25th May2018

‘Midnight Cowboy’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Georgann Johnson | Written by Waldo Salt | Directed by John Schlesinger


“Where’s that Joe Buck?” the Texan locals ask. Here he is: it’s Jon Voight, a New Yorker playing a Deep Southern wannabe gigolo in flamboyant cowboy getup. Voight looks as pretty as his daughter playing the doe-eyed Joe, who ditches his grimy cafe job and sets off for the Big Apple to make a living sleeping with wealthy older women, while Fred Neil’s insufferably catchy “Everybody’s Talkin’” hums on the soundtrack.

Joe is confident and fearless, simple and childlike, but NYC isn’t all he hoped. Nothing of what he hoped. He’s a fish out of water. Shot from low angles, Manhattan appears more vertical and dwarfing than ever (Joe was the tallest structure back in Texas). This is Manhattan from a much scuzzier era: all neon vice and deviancy, some years before Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Joe meets a lonely schmuck variously named Enrico, Rico, Ratso or Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) – he can never quite settle on an identity. Like an impoverished John Keats, Ratso dreams of a life without chronic pain and illness in the warmer climes of Florida. He smells an opportunity in Joe.

Neither of the men expect their plans to shatter like the ice on their morning porridge, just as neither expects the fraught friendship that gradually transpires. As their health and circumstances worsen, they become increasingly desperate to escape to Miami; to escape the decadent metropolis that’s poisoning them.

Joe is taunted and haunted by memories of youth. His first memory was of pleasuring Grandma with a massage. Grandma insisted he was “the best looking cowboy in the West”. Later come the memories of “Crazy Anne”. She seemed to beg for his love. “You’re the only one, Joe,” he remembers her saying. But this bank of memories soon becomes more sinister, painting Joe in a different, less innocent light.

Bringing physical pleasure to women is the one way Joe knows to obtain approval. But sex and intimacy are conflated in his mind. At one point, he observes a mother and child in a cafe, and the way the child touches her is tender but becomes almost sexual. Perhaps the breakthrough moment is when Joe cannot perform sexually because he’s worried about Ratso, who’s home alone. Basic satisfaction Joe understands, but loving feelings of a non-sexual nature are new.

Ultimately, Midnight Cowboy is a love story between Joe and Ratso. (The film was originally rated X due to its implied homosexual content.) Ratso is a gay man forbidden to act upon his desires. He hangs out in the queer community while conspicuously spitting the word “faggots”, and he gazes upon Joe with deep affection while actively pushing away the affections of women (“Don’t touch me!” he yelps). His love is forbidden, repressed, and it eats him from the inside. Desire and denial is killing him.

This is also a film about life expectations. Ratso’s hopes and dreams were shattered long ago. So, the ambivalent feelings of resentment and attraction he feels in Joe’s company are because he witnesses a former fire alive in the younger man (in reality, there’s only a year between the actors). As for Joe, his incessant optimism is as heartbreaking as his disappointment. But we must take something positive from the knowledge that he learns with Ratso a new way to love.

Perhaps the most sorrowful moment is when the pair attend a swinging sixties party: a decadent counterculture world which the impoverished may visit, to be fed like zoo animals, yet will always find themselves outside of. It’s a world Joe might have fallen into under different circumstances. Movingly, he isn’t resentful of Ratso for denying him that world. He stays loyal to his friend.

It must also be said that the party scene is one of a handful of slightly tiresome “trip” sequences which lock the film into the year it was made (1969). But apart from these stylised asides, John Schlesinger’s film is a timeless story of broken dreams and male love. Superbly acted, brilliantly directed and impossibly moving.

Criterion provides bags of extras:

  • Michael Childers, Schlesinger’s partner, presents photos from the production
  • Video essay by DP Adam Holender
  • 1969 Behind the scenes short by Jeri Sopanen
  • Two 35th anniversary documentaries, produced for the 2004 DVD release
  • Interview with Schlesinger for BAFTA Los Angeles, 2000
  • 2002 BAFTA tribute to Schlesinger, featuring Voight and Hoffman
  • David Frost interview with Voight in 1970
  • Voight’s screen test
  • 1990 documentary about Waldo Salt, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter
  • Film trailer

Midnight Cowboy is out on Criterion Blu-ray on 28th May 2018.


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