Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
The best and worst friend to the average movie is time. Given a bredth of generations, a film can rise or fall on the strength of what it has to say or how lucky it was to happen to arrive at the right moment. For John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy time is both a value and a curse.
The value comes in its timing. It was released in 1969 at a moment when the massive changes in the culture were reflected in the massive changes for American cinema. Just as the country was experiencing a cultural earthquake brought on by Vietnam, Civil Rights, assassinations and the sexual revolution, American movies were changing as well. The youth of America made it clear that it was no longer interested in the dusty old musicals and shopworn westerns. They wanted something that reflected how they saw the world. In that, the shift in Hollywood’s system of self-conduct was forever altered. The old production code fell to pieces and replaced by a crude and very errant early version of what would become the movie ratings system.
Therein lies a strange and puzzling head-scratcher: the first and only X-rated movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture (oddly enough, on its re-release it was given an R-rating). Maybe that had to do with the texture of the times but watching the film I’m not sure I see where the rating was earned. Maybe the sexual content but it seems tepid by today’s standard.
The reason that Midnight Cowboy stays with us is because of the performances of Dustin Hoffman and John Voight, two young actors both at the beginning of brilliant careers playing men who live on the fringes of society. Voight is Joe Buck, who arrives in New York City to be a hustler and Hoffman is Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, a pathetic con artist who becomes his manager – he knows the layout of the city and where to hook up young Joe with rich women. What becomes of their friendship is one of the screen’s great love stories, not a romantic union, but of two people who cling to one another in a world that has become selfish and indifferent. That world is presented to us in an opening scene when Joe Buck first arrives in New York City and passes a man in a suit lying face down on the sidewalk that no one seems to notice. This is the world that he and Ratso will have to face.
The curse of Midnight Cowboy is also time. While the film is a beautiful love story it’s episodic adventures often feel dated and disorganized. There is truth and tenderness in the sad union between these two lost souls but when they head out into the world it often feels like a cartoon – like Laugh-in if it were written by Larry Gelbart. Two scenes in particular: a bizarre trip to an upscale party and Joe Buck’s run-in with an elderly gay man (Barnard Hughes) feel forced, like they were written by someone else, apart from the two main characters and added in after the fact.
There are a lot of great virtues to Midnight Cowboy but they are overwhelmed by an equal amount of elements that don’t work, elements that were new in 1969 but have been washed pale by the adamant of time. When the movie stays with Ratso and Joe Buck, it works. We remember them. We remember those two walking down the street or on the beach. We remember the melancholy of Ratso’s illness as he sits in his filthy apartment and confesses that he’s afraid of the infirmity that will soon rob him of his faculties. This pathetic creature in a bum’s coat breaks down his hard exterior and confesses to his friend “You know what they do to you when they know you can’t w-walk. I’m scared.” That’s the heart and soul of the movie and why we remember him.