Here’s a cinema classic from 1969, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by John Schlesinger (1926-2003), it’s a cinema classic.
It’s got one ultra-famous movie quote from it. But we feel a lot of modern film buffs may only know it for that. But it’s a fine film! Well worth catching up with.
Midnight Cowboy—Delusions, Dreams, and Walking here
Midnight Cowboy is a gritty drama about failed dreams. It was adapted from the eponymous 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy (1923-1993).
The film opens on Joe Buck (Voight), who’s a young Texan bloke working as a dishwasher.
He’s not bright, but cuts a dashing figure. And convinced he’s utterly irresistible to women, he travels out to New York to become a male prostitute.
After a slow start to his new career, he comes across Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman). He’s a lovable con man with a gammy leg, causing him to limp.
He seems to take Buck under his wing and tells him about the city, which leads to the legendary ad libbed line, “I’m walking here!”
Ratso takes $20 from Buck so he can be introduced to a sex worker business, but he’s instead fleeced off as Ratso instead takes him to meet a religious cult.
Buck’s life then unravels, running out of money, getting kicked out of his hotel room, and struggling to get any meaningful work.
Eventually he runs back into Ratso and angrily confronts him. But the latter offers to share his apartment and the two move in, afterwards beginning a business partnership as real-time hustlers.
The pair start getting on, in an odd couple kind of way, and they share their dreams.
Ratso wants to move to Miami. He has daydreams where he and Buck frolic about on a beach as women pine over them (note, too, he’s no longer limping).
But that limping does indicate Ratso is suffering from ill health. He gradually declines as the plot advances.
But he ignores the issues. And the pair’s escapades eventually lead them to an Andy Warhol type film maker at an art event. There they mix with socialites, with Buck hitting it off with a human female.
However, he’s taken uppers and mistakenly smoked weed and can’t perform for her. Instead, the duo play Scribbage (the dice word game).
Returning to Ratso the morning after, he’s bedridden and very ill. Refusing medical help, he begs to be put on a bus to Florida.
As his friend’s health declines terminally, Buck muses over easier jobs than hustling. And that’s when he realises his friend has died, which leaves him teary eyed as the film ends.
Ultimately, it’s a sad film. Very dark—highlighting illusions, shattering dreams, breaking up brief friendships.
You can interpret the film in various ways, too, such as it being a stark warning to doe-eyed youngsters heading off to the big city in search of fame and fortune. Real life just doesn’t dole things like that out… except for the lucky few.
Instead, what you face is an education in hard knocks and explaining to taxi drivers you’re walkin’ here.
But at its heart, we think Midnight Cowboy is a touching film about a friendship between two rather hapless sorts. And over 50 years after its release, that’s what sticks with us—two lost souls amongst millions.
Midnight Cowboy’s Production
The film has also become famous for Harry Nilsson’s cover of Everybody’s Talkin’.
He didn’t write the lyrics, a folk singer called Fred Neil did that in 1966. But Nilsson’s take (recorded and released in 1969) tends to be the definitive version.
It’s one of those songs you can hear and you immediately think of Midnight Cowboy and its themes of friendship.
And despite the dark nature of the film, it was a hit. Off its £3.2 million budget it rakes in $44.8 million.
It was also very well received by critics, bagging three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Watching the film now (along with other ’60s films such as The Producers), one of the delights is the time capsule you get to see. New York in all its glory! And digging around through production notes you can find some intriguing facts.
Voight’s character stayed at Hotel Claridge on West 44th Street, Midtown Manhattan. The building was built in 1911. But it was torn down in 1972.
But it’s all fascinating seeing the city in action, shot during 1968 and 1969.
The thing for us is we were born in 1984, so it’s interesting seeing the world in action prior to us being around. And from what we’ve seen, human activity doesn’t change much (there were still loads of cars about in ’69). It’s just technology has advanced a bit.
As for the lead actors—we all know who Dustin Hoffman is, of course, and the career he went on to have.
Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie’s father, if you’d forgotten) also achieved much success. In 1973 he was in the big hit Deliverance and he was terrific in that. His portrayal of shock is some of the best acting terrified acting we’ve seen.
But for Midnight Cowboy, two actors also had real life role reversals.
Hoffman is supposed to be the grifter used to the streets of New York. However, he’s really from LA. Meanwhile, Voight’s character is hopelessly out of his depth in the Big Apple. But Voight was actually born there.
To make sure he bagged the part, Voight actually accepted a very low wage. It paid dividends, as it put him on the Hollywood map.
Hoffman’s film career kick started in 1967 when he bagged a role in The Graduate. After Midnight Cowboy he bagged roles like Straw Dogs, Papillon, and All the President’s Men. Basically, he’s had a proper banging career.
And Midnight Cowboy secured its place in cinematic history back in 1994.
Then the Library of Congress added it to the US National Film Registry (which super important films get stuck into).
And as you can see, the likes of the New York Times and other film critics continue to hail it as a cinema classic. So, good on it. In fact… yeehaw!
I was not old enough to see the movie when it came out. However, I still remember the Mad Magazine movie parody.
In the comic, Joe needs to learn to be a good kisser.
Ratso tells him how to pucker his lips —
“Think about lemons … ” comic then zooms to show Joe’s cartoon lips curling …
“Now think about pickles …” shows his lips twisting more …
“Now think about picked lemons …” drawing shows the lips really, really twisting.
Years later, when I finally saw the movie, I was disappointed that the scene was not included.
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Hah! That scene should have been included in the dream sequence. Would have won it another Oscar, for sure.
I had to Google Mad Magazine, we don’t get it here in England. Seems like our Private Eye Magazine. Looks fun!
This is probably the movie that I haven’t seen that gets referenced the most
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It’s that song and the I’M WALKIN’ HERE!!! bit everyone seems to love.