Friday, January 6, 2012

MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)



MIDNIGHT COWBOY (DIR: JOHN SCHLESINGER) (SCR:WALDO SALT, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY JAMES LEO HERLIHY)

1968 saw an enormous change in Hollywood when the Hollywood production code that had for decades put strict rules as to what could and could not be shown or said in films, came to an end.  For years directors like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock had battled against its restrictions, while films like 1966's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (with its raw language)  and 1967's BONNIE AND CLYDE (with its graphic violence) pushed the boundaries of the now antiquated production code (which had once dictated that  cartoon character Betty Boop had to wear a longer dress!).   Change seemed inevitable, and finally in 1968, Jack Valenti,  the head of the Motion Picture Association of America(known as the MPAA) ushered in a new era when he introduced the letter ratings "G" for general audiences, "M"for all audiences, but with some mature subject matter, "R" for no child under 17 allowed without a parent or guardian, and "X" for adults only ("M" would later become "GP" and finally "PG").  With just a little tweaking (PG-13 was added in 1984 and NC-17 in 1990), these ratings remain in use today.
The freedom to finally tackle adult subject matter, combined with the continuing influence of the counter culture and "youth" movement sweeping the nation, caused  an outpouring of new, innovative films that would make the late 60's and the early 70's one of the classic time periods for Hollywood.  (The 1999 book EASY RIDERS AND RAGING BULLS  by Peter Biskind excellently covers this era in detail).

Although MIDNIGHT COWBOY was not the first best picture winner to be rated by the MPAA, (1968's  OLIVER! got a "G"rating) it was the first truly adult film to ever win; in fact, it initially received an "X" rating, making it the first (and it's safe to say, only) film with that rating to ever win the award.  While it seem surprising today that an "X" rated movie ever actually won an Oscar for anything, it should be remembered that in 1968 an "X" rating did not mean pornography the way that it eventually would.  What happened was, for some reason the rating board failed to trademark the "X" rating, leading to porn film makers pouncing on it, often rating their films "XXX" to imply just how hardcore they were.  This got so out of hand that the MPAA would sometimes reverse themselves on non pornographic films being  rereleased, as they did with MIDNIGHT COWBOY, switching  it from an "X" to an "R" rating in 1971.  In the late 80's, films like HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER were considered too intense for an "R" rating, but weren't pornographic, which lead to the creation of the adults only "NC-17", rating, which is still mostly shunned by major studios and some theater chains, although a few brave films are released with it, like the recent SHAME. (For more on the MPAA, Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is certainly worth watching).

Jon Voight

MIDNIGHT COWBOY began as a film project after British director John Schlesinger read a copy of Jame Leo Herlihy's novel and immediately contacted producer Jerome Hellman about making the film; United Artists eventually agreed to a budget of over two million dollars, which would eventually balloon to 3.6 million.  After working with a number of writers, Schlesinger went with the formally blacklisted Waldo Salt; Dustin Hoffman, then best known for his classic comedy role as Benjamin Braddock in 1967's THE GRADUATE, strongly desired the role of the sleazy  Ratso Rizzo, and he gave an in character tour of New York's Times Square to Schlesinger to convince him.  Warren Beatty was apparently interested in the role of wannabe gigolo Joe Buck, but Schlesinger felt that he was too famous to make a believable low level hustler, and instead cast the mostly unknown Jon Voight, who spent time in Texas to work on his accent.  Schlesinger rehearsed his two actors, allowing for improvisation, and then shot the film in New York.  The shoot was difficult,  with the director claiming that many local grifters overcharged the film production to shoot there, hence the increased budget. Still, despite its adults only rating, it proved to be a big hit, making over 44 million dollars.
The film is about Joe Buck(Voight) a small town Texan who travels by bus to New York City with little money and no contacts, believing that he will be able to live off of the money given him by the rich women he will seduce.  With little to no luck, he eventually winds up living in an abandoned apartment with  Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo, a limping low level hustler who tries to get him "work."
It is interesting to note that for a film that broke ground in its depiction of sex (both heterosexual and homosexual), there is no real eroticism in the film, instead the sex is presented as just part of Buck's work, and it often involves sad, self loathing people.  (While the fact that all the gay men in the film are portrayed as guilt ridden and self hating may make the film homophobic,  it could also just be said to be an accurate portrayal of how most gay men were forced to live at the time).
The sex scenes are really of a piece with the whole film, which is often stark and bleak as it portrays two low lifes who sink further and further downward in a big, cruel city. And yet, Schlesinger's film also has much beauty in it, like the soon to be iconic shots of Buck walking the crowded streets as Harry Nilson sings the sad song "Everybody's Talkin'" on the soundtrack, or when we see Buck's flashbacks and fantasies in vivid black and white.  There are also moments of humor in the film, as when Buck makes his first successful pick up in New York, only to have her ask him for money, or when Ratso imagines himself living in Florida and becoming an unlikely ladies man.

Dustin Hoffman

The film's main strength lies in the great performances by the two leads:  with Ratso, Hoffman showed his dramatic range while putting his Benjamin Braddock character from THE GRADUATE to rest.  His Ratso, is greasy, sweaty and can't seem to stop hacking and coughing, yet he has a certain pride about himself as he limps his way defiantly through the city streets, angrily pounding on the hood of a taxi that almost hits him ("I'm walkin' here!  I'm walkin' here!").  Even though he shop lifts, we can admire his resolution to never shine shoes like his father did, and he clearly builds an affection for Buck, even if his initial interest in him was purely monetary.  And in the less flashy role of Buck, Voight is just as good as Hoffman.  Voight plays a dimwitted, naive character who winds up in a hell of his own making, but still somehow remains likable, and the chemistry he has with Hoffman is excellent, as the two form an unusual buddy duo; it's fun to hear them argue about Voight's cowboy outfit ("In New York, no rich lady with any class at all buys that cowboy crap anymore. They're laughin' at you on the street."), or have an odd conversation about reincarnation.
The film shows its age in an odd scene in which our two heroes are inadvertently invited to a Andy Warhol style party, complete with light show and a woman with a film camera filming stoned hippies rambling; while this scene is interesting in its recreation of the popular New York gatherings of that time, I think it goes on far too long, and when Buck gets high, Schlesinger uses it as an excuse to use all sorts of psychedelic effects that seem to pander to the drug users in the audience.
Another problem I have with the film is that it's almost too harsh in its story, with our two heroes having every opportunity to improve themselves shot down again and again as their horrid living quarters get even more oppressive in the winter months.  And the film's ending is a real twist of the knife: after Buck robs one of his pick ups, he uses the money to buy bus tickets to Florida for him and Ratso.  On the way, the ailing Ratso, begs Buck to call him by his real name of Enrico, and for the first time in the film, Buck agrees. Buck also tells Ratso that they should get real jobs in Florida, and he disposes of his silly cowboy outfit on the way; clearly, they both see Florida as a chance for a  new beginning, and things may finally be looking up for them, but then Ratso dies before the bus gets there. Although there's still some glimmer of hope for Buck, this is one raw ending, still I can't argue with the rightness of it, since it makes sense that for Buck to start a new life he has to leave both Ratso and New York behind.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?


It's interesting to note that, in a year where a film that has the word "cowboy" in the title that is not a western won best picture, three of the best westerns ever made were released.  Yes, Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE OLD WEST, George Roy Hill's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and especially Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH are all terrific films, and I also greatly enjoyed Sydney Pollack's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DONT THEY?, and any one of them would have a fine choice, but still, for its wonderful performances alone, MIDNIGHT COWBOY is certainly hard to argue with.