight Cowboy’s cultural sketch, it’s that the sharp distinction between Joe’s rural Texas type and Ratso’s New Yorker personification are disparate personalities taken to the extreme, largely ignoring the socioeconomic gulf in between. To its credit, however, the film does confront some of the coastal elitism that forms a stranger’s view of the superficially conceited city. When a bewildered Joe happens upon a man sleeping on the sidewalk, as day-to-day passersby ignore the fallen figure, the film not only suggests New York’s promoted capacity for seen-it-all-before cynicism, but condemns its negative jaded apathy. Additionally, in flashback glimpses of Joe’s upbringing, Midnight Cowboy reveals a past life of cruelty, harassment, and abandonment, proving New York doesn’t hold a monopoly on despair and mistreatment (hell, Joe even gets honked at crossing the street of his one-horse Lone Star town). In the end, Joe Buck was genuinely hoping to make his mark and succeed. It just didn’t work out that way. That’s the chance one takes. That’s the hard truth about this booming, alluring, and brightly prosperous city: But for the grace of evident and crucially observed talent or—even more often—blind luck, so goes the plight of many a New York transplant. 

Infamously rated “X” at the time of its release, primarily for its homosexual content, Midnight Cowboy became the first and only such designated film to win an Academy Award (its rating was downgraded to an “R” in the early 1970s). Not only did it win for Best Picture, it also scored victories for Schlesinger and Salt’s script, and nominations went to Robertson’s editing, Miles’ supporting role, and to Hoffman and Voight for their extraordinary performances. This last award denial stings a bit, though. Nominations are fine, but these two actors have never been better than they are here, and if any of the above works as well as it does, it all hinges on their respective and collaborative contributions. Had the two not been placed in the same group (Hoffman in the supporting category seems reasonable), that year’s ultimate winner, John Wayne—playing a completely different kind of cowboy in True Grit—may never have been so honored. Ah, but who needs the Oscars anyway? That’s Hollywood. This is about New York. 

Midnight Cowboy opens “Ford to City: Drop Dead - New York in the 70s,” a series running Wednesday, July 5 through Thursday, July 27 at Film Forum, programmed by Bruce Goldstein.

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