The Oscars Project: Week 12 — Midnight Cowboy

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay)

Well, I’ll tell you the truth now. I ain’t a real cowboy, but I am one helluva stud.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight)

In the movie Gigantic (a fairly abysmal indie-quirk rom-com starring Paul Dano, Zoey Deschanel and John Goodman), there’s a running gag where a homeless man played by Zach Galifianakis repeatedly tries to kill Dano. It’s never explained, doesn’t fit the tone of the movie and generally feels like a half-decent editor would have cut it out of the film entirely. When I saw the movie at a public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, writer-director Matt Aselton was there for a Q&A, and naturally enough, someone in the crowd asked him what the deal was with the crazy homeless guy. I can’t remember the answer exactly, but it boiled down to “I thought the main story was a little boring, so I added in something random to make it more interesting.”

This is never a good idea. If your main story is boring, the solution is to make your main story more interesting, not to make it weird for the sake of being weird. Oliver! wouldn’t have been improved by tossing in a few vampires (well, it might have been more entertaining, but it wouldn’t have been better). Tom Jones wouldn’t have been improved by a five-minute slide-whistle solo.

Midnight Cowboy suffers from a similar problem. Though the story it tells is straightforward — it’s the classic story of a small-town kid getting lost in the underside of the big city — director John Schlesinger refuses to tell it in a straightforward way. He consistently injects flashy, stylized segments in between the more realistic character-based scenes, as if he’s worried that his film isn’t strong enough without them. Unlike Aselton’s too-precious-by-half comedy, though, Cowboy would have been strong enough without the seemingly random directorial flourishes. The movie works on the strength of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight’s performances and a generally well-observed script, and despite Schlesinger’s direction. Or, to steal from Roger Ebert’s original review, which overstates the case but certainly makes its point: “Schlesinger has not been brave enough to tell his story and draw his characters with the simplicity they require. He has taken these magnificent performances, and his own careful perception of American society, and dropped them into an offensively trendy, gimmick-ridden, tarted-up, vulgar exercise in fashionable cinema.”

Cowboy opens with the sounds of a classic Western over a pure white screen. From there, the camera pulls back to reveal a drive-in theatre, before cutting to Joe Buck (Voight) picking up a bar of soap in the shower, singing about some lonesome doggies like the cowboy he wants to be — or at least, wants to dress like. Why it opens on a drive-in screen, I don’t know. Aside from Voight’s tailored cowboy outfits and a few references to John Wayne, there’s little in Midnight Cowboy to recall Hollywood’s first golden period. Everything about the film, from its tawdry subject matter and naturalistic performances to its flashy editing, practically beg to be disassociated from the likes of Oliver! and the dying studio system. It’s just a self-conscious shot that doesn’t seem to mean anything, although the credit sequence that follows is perfectly in keeping with the movie’s tone.

In fact, the credit sequence is a perfect example of what the movie does right. While Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking at Me” plays in the background, Buck quits his job as a Texas dishwasher and gets on a bus to New York. His goal is simple: Buck thinks of himself as a stud, and wants to have a go as a “hustler,” servicing wealthy old dowagers for cash. He may be good in bed, but this sequence shows he’s a lot more naive than he’d like to believe: the glow in his eyes when he realizes his radio is picking up a New York station is priceless. The sequence establishes his character through a series of small moments, from the way he reacts to those around him — it’s economical filmmaking at its best.

Before going on; it’s a little scary how clearly you can see Angelina Jolie in the young Voight. I’m used to seeing him as a stocky, moderately jowly old man, but in his prime, well… you can see why he’s playing a gigolo, but it’s still a little odd how much he looks like his daughter.

Buck’s first attempt at earning a wage goes entertainingly poorly — when the woman he’s with realizes he’s a prostitute, she breaks down in tears, and he ends up paying her $20 to stop crying — but the film really gets going when Buck meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a lowlife with a bad leg and a knack for self-preservation. Hoffman had just come off the success of The Graduate, where he played a clean-cut All-American type (or at least, a character who looked the part). Here, any trace of his Graduate is gone, replaced by a character who, according to Wikipedia, introduced the world to the term “skuzzy.” With a nasal voice and twitchy demeanor, Hoffman does his best to live up to the “Ratso” nickname, and the dynamic he develops with Voight is dynamite from the start.

The two are somehow perfect for each other. Rizzo has the skills, Buck has the looks, and after a false start involving an incredibly creepy religious zealot, the two actually settle into a friendship. There’s something weirdly endearing about the way Rizzo bring Buck into his world. When he brings Buck to the run-down building he’s squatting in, he tells him “The X on the windows means the landlord can’t collect rent, which is a convenience, on account of it’s condemned.” When they get inside, he explains “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.” He’s a bit of a dreamer, but you’d have to be, to put up with the conditions he’s living in.

Cowboy isn’t just at its best when Rizzo and Buck are together — it’s about as good as onscreen pairings go. Their chemistry, the flow of their relationship, the give-and-take with both of them, it’s as well developed and observed as you could want. Hoffman does go a little overboard at times, but it’s always for the benefit of the character and not the performance. Even when he’s getting sick near the film’s end, the way that he fights not to be taken to the doctor is both pathetic and weirdly charming. It’s exactly the attitude he needs to be to survive in downtown New York.

But, then there are those stylistic ticks. Even though we have enough of Buck’s character just from that opening sequence, Schlesinger feels compelled to insert rapidly cut flashbacks to his small-town past. It looks like they’re meant to explain why he’d want to get away and why he has the attitude he does to sex, but they’re more jarring than they are informative. And they’re better than a fantasy sequence where Buck imagines tracking down Rizzo and throttling him (after Rizzo sends him to the aforementioned religious weirdo) — that sequence, with its jumps to black-and-white, bizarre zooms and freaky soundtrack, is easily the most dated part of the film.

Yes, more dated than the scene where Rizzo and Buck go to a Warhol-style factory party. Naturally, Buck has no idea what a joint is, or the etiquette involved, but he’s happy to be somewhere near the centre of attention for a little bit. The scene touches on all the cliches of the late ’60s, but it’s worth it for a scene where Rizzo sneaks some food from an appetizer table, and for the way it gives Buck a chance to finally live out his dream of screwing ladies for cash. For a few minutes at least, it looks like things might work out.

It’s easy to see why Cowboy picked up Best Picture, despite its X rating (and really, there are a few breasts, but in terms of content, Cowboy has nothing on A Clockwork Orange, the only other X-rated film to be nominated). Although they didn’t pick up any awards (Hoffman was nominated), Hoffman and Voight absolutely make the movie. Their dynamic gives the movie all the satisfaction of a good love story, just without the romance — even if they’re both straight, they’re also soul mates. For a story about a pair of street-level hustlers, it’s remarkably touching, but honest enough that it earns all of its more heart-wrenching moments — and there are a few. It’s just a shame that the direction seems to be fighting them instead of letting performances stand on their own merit.

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