John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy is a milestone along several different paths of movie history, all of which converged at the majestically seedy crossroads of Times Square in the spring of 1968, when it was filmed. As a New York movie, as a barrier breaker in terms of adult content, as a representation of a new, more daring Hollywood, as a buddy film, and most complexly as, if not a gay movie, a movie that at least helped to make the notion of a gay movie possible, the film represents a true dividing line, albeit not one that everybody immediately recognized. “Having seen it,” wrote New York Times critic Vincent Canby when it opened, “you won’t ever again feel detached as you walk down West Forty-Second Street, avoiding the eyes of the drifters, stepping around the little islands of hustlers.” But, he concluded, “it’s not a movie for the ages.” Ironically, it’s the Forty-Second Street about which Canby wrote that is long gone, its porn palaces, pawnshops, and fleabag hotels driven out by a massive urban/corporate rebranding. But people still come to New York with unfulfillable hopes and end up living on or over the edge of desperation, and Midnight Cowboy, one of the first movies to find them, has endured.
It took someone on the fringe to make it, and to make it work so well. The London-born Schlesinger was gay and Jewish—a double outsider in his home city, and as a gay Englishman, a double outsider when he came to New York. Schlesinger was already on the map because of his 1965 hit Darling, a stinging portrayal of swinging London’s brittle, heedless smart set that had won Julie Christie an Academy Award and gotten Schlesinger his first Oscar nomination. He was eager to make a picture in the United States, and shortly after Darling, he seized on James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel about the guileless hustler Joe Buck and his only friend, Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo, and brought it to producer Jerome Hellman and United Artists.
“Schlesinger’s camera situates Joe and Ratso in one of the truest versions of New York City ever seen in a Hollywood movie to that point.”
The three essential years it took Midnight Cowboy to reach the screen after that coincided with an astonishingly rapid revolution in what was permissible in American movies. In 1966, frontal nudity in a mainstream Hollywood film was unthinkable; the Production Code, which governed the content of movies and banned certain subjects altogether, was still in place, though hanging by a thread; and Warner Bros. was negotiating over every goddamn in Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A movie about a young southerner who idolizes Paul Newman and John Wayne, comes to the Big Apple to make his fortune with the ladies, and ends up living meal to meal and attempting to sell himself to sad men in rented rooms or movie-house balconies was inconceivable. Hellman and Schlesinger audaciously gambled that the time it would take them to steer Midnight Cowboy toward production would be enough time for the world to change, and they were right. By the late spring of 1969, when the film opened, the Code had collapsed and been replaced by a fledgling ratings system: G, M (for “mature audiences”), R, and X. As long as something can be rated, it can be depicted, and Midnight Cowboy became (and remains) the only X-rated film to win a best picture Oscar, although the MPAA’s embarrassed ratings board reconsidered a couple of years later and down- or upgraded it to an R with no changes.
After Darling, Schlesinger went off to film Far from the Madding Crowd and left the task of adapting Herlihy’s novel to another outsider. Waldo Salt was unlikely casting for a revolutionary: he was in his midfifties and had been writing scripts since 1937, and although this movie, Serpico, and Coming Home would make him one of the most celebrated screenwriters of the next decade, at the time he got the assignment he was a blacklist victim whose career had never fully recovered; he hadn’t had a meaningful credit in years and had been toiling pseudonymously in British episodic television.
Like all great adapters, Salt knew when to be faithful and when to be ruthless; he jettisoned most of the first third of Herlihy’s novel, intuiting that Midnight Cowboy’s story truly begins when Joe Buck (Jon Voight) arrives in New York. From then on, all of the movie’s most memorable episodes—Joe’s first failed street encounter; his comical assignation of miscommunication with a hard-bitten, aging prostitute (Sylvia Miles); the wild party that Schlesinger, with an assist from Viva and Ultra Violet, reimagined as a voyage into Andy Warhol’s New York; Joe’s encounter with the terrified, determined boy (Bob Balaban) who begs him not to take his watch (“My mother . . . she’d die!”); and the brutal attack that precedes his flight from the city—are all taken directly from the novel, often with swaths of dialogue left intact.
Most of all, Salt understood that Joe’s friendship with Ratso had to be the story’s center. Although Dustin Hoffman (who was the first actor to be cast and was in his early thirties during production) did not fit Herlihy’s description of “a skinny, child-sized man of about twenty-one or twenty-two . . . [a] little blond runt,” his Ratso feels even more right: an older, sadder inversion of Joe. Midnight Cowboy is about two lonely men (the movie is true to the novel’s description of Joe as someone who, “never having had a friendship on his own . . . knew nothing of how to bring [one] about”) who alternately sustain each other in their delusions and shatter them. Just as New York is, for the small-town Texan Joe, the land of Oz, Florida is, for the Bronx-born Ratso, the promised land: the oranges-and-sunshine posters and ads he has tacked up on the walls of his hellish unlit squat are practically the only splashes of nonlurid color in the movie, and in his begrimed life. And just as Joe sees himself as a stud, Ratso sees himself as a player—he brims with knowing advice for Joe about how to do everything, what women want, and the best way to work the game.
Schlesinger’s camera (brilliantly manned by first-time cinematographer Adam Holender) situates Joe and Ratso in one of the truest versions of New York City ever seen in a Hollywood movie to that point. And while they deploy a whole bag of sixties tricks—a journey into vérité at a happening, flashbacks, head trips, and dream sequences, an occasional hallucinatory use of black and white—the film is at its most effective when it simply observes Joe on New York’s streets, lit with sooty neon, peopled by the needy, the dejected, con men and easy marks. A wordless sequence in which he wanders along Forty-Second Street, eyes the other handsome cowboy-hatted hustlers, and realizes that he’s a dime a dozen; a scene in which he eats saltines off a diner table because they’re free; a shot in a stairwell in which he and Ratso nervously groom themselves before going into a party all feel as if Schlesinger, roving through a real city at a real moment, simply discovered the right characters to follow.
Half a century later, those characters remain the heart of the film. Midnight Cowboy can be cruel when it trains its eye on the clammy men who want Joe—under Schlesinger’s owlish glare, just as in Darling and The Day of the Locust (1975), everyone is human, but everyone is also grotesque. There are times when the filmmaker seems to recoil from neediness of any kind. But the movie is at its most resonant and gentle as a love story between two lost men. In some ways, it’s very much at home in a genre whose popularity was burgeoning in the late sixties—like its best-picture competition Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and like M*A*S*H, which would open less than a year later, Midnight Cowboy is the story of a pair of guys who clearly prefer each other’s company to that of any woman who might come near or between them. But the film also has its place in a more troubling genre: gay sham-marriage dramas like 1968’s The Killing of Sister George and 1969’s Staircase, in which long-term same-sex couples are depicted as only playing house and, aware of their fraudulence, can’t stop punishing each other for it. When Ratso invites Joe to stay with him in an abandoned tenement, he walks him in through a torn chain-link fence, airily saying “I got my own private entrance here,” and insists that he wants to be called Rico “in my own goddamn place.” But it’s in that place, while they’re living together, that they tear into each other most harshly. “That great big dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody!” Rico tells Joe. “You wanna call it by its name, that’s strictly for fags!” “What the hell do you know about women anyway?” Joe throws at him. “I bet you ain’t never even been laid!” The sense in this scene is that neither man is wrong, but that they can only get close by stripping away each other’s vanities.
Whether Midnight Cowboy is a gay movie remains a vexing question. It’s a film by a gay director that depicts several same-sex encounters, and a deep bond between two men lies at its core. Yet for all that, it cannot be situated comfortably in LGBT cultural history. The Stonewall riots would take place just a month after the movie’s release and a mere mile or two south of where it was filmed, but this isn’t a story of liberation, pride, or self-assertion. Schlesinger himself felt that his own coming-out movie was not Midnight Cowboy but the film with which he followed it—1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a low-key adult drama about a love triangle between a single woman, a middle-aged gay man, and a young bisexual man in which nobody is villainized or shamed. There is no sexual relationship or desire between Ratso and Joe. Nor is there any real reason to believe either character is definitionally gay. Ratso seems to live in a near-constant state of gay panic; he uses the epithet “faggot” frequently but almost always as a pathetic assertion of his place in the pecking order, one that we see is greeted with revelatory indifference by at least one of its targets—it’s the first example in movies of a gay man disempowering the word by shrugging it off. And Joe’s sexuality is probably what we would now call fluid in ways that he himself doesn’t understand; in the novel, he has slept with both girls and boys before he leaves home, but mainly because it’s the only way he can imagine to make friends.
Perhaps Midnight Cowboy is best understood as a movie not about sexuality but about masculinity—a kind of masculinity that is terribly fragile and under constant threat of demolition. In one of Joe’s most vulnerable moments—right after Ratso mocks his cowboy getup—he splutters, “John Wayne! You’re gonna tell me John Wayne’s a fag?!” (One can only imagine what Wayne, who beat both Voight and Hoffman for the best actor Oscar that year, thought of that.) Joe seems to crumple beneath Ratso’s indictment, but he quickly recovers enough to tell him, “I like the way I look. It makes me feel good.” And in that moment, Joe tells Ratso that he is without fantasies; he came to New York to be a hustler because there’s nothing else he knows how to do. “The only one thing I ever been good for,” he says, “is loving.”
Joe is right, though not in any way he yet realizes. His journey toward actual love—tenderness, encouragement, caretaking, kindness—gives Midnight Cowboy its wrenching climax, and, thanks to Schlesinger’s restrained direction, Salt’s sensitive script, and Hoffman and Voight’s indelible performances, is so well-remembered that the scene that precedes that climax, in which Joe hits bottom with a truly savage act of violence against one of his johns, comes as a fresh shock every time. Is there any redemption for Joe—any future for him—after that? The novel ends, as the movie does, as Joe cradles Ratso tenderly on the southbound bus. The last sentence is “Because of course he was scared now, scared to death.” The movie is ambivalent. Ratso’s journey is over; Joe’s may be. We leave him on the precipice as he discovers his own humanity. Whether or not it’s too late remains moving to contemplate and impossible to answer. Again and again, we return to Midnight Cowboy, a film of its time and a film for the ages, to try to find out.