Saturday Matinee: Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy

Whatever you hear about Midnight Cowboy is true.

By Scott Nash

Source: Three Movie Buffs

Midnight Cowboy is one of those movies that is so famous that even though this was the first time I’d ever actually watched it, I already felt familiar with it. I mean everybody knows the line, “I’m walking here!” by Dustin Hoffman. The AFI named that line the 27th greatest movie quote of all time (The movie itself is also on the AFI’s 100 greatest movies list). Most film fans also know that it is the only X-Rated film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck are iconic cinematic characters. And yet, despite all that I’d never actually watched it until now.

Although Hoffman is top billed, Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck; a young, not very bright Texan who decides to head to New York where he thinks he’ll be able earn money as a male escort to rich New York women. Buck has a troubled past that is revealed through stream-of-consciousness flashbacks. Voight is good as the naive cowboy and his performance not only brought him to stardom, but also earned him an Oscar nomination.

As good as Voight is though, Hoffman steals the film as Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo; the streetwise, hustling New Yorker. His accent, his limp and his mannerisms form a character for the ages. His nickname is an apt one because he is very rat like as he crawls the streets of the city. Like Voight, Hoffman was also nominated for an Oscar for his role.

Together Buck and Rizzo form an unlikely friendship after a rough start when Rizzo cons Buck. As a pair they prove that the protagonists of a film don’t have to be likable for a movie to be good. You wouldn’t want to hang out with either of these two guys but at the same time you want to see what happens to them. Despite being fairly unlikable, you can empathize with their feelings of isolation, loneliness and the need to cling to another person for companionship no matter how unlikely the pairing.

The third main character in the story is New York City, but not the Disneyfied New York of today. This was a time when Times Square wasn’t a place you took the family to see. It was filled with adult theaters and male and female prostitutes on the prowl. Abandoned buildings had yet to be torn down and replaced by Condos, McDonalds and Baby Gaps. Director Schlesinger does a great job of capturing the gritty essence of that bygone city.

While the central characters are interesting and the acting is superb, the plot isn’t a cohesive whole. A series of events happen that aren’t always connected rather than a true story being told. The real story of the movie is the friendship between Joe and Ratso, but too often that is obscured by different episodes. It’s a platonic love story between two men essentially.

The fact that this movie was rated X at one time now seems quite quaint. The nudity is incredibly brief and the language is mild. Sex is talked about a great deal but only shown in a way that you could now practically get away with showing on network television. I imagine the biggest reason for the X might have been the scene when Joe gets a blow job from a strange man in a Times Square theater, although nothing is really shown of it. It has since been re-rated and now stands at the more sensible R rating.

Not every classic film lives up to its fame and I’m not sure as a whole if I’d say Midnight Cowboy does. Pieces of it though are brilliant, especially the performances of its two leads. They are the real reason this movie is remembered so well and they are the reason to watch it again or for the first time.


Watch Midnight Cowboy on Hoopla here:

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