In the spring of 1969, the age of Aquarius was dawning every night on Broadway where Hair and Oh Calcutta, two iconoclastic off-Broadway shows, were mysteriously knocking out real Broadway audiences. Those cruising for a new experience in film were likely to enter the strange underground world of I am Curious, Yellow, or Monterey Pop, or Che! When Midnight Cowboy opened in May, the United States was inexplicably ready to identify with two low-life street hustlers who haven't a clue, and it became an immediate sensation. It was a seedy tale of subsistence in the streets that defied all conventional wisdom that "art" pictures were supposed to be doomed to cult status. Despite it's X-rating (later changed to an R), it not only attracted a wide audience, but won the Academy Award that year for Best Picture.
It has aged exceptionally well, and it answers two questions no one was asking: Is it possible to do an accurate study in alienation and loneliness that's funny? (Yes.) Can supposedly "in" New York jokes travel to the provinces? (Yes, though this was the first to prove the depths of the rest of America's fascination with the big apple.)
Look at the scene where Ratso and Joe are almost hit by a cab while crossing the street, and it's almost impossible to imagine why the original audiences went bonkers just because Hoffman hits the hood of the cab and blurts "I'm walking here!" By now we're used to street realism, and the incident seems ordinary, but then it was a revelation, a miniscule detail of city life that no one before had ever captured on film. And it's just one of thousands of similar very specific occurrences that add up to one of the most painfully realistic and humorous portraits of a city every conceived.
This clearly wasn't an easy picture to put together. Though Hoffman was riding on the success of The Graduate the previous year, Schlesinger was recovering from the relative failure of Far From the Madding Crowd, and the book Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy was decidedly downbeat, and had been turned down by every major studio in 1965, including United Artists, who eventually gave it a go in 1968.
Maybe it took an outsider like the British born director John Schlesinger to notice all the precisely deranged details of New York life, like a man (corpse?) mysteriously lying on the sidewalk outside Tiffanys. It would have seemed commonplace to a New York native. Schlesinger admits his previous films, like Billy Liar and his documentaries for the BBC, were "never about heroes but about cowards, not successes but failures." This one is his most bonafide artistic tour-de-force, where his style is all-encompassing. Despite the seemingly depressing subject matter, he maintains a constant sense of irony and sarcasm; it's never maudlin despite the melodrama, and there are more flashbacks in the first ten minutes than in every movie made in the 80s.
It opens with the sound of Cowboys while we're looking at the blank screen of the Big Tex drive-in. Joe Buck (John Voight) shows up to his last day of work in his cowboy duds, but his fellow workers say "What's with the getup?" We know that even in Texas he wasn't a real cowboy. He gets on a bus to New York City, armed with a new wardrobe and a poster of Paul Newman, to fulfill a dream that will turn into a nightmare beyond his tiny imagination. He's the most pathetic Candide imaginable.
Right off, black & white and color footage intermingle as Joe's memories and fantasies take over his mind. It's a literary technique that Schlesinger utilizes to take total advantage of all the vast possibilities of cinema. There are very dramatic uses of silence, jump cuts from day to night, and stylish montages, ripe with meaning, that resonate throughout the picture.
Once in New York, Joe inadvertently teams up with an unlikely character named Ricco Rizzo, whom everyone calls Ratso, but we know as Dustin Hoffman. Ratso lives in a condemned building of dreams that Joe eventually decides to call home for the winter. Ratso's fantasies involve going to Florida and simply being called by his correct name. Joe's fantasies involve proving his studliness. Together, they not only never wallow in their misery, they learn to love each other.
Hoffman imbues Ratso with a humor and depth of humanity that's a wonder to behold. There is absolutely nothing attractive about this character, yet we like him. Mass audiences in 1969 had seen him for the first time in The Graduate, where he played Benjamin, your basic nebbish. Hoffman had complained that he didn't want to be "the Andy Hardy of the 60s," and he couldn't have picked a follow-up part that was farther from what anyone expected. Imagine Tom Cruise picking Quasimodo as a follow-up to Risky Business. Hoffman's performance in Midnight Cowboy was much more impressive in comparison to his previous role. Hoffman suddenly wasn't just a cute star, he was a serious actor who could do anything.
In contrast, Voight was an unknown, who gave a performance of such realism that people couldn't tell it was a performance. One critic even complimented Schlesinger on his skill in finding a cowboy who could act. Schlesinger would then have to explain that Voight was actually an actor who wasn't even from Texas, and that he learned his accent by taping interviews with real Texans.
Once production began, they had to arrange their shooting schedule around Hoffman's matinee performances in Murray Schisgal's Jimmy Shine. The pace was intense. At one point in shooting, Hoffman coughed with so much energy that he actually threw up on the set. "Wow," said Voight, "How am I going to upstage that?" Luckily, they left that bit of realism out of the picture, so he didn't have to worry.
When it opened on May 26, 1969, at the New York Coronet Theater, there was a widespread media blitz. It followed a special release pattern that has since become standard, playing New York months before anywhere else and letting word of mouth spread throughout the country. It worked. In Midnight Cowboy's first two days it broke the Coronet's record, which was set the year before by The Graduate.
The film was not without its detractors. Schlesinger was criticized for his lack of self-discipline, many complained about the convoluted editing, and one critical grump referred to the director as John Sledgehammer, but even that didn't stop people from going. The film was a spectacular commercial and critical success, with Time Magazine calling it an "act of rare skill and rarer generosity" and critic Mick Billington describing it as a "Black mosaic of the mod scene." It got a rare positive notice from the author of the book, and even the New York Daily News, which Ratso uses as underwear in Midnight Cowboy, gave Hoffman a good review.
Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for best actor, causing one of the most massive split votes in Academy history. They were both beat out by the Duke in True Grit. Nevertheless, the image of Joe Buck and Ratso huddled in a doorway was so indelibly stamped on everyone's mind, that two obscure exploitation films of Hoffman and Voight, Madigan's Millions and Fearless Frank, were immediately re-packaged as a double bill featuring that Midnight Cowboy couple together again.
Midnight Cowboy is a triumph of style and substance. If you tire of the realism, you can get into the pure technique. If you've had enough of artistic flash, you can focus on the utterly unpredictable plot. Though the style puts it squarely in the '60s, just look at Times Square or Hollywood Blvd. today and you'll realize that nothing has changed. The film could take place right now without a single modification. For some people, it's always midnight.