AFI # 43: Midnight Cowboy

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

Midnight Cowboy is one of those films that people seems to either love or hate. You can count me among those who really like it. It was certainly controversial at the time it came out, earning an “X” rating from the MPAA for sexual content and adult themes, but it’s tame by today’s standards. It is, of course, known for being the only X rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and one of only two ever nominated in any category (ironically, the other, A Clockwork Orange, is also on the AFI Top 100).

The film is the sordid tale of would-be “hustler” Joe Buck (Jon Voight, AKA Angelina’s dad), fresh off the boat from Texas and trying to earn a living in New York by being a gigalo. He quickly finds out that the naked city is no place for a naive cowboy like him, until he runs into a street urchin and scam artist named Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two fall in together and try to survive on the streets, but things go from bad to worse. Ultimately it’s a tale of starting over despite the circumstances of ones situation.

For me the film is really driven by the characters of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Voight and Hoffman both earned Oscar nominations for their work, and both characters have become archetypes of sorts and prove that a film can be held together solely on the strength of characters. Ratso is certainly a legendary character that has been spoofed and copied for decades. “I’m walkin’ here!” Truthfully though I think Voight’s Joe Buck is a more compelling and interesting character — we learn from flashbacks about his difficult childhood and perhaps what led him to leave Texas for New York and a chance at the big time. And of course ultimately it’s his story and he is the one who grows and changes by the end. Speaking of the end — spoiler alert — a lot of people complain about the depressing ending of this film but the ending is a new beginning for Joe Buck and the viewer has to think the experiences he had in New York will lead him to a better life…and we see signs of that along the bus ride to Florida and at the end. Joe is a survivor and you feel like he’s going to be OK.

The other thing about Midnight Cowboy that is pretty compelling is the way in which it was shot, with the flashbacks and the 60s psychedelic stuff. It’s the same treatment I hated in other films of this era but it works nicely here and adds to the flavor of the film as a period piece. Finally, a word about the song. That ever-present Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me. It’s hard to think of another song that always brings to mind the film from which it is associated. But to a person if you say the words Midnight Cowboy people start to sing the song and vice verse if you sing the song people will have visions of Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck. That’s hard to do. Ironically, the song did not win the Oscar — it didn’t even get nominated. That award went to Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is another song that has become synonymous with a film. And by the way, Butch and Sundance was also nominated for Best Picture that year and lost to Midnight Cowboy, a travesty in my humble opinion.

One last nugget of film lore. In the famous scene in Midnight Cowboy where Joe Buck allows a young man to perform oral sex on him in a theater in exchange for money, that young man was played by a 24-year-old Bob Balaban in his first movie role. Balaban, for film connoisseurs, is of course the brilliant character actor known for his roles in the great Christopher Guest films like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show and…of course…as Russell Dalrymple on Seinfeld!

Next Up: Bonnie & Clyde

One thought on “AFI # 43: Midnight Cowboy

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