By Keegan Handley
Midnight Cowboy is one of the first popular X-rated studio movies. Beyond that, it’s one of the first ‘adult films’ where the term applied to more than pornography. The term ‘adult’ as applied here actually means it dealt with serious adult situations. There’s a good deal of sex in here — specifically themes of homosexuality, sex and religion — but above all this film paints a beautiful character study of two unlikely friends trying to make their way in a mean city with no one to rely on but each other. But you can bet people ignored the movie simply because of the X rating.
I personally only remember one bit of Midnight Cowboy from my blossoming film buff days – “I’m walking here!” That’s the famous line Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso says as a taxi nearly hits them crossing the street. That’s all I knew about it besides the title, which sounded like a Western. I never really enjoyed Westerns until my teen years, so I was never interested. Watching it for the first time the other day, I realized this movie is not at all how it appears to be. It’s not a Western, that’s for sure.
Jon Voight plays Joe Buck, a dim witted but pure hearted Texan dishwasher who decides to change his fate by getting out of his dead-end town and heading for New York City. It’s his wish to be a hustler, to get in with a rich woman via his sexual prowess and never want for anything again. Psychedelic flashbacks scattered throughout the film give us further insight to how and why Joe ended up here. It gets fairly weird.
Obviously, Joe is misguided, and this becomes apparent as he reaches the city and strikes out over and over again. The New York shown here is cold, distant and dog-eat-dog. Soon he meets Ratso, a disgustingly dirty hobo who takes advantage of people’s generosity and cons them to get by. Joe decides he should get to know a man with knowledge like that, and they become an odd-couple team of sorts, bunking together while Ratso shows Joe the ropes of scraping by and Joe continues to attempt hustling rich women.
This becomes the heart of the film, and honestly, the movie is a little dated and strange by any standards past or present but this true relationship that develops is more than enough to make it a worthwhile watch. After a while they grow to depend on each other and it’s equal parts endearing, confusing, and real. You can feel the frustration on Joe’s face with each misstep he takes, and the fear in his eyes when Ratso admits he can’t really walk anymore. Their symbiotic relationship both sustains Joe while feeding off of Ratso, and this is the true tragedy of the movie.
With an incredible and immersive performance from Dustin Hoffman and a raw indie faux-French film style not yet seen in Hollywood to this point, Midnight Cowboy is a bleakly interesting look at the changing society in the 60’s as well as a poignant look at the vastly differing meanings of friendship.
Keegan Handley is a film major at Temple University interested in the cinematic form and all it has to offer. He’s a lover of music and good beer and is partial to horror movies but appreciates any and all flavors of movie…even the bad ones. A huge fan of intricate camera shots, he hopes to one day contribute both his writing and his burgeoning Steadicam prowess to the film world.
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