(director: John Schlesinger; screenwriters: Waldo Salt/based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy; cinematographer: Adam Holender; editor: Hugh A. Robertson; music: John Barry; cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ratso Rizzo), Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley), Barnard Hughes (Towny), Viva (Gretel McAlbertson), Ruth White (Sally Buck); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jerome Hellman; United Artists; 1969)
“One of the more overrated films of modern ‘hip’ times.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the more overrated films of modern ‘hip’ times is this British director John Schlesinger’s urban buddy drama. It tells the story of two losers and their bitter disappointments, deferred dreams, and unlikely friendship. It came at the end of the revolutionary Swinging Sixties, at a time when the sexual mores were changing quicker than a hooker at Times Square turning tricks. It was adapted by Waldo Salt from the blunt pulp novel by James Leo Herlihy. To win its audience over into thinking it gets the mod scene turning ugly, it relies solely on the shock of an implied blow job in a movie theater by a sympathetically portrayed male hustler reluctantly doing it with a male customer. This should supposedly get the viewer’s thinking process flowing about how sordid it sometimes is being hip. Despite its attempt at reality, everything seems phony.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a big likable hick who leaves his dishwasher’s job in his home state of Texas for New York City looking to hustle rich, lonely women, whom he imagines need his services because the gentlemen back east are all ‘faggots.’ Joe is a handsomely dressed-up cowboy, who is more than a bit naive and dumb. He mentions, “I ain’t a fer-real cowboy, but I am one hell of a stud!” Instead of hustling, he gets hustled himself by women and then by a slimy, limping inept scam artist Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). When Joe stumbles in the Big Apple, he has no choice but to team up with small-time hustler Ratso and bunk down in his squalid abandoned tenement retreat. Ratso, who is in failing health, dreams of sunny Florida as paradise and plans to make enough money hustling his stud to fulfill his dreams. We learn about Joe mainly through awkward flashbacks that tell us about his early life in Texas. In truth, there’s little to know or care about his character that adds value to the story.
The film satires the flashy NYC nightlife scene of pill popping and the chic hallucinogenic “Village” Warhol-like party scene, but never has enough balls to own up to the homosexuality of its characters or the misogyny of its story. All it seems to do is glamorize poverty and make its unpleasant anti-heroes plunge into desperation seem like a trip into exploitation to either coverup its shoddy story or for mere comic effect. The emotional travails of the leads had about as much affect as the gooey ending in Love Story.
Midnight Cowboy was a big box-office hit and also an artistic one, winning Oscars for Best Picture (the first for an X-rated film), Best Director, and one for a former victim of the blacklist Waldo Salt’s screenplay. In those changing times, many must have gotten confused by what they were seeing on the screen, but to look at that film now at a much later date is to see that much of its glitter has faded.
REVIEWED ON 2/1/2004 GRADE: C+