Over the course of the 60s and 70s a new kind of film emerged, one that sought to delve under the facade of a perfect pristine America, and into its dark, gritty roots. This new breed of film peeled back the eyelids of the world, and forced them to look at things a little differently. Classic examples include Taxi Driver, Easy Rider, and, of course, Midnight Cowboy.
When the catchy “Everybody’s Talkin'” begins playing at the outset, it’s easy to believe that anything is possible, as our protagonist quits his dishwashing job in hopes of bigger and brighter things in New York City. However, though Midnight Cowboy begins with the sort of happy-go-lucky idealism that many associate with the American dream, it isn’t long before Joe (Jon Voight) has his plans for a better life dashed against the rocks.
New York is a hard city filled with hard people. One such man is Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). He and Joe first meet after Ratso grifts Joe out of his last bit of money, but it isn’t long before the two are sharing a condemned building and working together as street hustlers. Joe tries to make money as a gigolo, initially setting his sights on wealthy socialites; after a time, he finds it easier to score men as customers.
This is one of the main pieces of significance worth noting when talking about a film like Midnight Cowboy. Though LGBT-themed films are more common now — and are often critically lauded — this was far from the case in 1969. Further, to have a bi/gay protagonist as your lead character was nearly unthinkable. That such an outsider film as this would go on to win three Academy Awards (including Best Picture) is no mean feat.
In fact, the commonality and prevalence of gay sex acts in the film is particularly surprising for the time period. It may seem hard to believe, but sodomy was still illegal in every state but Illinois at the time of Midnight Cowboy‘s release. In a time where LGBT people fill roles at all manner of jobs and stations in society, this is especially notable.
Though they do offer a concise time capsule as to how different the world looked fifty years ago, the gay themes aren’t the only thing that stands out about the film. Another relic of the time is the presence of the dreaded X-rating, which Midnight Cowboy was branded with upon release.
It isn’t unearned. The film depicts many disturbing scenarios, including a flashback depicting presumed gang rape of both Joe and his high school girlfriend. Is this event the impetus of his sexual trauma? It seems likely, but the film never says, and neither does Joe. Instead, Midnight Cowbooy is content to allow you to draw your own assertions.
Is there something more than friendship between Joe and Ratso? Is there something to their bond that goes beyond a simple friendly camaraderie between a couple of down-and-out twenty-somethings? Again, director John Schlesinger never specifies, but there are many interpretations to be drawn in a film that plays as fast and loose as this.
In the end though, it doesn’t really matter. The chemistry between Jon Voight’s cowboy cliche archetype and Dustin Hoffman’s streetwise scoundrel gives us all we need to know about these men and how they see one another. Though their relationship undoubtedly evolves over the course of the film, they bond almost immediately, despite the differences in their arcs.
Such is the way with broken people, and Joe and Ratso fit this definition without question. Floating in an uncaring ocean of apathetic humanity, the two collide with one another and grab on for purchase. They’re lost in this world, but to be lost together is preferable to being lost alone.
The touching bond that develops between these two is the greatest strength of Midnight Cowboy; fifty years later, it still resounds with viewers due to the street-level charm of Waldo Salt’s script, and the salt-of-the-earth performances from its two leads.
A stellar, invigorating, and totally unique film, Midnight Cowboy is still well worth your time, even after five decades. Filled with nuance, packed with heart, and set amid the dirty underside of America, this film is a one-of-a-kind treat that has aged like whiskey. You can taste the charred cask it was distilled in, and it’s all the richer for it.