Available on Blu-ray 28 May 2018
When Midnight Cowboy was first released it was a notoriously shocking movie (the first X-rated, adults-only film to win the Oscar). Is it still shocking 50 years after it was made?
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves Hicksville to find fame and fortune in the Big Apple. He has a notion that rich women will pay for his services as the all-American gigolo. But he finds something far more sordid. Once the heart of Broadway, Times Square has become pick-up central, illuminated by the neon of all-night pharmacies and cruising cop cars. Joe teams up with a limping pimp (Dustin Hoffman in a career-defining role), Ratso Rizzo. Together they plan to conquer New York but Joe ends servicing sweaty guys in fleapit cinemas. A brief sojourn among the hipster denizens of Warhol’s Factory (played by themselves) sees Joe and Ratso as just another couple of visiting freaks. When the harsh winter arrives the increasingly lost duo seem to be done for.
Voight (Angelina Jolie’s dad) and Hoffman make for a great pairing – the former the ingénue bumpkin, the latter the streetwise punk. They spark off each other wonderfully. Schlesinger had a love/hate relationship with the glamorous demimonde (think of his Darling from 1965). There’s an unconvincing flashback sequence that sees Joe gang raped (the source of his New York City quest?); and a flash-forward Miami Beach dream sequence that almost predates Andrew Cunanan’s Florida exploits by 30 years. The jaunty theme tune (by Harry Nilsson) also seems jarringly out of place.
Schlesinger shows off his documentary credentials in some great street photography as when Joe prowls Fifth Avenue looking for cougars. But there’s an inauthenticity at the heart of the film. It doesn’t ruin it but it makes the movie deeply flawed. Many of the sequences seems to owe much to TV commercials – the girl running in slo-mo, the cowboy in a busy street head and shoulders above everyone else. The Warhol Factory speed freaks’ party is an irrelevance. The film really only makes sense as sneering satire which is something that works against the poignant ending. But even the satire is clumsy. For instance our starving heroes are seen walking past an enormous billboard advertising steak dinner.
Even the shabbiness of 42nd Street with its whores and neon looks oddly inviting. The movie is stylish but it’s the two central performances – showing how the two characters form an affecting, all-too-human bond – that helps make the picture so watchable.
Is the film still shocking? Well it’s startlingly homophobic, especially considering the director John Schlesinger was gay. The “real” homosexuals are slimy users while Joe and Ratso are above the sexual fray (well, maybe). It is a hugely memorable movie, if that doesn’t damn it with faint praise, and its many defects don’t fatally cripple it but it has become disappointingly dated and the shock waves it created in the acidic late 1960’s have long since dissipated.