”Hey I’m celebrating here!”
A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series takes you back in time to 1969 for the 50th anniversary of the cultural phenomenon “Midnight Cowboy”.
It’s 1969 and “Midnight Cowboy” has won the Best Picture Oscar, it’s Oscar win, it’s positive critical reception and it’s 49 year cultural impact had signaled a new age in Hollywood. “Midnight Cowboy” was the first X-rated film released by a major studio (MGM), and the first and last to win an Oscar, this relentlessly downbeat look at the down and out Manhattan friendship between an inept cowboy gigolo from Texas and his tubercular gimpy “manager”. Convinced of his irresistible appeal to women, Texas dishwasher Joe Buck (Jon Voight) quits his job and heads for New York City, thinking he’ll latch on to some rich female. New York, however, is not as hospitable as he imagined, and Joe soon finds himself living in an abandoned building with a un-hygienic named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two form a rough alliance, and together they kick-start Joe’s hustling career just as Ratso’s health begins to deteriorate.
Joe and Ratso, are like “Of Mice and Men’s” George and Lenny, they are quintessential failed, lower class, buddy dreamers. But the two “Midnight Cowboy” leads went on to careers of exceptional stature. Voight and Hoffman were two young method actors working at the height of their powers. They push the drama in something rare and sublime. Voight and Hoffman probably should have won as Best Actor. Instead, both of them lost the Oscar that came 15 years too late, to one of Joe’s movie cowboy models, John Wayne for “True Grit”. Speaking of Oscars “Midnight Cowboy” had earned a total of seven Oscar nominations including the aforementioned Best Actor bids for both Hoffman and Voight. It did walk away with three wins including Best Director for John Schlesinger, Best Adapted Screenplay for Waldo Salt who adapted from James Leo Herlihy’s novel, and the Best Picture win. “Midnight Cowboy” may not have deserved the Best Picture Oscar, which I still think belongs to “The Wild Bunch”.
Upon it’s initial review by the Motion Picture Association of America, “Midnight Cowboy” received a “Restricted” (“R”) rating. However, after consulting with a psychologist, executives at MGM were told to give the film an “X” rating, due to the “homosexual frame of reference” and its “possible influence upon youngsters”. The film was released with an X. The unrestricted use of that rating by pornographic filmmakers caused the rating to quickly become associated with hardcore sex films. Because of the stigma that developed around the “X” rating in the ratings system’s early years, many theaters refused to run X-rated films, and many newspapers would not run ads for them. The MPAA later broadened the requirements for the “R” rating to allow more content and raised the age restriction from sixteen to seventeen. The film had retained its R rating ever since.
With its prestigious literary source, raw realism, nudity, profanity, onscreen sex acts, a near documentary look at Manhattan high and low life, plus a raft of cinematic tricks including flashbacks, fantasies and shifts from monochrome to color. It’s all rifled from the ’60s arthouse hits of Italy. “Midnight Cowboy” was an unabashed American art film. One by one, the movie seemed to shoot down taboos with effortless abandon, but it wasn’t just for shock value. Audiences were genuinely deeply moved by the story. There is no question that the film is flawed by the inclusion of the party scene and Ratzo’s dream. Which was Schlesinger’s only regret within the film. Schlesinger who also directed Dustin Hoffman’s thriller master piece “Marathon Man”, shot beautiful but haunting editorial flashback sequences that express Joe Buck’s traumatic childhood. Showcasing a history of sexual abuse by his grandmother and teenage peers is what had made Buck damaged goods.
Songwriter Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin'” won a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for Harry Nilsson. Schlesinger chose the song as its theme, and the song underscores the film’s first act. Actually Bob Dylan wrote “Lay Lady Lay” to intend to serve as the theme song, but he did not finish it in time.
Dustin Hoffman had just come off of filming “The Graduate”. Before he auditioned for this film, he knew that his all American image could easily cost him the job. In order to prove he could do it, he asked the auditioning film executive to meet him on a street corner in Manhattan, and had dressed himself in filthy rags. The executive arrived at the appointed corner and waited, barely noticing the “beggar” less than ten feet away who was asking people for spare change. Finally the beggar walked up to the executive and revealed his true identity as Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman had put in so much effort portraying one of Ratso’s coughing fits that one time he actually ended up taking it to far and started vomiting on set. To keep Ratso’s leg limp, Hoffman had kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure his limp would be consistent from shot to shot. His “Graduate” director Mike Nichols tried to persuade Dustin Hoffman not to do this film. Nichols saying, “‘Are you crazy? I made you a star. This is an ugly character. It’s a supporting part to Jon Voight. What are you doing? Why are you sabotaging?” But Hoffman knew he had to do something edgy to gain reputation in the business. We all should be glad he did. This is a performance for the books. Ratso needed to look dirty and unkempt with relatively bad hygiene. Schlesinger said, “We wanted him to look homely, but not grotesque”. With the combination of make up artist and the help of Dustin’s own dentist, made a dental plate for him in order to give the impression of Ratso’s rotted teeth.
One of the most iconic scenes in movie history that came from “Midnight Cowboy” actually wasn’t scripted at all. The sequence where Hoffman yells the line “I’m walkin’ here!”, which is regarded as number 27 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. Dustin Hoffman, stated numerous times that the line was ad-libbed. He explains that the movie didn’t have a permit to close down the New York City street for filming, so they had to set up the scene with a hidden camera in a van driving down the street, and remote microphones for the actors. After fifteen takes, it was finally going well, but as they crossed the street, a taxi ran a red light. Hoffman wanted to say “Hey, we’re SHOOTING here!”, not only from fear of his life, but also from anger that the taxi driver might have ruined the take. Instead, being the professional that he is, he stayed in character and shouted “Hey, we’re WALKING here!” and had made movie history. Jon Voight has also backed up this version of the incident, declaring how well Hoffman handled the situation, and how he stayed in character.
Both Hoffman and Voight like most movie productions weren’t the first choices. Warren Beatty was interested in playing Jon Voight’s character Joe Buck, but director John Schlesinger thought he was too famous to be believable as a naive street hustler. Lee Majors was originally cast as Joe Buck, but had to pull out when “The Big Valley” (1965) was renewed for another season. Even “Indiana Jones” himself Harrison Ford tested for the role of Joe Buck.
A studio executive sent director John Schlesinger a memo stating, “If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley.” Presley at the time wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and was interested in the role of Voight’s Joe Buck. Presley instead went on instead to do “Change of Habit” with Mary Tyler Moore, which bombed, and became his last theatrical movie.
“Midnight Cowboy” has been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It has also been selected to be a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, which is available now. It has been released in an all new 4K restored version on the Criterion Collection’s library with a handful of in depth bonus features. “Midnight Cowboy” is still one of the most culturally breakthrough American art films with two brilliant performances.