Saturday, January 28, 2012

THE GODFATHER (1972)


THE GODFATHER (DIR:FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA) (SCR: FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA & MARIO PUZO, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY PUZO)

The Academy's pick of  THE GODFATHER for best picture of 1972 was such a natural, perfect choice, that it ranks up there with CASABLANCA as one the best choices that they have ever made.  Like CASABLANCA, THE GODFATHER has been remembered as one of the all time great Hollywood movies, one that is still quoted, homaged and parodied to this day.  And also like CASABLANCA, no one involved in the making of the film had any idea that they were making a classic during its production, especially not director Francis Ford Coppola, who came close to being fired by Paramount more than once during the shooting process. 
It's genesis began in 1968 when Paramount executive Robert Evans bought the rights to author Mario Puzo's treatment for the novel before it was published.  When the book was published to great success a year later, the studio put the film into production. After Sergio Leone passed on directing it, Coppola became the eventual choice.  He was also hired to write the script with Puzo, and they quickly went to work, wisely throwing out all the odd tangents the book went off on, keeping the story focused on the Corleone family.  As a director, Coppola had directed six not particularly well known features (most notably  THE RAIN PEOPLE) before being picked, and it has generally been admitted that the studio hired him because he was not well known and they thought he could be easily controlled.  Little did they know what they were in for; once Coppola got his teeth into the project he began to feel very strongly about it, fighting them on nearly every decision they had made, and in all fairness, who could blame him.  When one looks at the often boneheaded ideas that the Paramount execs had for the film, it seems downright miraculous that a classic was created: originally, the story's period settings were going to be thrown out so that it could be made more cheaply in a modern setting. They wanted Robert Redford(!)  for the pivotal role of Micheal Corleone.  They hated the idea of hiring the famously difficult  Marlon Brando to play Vito Corleone, and they didn't want to let Coppola shoot some scenes on location in Italy.  Somehow, the young director was able to win every argument with the studio, first demanding that the film be made as a period piece, then getting them to go along with Brando by shooting a screen test in full makeup at the actor's home; he also hired then unknown actor Al Pacino for the role of Micheal, and eventually got the studio to let him shoot some scenes in Italy.  The shooting process was often chaotic; the studio demands to finish the film  caused Coppola to clash with veteran cinematographer Gordon Willis when Willis took too long to set up his shots.  Amazingly, the studio wasn't even happy with the dailies they were getting. Meanwhile, the at first low budget picture's budget swelled to over six million dollars.  But Coppola soldiered on, and the film eventually became one of the highest grossing ever, bringing in over one hundred and thirty million dollars to the studio.

Marlon Brando

Set in the time right after World War II, the film tells the story of the Corleone crime family, led by the aging Vito "the don" Corleone, aided by his sons Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo (John Cazale) and adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).  His third son, Micheal (Pacino) has spent his whole life avoiding the family business, choosing to enlist in the army instead.  But when an assassination  attempt is made on Vito, Micheal finds himself joining in, eventually killing the men responsible and fleeing to Italy.  While he is gone, Sonny is killed by rival gangsters; shortly after his return the don dies of a heart attack, and Micheal takes over as leader of the family, proving to be even more ruthless than his father was.
Given how difficult the production of the film was, it really is amazing how excellent it is on every level: from Nino Rota's beautiful score to Willis's shadowy cinematography, to the terrific period touches from production designer Dean Tavoularis; even the old age makeup used on Brando, designed by legendary makeup man Dick Smith (who also aged Dustin Hoffman in 1970's LITTLE BIG MAN), is perfect, with Brando's look and raspy voice (based on real life gangster Frank Costello) quickly becoming iconic.    Impressively, Coppola managed to make a gangster film that acknowledged and homaged previous ones (a montage of newspaper headlines moves the story along, a favorite technique from classic Hollywood films) while also being boldly new in its realistic depiction of mob violence.  And the performances!  Even the casting of the smallest roles feel right; in a surprising risk that paid off wonderfully, the film is opened by a monologue given by an undertaker named Bonasera, played by Salvatore Corsitto.  Surprisingly, Corsitto had never acted in a film before, but he perfectly sells the emotion of an honest businessman who finds himself begging to a gangster for "justice".  And he has one of the best opening lines in movie history:"I believe in America." 

Al Pacino

Brando won a best actor award for his work in the film, and while I think his character is more of a supporting one, he is, simply,  great.  I love how he carries himself with a regal bearing, fully aware of his position of power.  He usually moves slowly and considers his actions carefully, although he is capable of sudden movements, as when he angrily slaps his godson Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino). And who can forget the way that he almost playfully chews over the soon to be legendary line "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." One nice thing about this movie is that it shows the famous, older Brando passing the torch along to younger actors who grew up admiring him like Pacino, Caan and Duvall. And they wouldn't disappoint him, from Duvall's soft spoken but ruthless Tom, to Caan's  fast talking, hot headed Sonny, each performance is memorable and solid.  And as for Pacino, I think he should have won the best actor award instead of Brando; the slow corruption of Micheal is really the film's fulcrum, and he carries it beautifully, displaying a subtlety that would often be sorely lacking in his later roles.  (The affecting moment where he looks down at his father lying in a hospital bed and pledges to protect him is a very important moment for the character that he underplays brilliantly).   I even think that Diane Keaton  is very good as  Kay Adams, a sweet young woman who falls for Micheal without knowing anything about his family; its a bit of a thankless role in that her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Micheal after years of not seeing him is hard to believe, but I think she's necessary to the story, being the only really likable character in the film.  And it is perfectly appropriate that the film's ending is seen through her eyes, chillingly showing just how vicious Micheal has become when a killer swears fealty to him while a door is slammed in her face. The only performance I have trouble with is Talia Shire's as Connie Corleone, who overplays her hot headed female Italian stereotype character.  The scene where she and her new husband  Carlo (Giani Russo) violently fight is perhaps the film's weakest; although not bad, it goes on too long.  
While the film is often remembered for its graphic, violent moments, such as the brutal shooting of Sonny, or the brilliant way that Coppola cuts from Micheal's son's baptism to scenes of his hit men killing rivals, many of my favorite scenes are the quieter moments, as when Vito and Micheal discuss family business with weary resignation of what must be done, while the mantle of power is passed from Vito to Micheal (Coppola admits that screenwriter Robert Towne quickly wrote this scene just before it was shot). Or the way that Vito powerfully breaks down upon seeing Sonny's bullet ridden corpse, and, the tables now turned, finds himself begging to Bonasera to make the corpse presentable, memorably saying"use all your powers, and all your skills. I don't want his mother to see him this way."

When gangster films first began appearing in the 1930's, moral critics of the day were outraged over how they humanized brutal men, and that same charge was made against THE GODFATHER;  while I love the film, I can't say that these charges are entirely wrong.  Although it is tragic that a good man like Micheal becomes a mob leader, it is hard to criticize his first gangster action when it involves protecting his helpless father.  And when he kills the men responsible for the shooting of his father, his desire for revenge is understandable.  Furthermore, Vito himself is likable when he refuses to enter the lucrative drug trade for moral reasons, and when the mob families all join together to finally discuss drug trafficking they seem reluctant, and pledge to keep it out of schools.  Really, in many ways the gangsters often seem like legitimate businessmen making deals, which I believe is Coppola's point;  Gangsters are the real Capitalists.   In any event, the charge of making the mob too likable stung Coppola, who consciously decided to make Micheal  more despicable in the second film.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It is a real tribute to just how amazing a period the early seventies were for films that, along with THE GODFATHER, 1972 also gave us two other classics: Bob Fosse's CABARET and John Boorman's DELIVERANCE, and while I do love those films (I think CABARET is one of the best musicals ever), THE GODFATHER is such a great film, and one that holds up to repeat viewing so well, that its choice was as inevitable as it was right.





Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)


THE FRENCH CONNECTION (DIR: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN) (SCR: ERNEST  TIDYMAN, BASED ON THE NONFICTION BOOK THE FRENCH CONNECTION: A TRUE ACCOUNT OF COPS, NARCOTICS AND INTERNATIONAL CONSPIRACY)

Just two years after giving the gritty, adult, New York set film MIDNIGHT COWBOY the best picture award, the Academy again embraced a dark urban film that illustrated just how much Hollywood had changed in the new decade: William Friedkin's violent cop film THE FRENCH CONNECTION.  
The film began as a nonfiction book by Robin Moore about the biggest drug bust in history.  The book raised the interest of Friedkin, who was relatively unknown at the time, but who eventually got Richard Zanuck of 20th. Century Fox to produce it for around two million dollars.  Former New York Times reporter Ernest Tidyman was hired to adapt the book, while various actors were discussed for the lead role of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who was based on real life cop Eddie Egan. Names like Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason were thrown around, and even New York based writer Jimmy Breslin was considered before Gene Hackman, probably then best known for his supporting role in BONNIE AND CLYDE, was cast, followed by Roy Scheider as his partner Buddy Russo.  Before making the film, the two actors spent time patrolling with the real life cops their characters were based on.  Hackman was shocked by the experience, and came to dislike Egan, which lead to some tension with him and Friedkin,  with the director  wanting Popeye to be more brutal and racist than Hackman was often willing to play.  Despite this, the film would become a huge hit, making over fifty million dollars in the US, and influencing nearly every cop film and TV show that came after it.

Gene Hackman

The film's story is simple:  French drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Ray) is planning for a huge shipment of heroin to arrive in New York city.  Two Brooklyn based cops, Jimmy Doyle and Buddy Russo, get wind of the shipment, and begin tailing Charnier and some other suspicious characters.  After several shoot outs and chases, the police stop the shipment, although Charnier escapes at the end.

Although 1968's BULLITT clearly had an influence on this film (especially in the car chase scene), THE FRENCH CONNECTION was really where the modern cop film began. For years, cops on screen were portrayed as noble straight arrows who only used force when necessary, like Jack Webb on TV's DRAGNET.  Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle couldn't be further away from that: he's a driven, almost obsessive character who casually uses violence on suspects, unapologetically makes racist comments, and, in the film's most shocking scene, shrugs off his accidental shooting of a government agent while pursuing Charnier.  He drinks too much, lives in a shabby apartment, and, other than a one night stand, has no personal life.  He truly lives for his job, clearly relishing the way he intimidates and frisks an entire bar  and having no problem with going on stake outs that can last hours; the only moment in the film where he appears really happy is when he and Buddy discover that the wire tap they're listening to has given them definite information.  Hackman may have fought with Friedkin over how to play the character, but his intense performance won him a best actor Oscar and made him a star.  
Along with setting the tough cop template, there are other cop movie cliches that this movie more or less created: the strong bond between the two partners, complete with funny, foul mouthed macho banter, the often apoplectic  police chief who takes the heroes off the case, the seemingly erudite but actually evil drug lord (Fernando Ray makes a good villain), and, of course, the car chase.  Personally,  I think the chase here does indeed oneup the chase from the aforementioned BULLITT by making it a chase between a car and a speeding subway train, also through it's clever camerawork (I love the point of view shots from inside Popeye's speeding car) and by making the assassin that Popeye is chasing a real murderous slime of a villain (he shoots several innocent people), making Popeye's eventual victory (he shoots the baddie in the back) all the better. Unfortunately, the popularity of this  chase and the one in BULLITT would lead to one of the worst trends of 70's movies: films that were built almost entirely around car chases, like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

The classic chase scene

Friedkin began his directorial  career making TV documentaries, and he uses that realistic technique to good effect in the way that he and his cinematographer Owen Roizman shoot  the steamy streets of New York city.  The constant motion and crowds make even a simple scene like Popeye tailing a suspect exciting.  I also like the way that Friedkin sets the tone of the film right away, with Don Ellis's thumping score grabbing the audience while the opening credits shoot out at the audience, promising action to come.  Yes, over forty years later, after literally hundreds of movies and TV shows with chase scenes and shoot outs, Friedkin's film still feels thrilling.  Sometimes, I think he may overdue the grittiness of the  film; in one scene, we see the remains of a car accident that has nothing to do with the film's main plot, and there is more than one pointless shot of the bloody bodies.  (One can almost sense Friedkin's glee at being able to show gore in a movie that he couldn't have a few years earlier under the production code.)  I also think that the film's ending is a cop out; Hackman chases Charnier through an abandoned garage, he thinks he has him cornered, we hear a gunshot without seeing what's going on, and then some credits tell us what happened to most of the characters.  Although I admire directors who confound audience expectations, I think it doesn't work here.  The whole film has been building up to a confrontation between Popeye and Charnier (they never speak to each other, but they know about each other), and by avoiding that confrontation Friedkin leaves the film unresolved.  Still, overall, this is a terrific action picture.
It is interesting to note that there was another influential cop picture released that year; Don Siegel's DIRTY HARRY, and the similarities of the two films are striking:  they are both violent films featuring tough guy cops  who often bend the rules on the mean streets of big cities.  The crucial differences are that Clint Eastwood's Harry is an outright hero, whereas Popeye is far less likable (Harry would never make a mistake like shooting a federal agent), and that Siegel's film is less realistic than Friedkin's, and really is downright cartoonish at times.  I don't think that it's a coincidence that the two films came out at the same time, with then President Richard Nixon promising to get tough on crime and often violent war protests still rocking the nation, audiences flocked to see movies that showed cops restoring order and taking down scum bags. But not everyone was as thrilled as they were, with both Harry and Popeye being labeled as Fascists by a number of people, like film critic Paulene Kael.  To be fair,  I think part of the reason people go to movies is to watch stories that have simple resolutions in which bad guys get what's coming to them, realizing fully that  the real world doesn't always work out so easily, so the Fascist label seems too harsh to me, even if I do cringe when Harry tortures a criminal for information in DIRTY HARRY.  In any event, both films are interesting as signs of their times, along with being entertaining films in their own right.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I'm clearly a fan of this film, I think another violent movie released that year was even better: Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  I also greatly enjoyed Robert Altman's MC CABE AND MRS MILLER and Alan Pakula's KLUTE, still, for its influence alone, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a good choice.




Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PATTON (1970)

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PATTON (DIR: FRANKLIN J. SHAFFNER) (SCR:FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA & EDMUND H NORTH)

The 1970 best picture winner PATTON often has the feel of an old style, 1940's World War two propaganda film, with its mostly bloodless action scenes and righteous war attitude, not to mention its use of old style news reels to move the plot along.  At the same time, it features the kind of lead character that could never be realistically portrayed in one of those films: the cantankerous, foul mouthed, slightly crazed military genius, George S Patton.
The film was the result of a nineteen year attempt by brigadier general Frank Mc Carthy to have a movie made about his former boss during World War two.  When he had trouble getting the blessing of Patton's family, he purchased the rights to two books (the biography PATTON: ORDEAL AND TRIUMPH by Ladilas Fargo and A SOLDIER'S STORY by Omar Bradley) about the man, and then went to work with 20th. Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck  hired the then little known screen writer and director Francis Ford Coppola to write a script.  Although he had no military experience himself, Coppola  did a lot of research before writing, but, when actors like Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Rod Steiger all  were considering the title role, none of them liked his script and a more conventional one was written.  However, when  George C Scott was finally chosen for the role of Patton, Coppola's script was brought back and rewritten by writer Edmund H. North, who would share screenwriting credit and an Oscar with Coppola, even through the two would not actually meet until the night of the awards ceremony!  Directors like Fred Zinnemann and John Huston were considered to direct the film, and William Wyler actually agreed to before leaving after numerous fights with Scott.  Finally, Franklin J. Schaffner was picked, a logical choice given that in 1968 he had successfully made the hit film THE PLANET OF THE APES, which showed that he had a skill for big scenes with lots of extras. From that film, Shaffner brought along composer Jerry Goldsmith, who's odd, muted trumpet score for Patton is certainly memorable, if far from what one would expect for a war film.
Not surprisingly, PATTON proved to be a massive undertaking, with locations in six different countries and the employment of dozens of tanks and warplanes.  Meanwhile, Scott immersed himself into the role, reading biographies, watching newsreel footage and making sure that the makeup department got just the  right look.  All the work would pay off, as both Schaffner and Scott would win Oscars for their work, and the film would become a big hit, returning about sixty million dollars in box office on a budget of over twelve million.
The film's story opens in Tunisia in 1943.  After a humiliating loss to the Germans under the leadership of Erwin Rommel,  US general George Patton has been sent to aid general Omar N. Bradley(Karl Malden).  Patton instills discipline in his men and leads them to victory.  He is then sent to aid in the allied invasion of Sicily.  While there, his aggressive ways anger the British leaders even as he proves  his worth in battles.  After slapping a shell shocked soldier that he considers a coward, he is relieved of duty.  But during the D Day invasion of Normandy he is brought back, first as a decoy, and then he is allowed to lead an army through France that eventually reaches Germany itself.  As the war ends, his dislike for the Russians and continued outspoken manner get him in trouble again, and he retires, although he does help oversee the rebuilding of Germany.

George C. Scott

The film's opening is its most famous scene: we see an enormous American flag on a stage.  In full military regalia, Patton appears and, even before he speaks, we see from his manner, his medals and, yes the ivory handled pistol he wears in a holster, that this is an important man in a moment that will make history. He then gives a rousing, profane, funny, and slightly crazed speech that Scott delivers with such gravel mouthed gusto that he probably would have won the best actor award for this scene alone. The speech itself is not taken verbatim from one speech he gave, but instead combines several lines he said, almost like a "greatest hits" collection.  Interestingly,  no context is given as to where he is or what battle his men will be in, but then none is needed; the scene is about defining his character, and it does that perfectly.  It also sets out the film's main theme: sometimes you have to have a crazy man on your side to win a war.
Throughout the film,  Patton's balance of brilliant tactician and battle hungry zealot is joyfully expressed by Scott's performance; we see that he clearly knows how to win battles and push his men to their full extent, but then we also see him single handedly try to shoot down two German fighter planes with nothing but a pistol, as bullets fly around him. And we find that he not only believes in reincarnation, but that he also believes that he himself has fought in every major battle in the history of the world.  Truly, he sees himself as an eternal warrior! Scott's broad performance as  Patton is offset by the more subtle job that Karl Malden does as general Bradley, who not only counterbalances Scott but serves as his voice of reason for him, a voice that Patton doesn't always listen to.

George C. Scott and Karl Malden 

Director Scraffner keeps the movie moving quickly, even at almost three hours; and if the film sometimes falls into a predictable pattern, with another battle, and then another moment when Patton says or does the wrong thing, its never really boring.  The most impressive combat moment comes early on, when Rommel's tank forces clash with the Americans, as huge explosions throw up clouds of dust in the air.  And it has a great conclusion, as Patton gleefully admits that he won by reading Rommel's own book about tank warfare beforehand.  ("Rommel,  you magnificent bastard, I read your book!")
Periodically in the film, we see the German officers making battle plans; these scenes mainly exist just to show how much respect the Germans had for  Patton, and don't feel necessary.  I think it's unfortunate that none of the Germans really come across as characters (Karl  Micheal Vogler makes little impression as Rommel), since that leaves the film without any strong villains. And I also wish that there was more feeling for how Patton's men felt about him; we hear him saying that he will push them hard and leading them into battle, but we never get to know any of his men or how they feel about him.  Really, this film is a one man show, with Scott in nearly every scene, but fortunately his performance and the character he plays are compelling enough that that's not really a problem.
Another interesting thing about the film was the way that it was perceived by  American audiences; in a country at war in Viet Nam and strongly divided by it, both sides could see something to like in PATTON.  Pro war advocates (like president Nixon, who called it his favorite movie) saw a film about a hero who did what he had to do, and who was ahead of his times by hating the Russians when they were still allies. Anti war activists saw a film about a crazy, war hungry general who's gung ho attitude  confirmed everything negative they thought about the military mindset, even if Karl Maldin's character is there to remind us that not all generals are like Patton. I think it is to the film's credit that both sides could see what they wanted in it; the film presents the man as he was without judgement.  When he proudly says in the opening speech, "All real Americans love the sting of battle", the rightness of the statement is left up to the audience.  Even when he gets in trouble for slapping a soldier (Tim Consedine) who is unwounded but in the hospital for "nerves", the soldier is sensitively  portrayed, and Patton's reaction to him  is open to interpretation.  By avoiding politics and just following the man, Shaffner made a film that holds up well decades later.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While 1970 had several other terrific films like Bob Raphelson's FIVE EASY PIECES, Arthur Penn's LITTLE BIG MAN and Robert Altman's MASH, PATTON is a hard film to disagree with on the strength of Scott's performance alone.



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.