Film: “Midnight Cowboy” (1968) with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman
You can read all the books about “Midnight Cowboy” you want. You can watch the documentary. But nothing is as impactful as actually viewing the remastered film, as I had the pleasure of doing at Film Forum recently. Despite its X rating, it won the Oscar for best film in 1968, and ranks high on my list of best films of all time.
What makes MC so highly respected is that it isn’t just one movie, it’s many. The first? An unofficial documentary of how cruel and heartless NYC can be to unassuming dopes like Joe Buck (Jon Voight). A very good-looking dishwasher from Texas, he naively believes that by heading here and donning a cowboy outfit, he can sweep Park Avenue ladies off their feet and get them to pay for sex. We Midnight Cowboy fans know what happens to that fantasy.
MC is also a buddy movie. Because the only person he connects with in New York is Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a hard-bitten guy who walks with a limp, is so broke he steals fruit from a sidewalk vendor, and who lives in a condemned building where all the windows are marked with an “X.” Ratso’s dream is to move to Florida and be the toast of Miami Beach. We also know what happens to that fantasy.
Burnishing these two stories are so much great acting and dialogue from yesteryear, you could explode with joy. Sylvia Miles as the quintessential NYC b*tch; Bob Balaban as the closeted gay teenager cruising a Times Square porno theater; Barnard Hughes as the closeted traveling salesman; and the young Brenda Vaccaro as the fur-clad party girl—that’s just for starters. As for dialogue, what New Yorker doesn’t want to scream “I’m walking here!” every time some Uber driver tries to cut you off in a crosswalk.
Another epiphany from rewatching MC: it is unafraid to show a sad, grit and lonely side of New York life (amplified by the fact that it takes place in pre-gentrified Manhattan of the 1960s.) This loneliness is conveyed through scenes of Joe Buck staring at a TV set in his crummy Times Square room, or a hippie mother and her son playing with a plastic rat in Horn and Hardart’s. If your child is thinking of moving here someday, please don’t let them see this movie.
Fifty-five years ago when I first saw “Midnight Cowboy,” I was a HS sophomore who like Joe Buck dreamed of living in New York. I’m happy every day that I moved here. But I’m equally grateful for directors like John Schlesinger who were unafraid to show that life’s not all peaches and cream in NYC. It never was, and it never will be. Hey, I’m talking here.