Midnight Cowboy waltzed off with a Best Picture Oscar, and John Schlesinger and Waldo Salt with Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively, but this is a film that was and remains mystifyingly overvalued (there have been plenty of bad choices for the top prize since, but often with a degree of groundswell surrounding their lack of merit). That’s likely because it does suggest an end-of-an-era starkness – misery porn, one might call it – that, with Easy Rider (rightly) not in the running for the main award, made it an easy pick. Previously, I’d been more charitable towards the film, while nevertheless acknowledging that I didn’t see the same qualities in it as the cognoscenti, but on this occasion, I simply found it a patience-testing ordeal.
Even Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’, and the John Barry score, which I regarded as the highlights, became signposts of entirely resistible, artery-clogging melancholia. It may show me up as non-empathic philistine, but I was left entirely unmoved by the pit of blithe despair Jon Voight’s Joe Buck sinks into, thanks to his own unswerving dumbness. If Midnight Cowboy weren’t so excruciatingly maudlin, it would have to be a comedy.
Far from Of Mice and Men, in respect of giant lemon Joe and Dustin Hoffman’s “Ratso” Rizzo, a better analogy might be Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Or something with Norman Wisdom, under the impression he’s an irresistible draw to the ladies, who will pay for the pleasure, but instead continually finding a sex-starved Mr Grimsdale beating down his door; Joe essentially walks around with a sign on his back saying “kick me” for the entire movie (a devastating combination of his costume and dimness).
To be fair, not everyone loved it. Geoff Andrew, writing for Time Out, labelled it “outrageously overrated” adding “the film indulges bland satire, fashionable flashiness, and a sodden sentimentality that never admits either its homosexual elements or to the basic misogyny of its stance”. I’d take issue with Andrew in respect of the latter two points however, since its repeatedly stressed – often through irritatingly crude flashbacks/dream imagery, characterising his troubled past and subconscious in Subtext 101 detail – that Joe’s sexual bravado is merely empty posturing. You couldn’t get a clearer statement, where pretty much everyone is accusing him of repressed homosexuality, not least Brenda Vaccaro’s wealthy socialite, rousing him to “prove” himself otherwise; his final (possibly murderous) act in getting money from a self-loathing client by shoving a phone in his mouth (an act of penetrative self-loathing itself) is the natural “climax” of this. And with regard to the misogyny, you don’t need it to be spelled out, surely. Joe’s a fool, and Ratso’s an incorrigible opportunist.
Both Andrew and Pauline Kael referred to Midnight Cowboy as a satire, but this is the blunt, dull satire of scenarios that would normally be played for comedy of pain being considered satirical when played straight (Joe continually finds his attempts to get paid for his services undermined, at one point being shamed into paying his “client’s” cab fare). Robert J Landry’s Variety review of the period seizes on the scene where Joe comes across a body on the sidewalk and wonders what to do, since everyone else is studiously ignoring it; again, it’s the kind of thing that would be played “large” in a “straight” comedy (Crocodile Dundee, say) but here simply underlines our hick hero’s density.
Kael argued “the satire is offensively inaccurate – it cheapens the story and gives it a veneer of almost hysterical cleverness”, but she also becomes hung up on what she perceives as Schlesinger’s attack on America, and how he is “determined to expose how horrible the people are – he dehumanizes the people Joe and Ratso are part of. If he could extend the same sympathy to the other Americans that he extends to them, the picture might make better sense”. It’s certainly true that there’s scarcely a sympathetic soul elsewhere in the film, but the whole point is of an oppressive, predatory urban environment, and I’m not sure one could see it as an attack on the country itself any more than, say, Taxi Driver.
Where it seems I’m most out of step is with the central relationship. Kael again, asserted “what the audience really reacts to in Midnight Cowboy is the two lost, lonely men finding friendship” and “in the midst of all the grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America, the audiences, wiser, perhaps, than the director, are looking for human feelings”. Joe’s rigorous lack of self-awareness is a block to me. Hoffman delivers a sympathetic performance, yes, but it’s also a very showy one, designed for maximum self-glorification.
Andrew references the picture’s “glamorisation of poverty”, but Koraljka Suton considers it “one of the most heart-wrenching, raw and deeply empathetic depictions of homelessness we never asked for, but badly needed”. I don’t know about that. The stylisation of the performers – one a caricature of a cowboy, the other a cartoon homeless man – fights against a truly stark depiction, even in the face of the chic shivering and starving.
Kael, as per often critical of the film, said “the two actors… at the heart of the story save the picture” and it’s true enough that Voight and Hoffman are, such as they are, very good. Voight doesn’t put a foot wrong. And Hoffman, well, as noted, he employs every actorly trick in the book – hacking cough, limp, affected voice – to make for a very colourful (and Oscar-nominated) type. But there’s a performative zest preventing Ratso from being deeply affecting, underlined by the manner in which Schlesinger cynically wallows in their despair and ignorance.
It’s possibly ironic that John Wayne took the Oscar that year over Voight, given that Joe invokes the Duke when claiming dressing like a cowboy isn’t “faggy”. Still, Midnight Cowboy took the big two on the night (Picture and Director) and nabbed formerly blacklisted Salt a Best Adapted Screenplay, leading to a further win for Coming Home and a nomination for Serpico (he was also responsible for the screenplay for Schlesinger’s overwrought The Day of the Locust). Wayne’s win was, in part, surely a consequence of splitting the vote between Voight and Hoffman in the Best Actor category (I’m always surprised Hoffman wasn’t in Best Supporting, which you might assume he’d have won, but Jack Nicholson didn’t for Easy Rider, so go figure).
Of course, Midnight Cowboy lives in Oscar history for being the only Best Picture winner awarded the X rating… Except, the arbitrary application of the X was illustrated very clearly when, post-win, the movie was re-rated R. Which fits rather well with the immoderate veneration for a film that believes it’s profound and moving, yet is largely applied veneer, window dressing for an era.