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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #42: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: John Schlessinger
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman

There’s no doubt that Midnight Cowboy is a watershed film, one of several that signalled a new direction in mainstream American cinema. Its acceptance by AMPAS set the stage for the series of dark, gritty films that would dominate the Best Picture race over the next decade; films that took chances and were willing to risk not being “crowd pleasers.” That being said, Midnight Cowboy is nevertheless a film that is exactly as unsuccessful as it is successful, as timid as it is brave.

The story of Midnight Cowboy is no doubt familiar even to those who have not seen it. It centers on Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a Texan who comes to New York to make a career for himself as an escort for lonely, rich women. From beginning to end, he looks entirely out of place in this setting, striding through the streets in his fringed coat and cowboy hat, looking entirely too earnest, wearing his gullibility on his sleeve. Joe’s a big guy but you worry about him anyway because he looks like such an easy target. One of his first “clients” turns out to be a prostitute herself and Joe ends up paying her from his little store of cash. Later still, he’ll be duped again, this time by a lowlife named Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), who sends him to the apartment of an evangelist who tries to make Joe repent.

Joe catches up with Ratso eventually but, instead of exacting revenge on him, agrees to let him become his “manager.” Ratso’s reasoning is simple: Joe has the looks, Ratso has the brains. However, even with Ratso’s ability to scam, things continue to look grim for both men. They hole up together in an abandoned building, fighting against cold, hunger and the inevitability of finding themselves thrown out. These scenes are the best in the film, imbued with an ugly, unflinching realism that makes this movie different from any other. Hoffman’s sickly looking Ratso and Voight’s increasingly deflated and downtrodden Joe fit in this setting and the film would be better if it followed through on the promise of this aspect of the story and allowed itself to be an outright, uncompromising tragedy.

Midnight Cowboy has a few flaws which, in and of themselves, could be surmountable but taken all together present a real problem to the film as a whole. The flashback scenes which detail both Joe’s childhood and an attack on him and a girlfriend in Texas are intrusive and clumsy. These scenes suggest much more than they illuminate and given that the film ended up with an X rating anyway, Schlessinger should have just gone for it and addressed the events in a direct way rather than washing them in ambiguity. Connected to this is the problem the film seems to have in dealing with its homosexual themes. Much has been said and written over the years about the relationship between Joe and Ratso which does, at times, seem almost marital, though I’ve always felt that it was rather one-sided with Ratso lusting for Joe and Joe accepting it because Ratso is more or less harmless. It’s a fascinating relationship, but the film seems to want to look away from this aspect of it as much as possible. Further, there’s a scene where Joe is with a John and turns violent with him and it seems so out-of-character that it disrupts the flow of the film.

There are a number of scenes which either don’t fit or just don’t work. One of them is the scene with the evangelist and another is the sequence which finds Joe and Ratso at a party. The whole feeling of this sequence is out of step with the greater part of the story and Joe and Ratso’s inclusion at the party ignores a fundamental fact about their characters: they’re outsiders. The essence of these characters is that they exist on the very fringes of society and to have them in a situation where they’re not only invited but also accepted by these other people undermines their story.

While I think that Schlessinger is ultimately misguided and too timid in his direction, the film does have two things strongly in its favour: the performances by Voight and Hoffman. I think that this is Hoffman’s finest performance, playing this character who could easily have crossed over the line to become a caricature, but Hoffman keeps him so grounded that he could slip off the screen and disappear into the streets. Voight’s role isn’t as flashy, but his performance is solid and assured and complements Hoffman’s nicely. These two actors in these two roles are the reason to see the film.

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