Hey! I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”
And thus one of the most iconic moments of improvisational acting was born. 1969’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is home to this scene where Dustin Hoffman nearly gets run over by a cab who cuts a red light. However, outside of Hoffman’s memorable piece of improv, I get the suspicion that people have forgotten about ‘Midnight Cowboy’ just as much as they have forgotten ‘Taxi Driver’ with Robert De Niro’s haunting delivery of “you talkin’ to me?” in the mirror. Both that and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ have been lost with the times a little, and now thanks to a new, brand spanking transfer put out by the Criterion Collection, people who love the New Hollywood movement can rediscover ‘Midnight Cowboy’s’ spirit in the grimy underbelly of New York City.
Directed by John Schlesinger, a prominent voice in 60’s British kitchen sink realism, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ opens with the aspiring gigolo, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), leaving his native Texas for the Big Apple. Buck has a difficult time trying to adapt to the culture of New York; he successfully beds a middle-aged housewife, but she screams Buck down upon learning she must pay him for his services. Down on his luck, Joe crosses paths with a crippled con-man, “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in a local bar. Rizzo makes Buck a deal to find him a pimp for guidance. However, both men share a mutual bonding that progresses into friendship.
Film professors and critics have reiterated this point over and over again but ‘Midnight Cowboy’s’ central duo, Voight, and Hoffman, are outstanding in their performances. Voight’s starry-eyed Joe Buck has his dreams of becoming a hustler crushed once he realises he must live in despair to pursue this line of work. Buck can barely get enough money to live on, even going as far as to have a dorky college student perform fellatio on him in the back of a cinema for pleasure. However, Buck never loses his glimmering sense of hope that he can get away from his tormented past and his tiny role in New York’s society. In Buck’s mind, sex and money make the world go round – one cannot exist without the other. And with his newly found friendship with Rizzo, a dirty and misunderstood crook who bobs up and down Manhattan’s sidewalks, Buck finally realises that his life can change for the better if he works with Rizzo to escape the poverty line.
Opposite Voight, Dustin Hoffman gives a first-class performance as the Brooklyn born Rizzo. “Ratso” is a compelling character because, underneath Hoffman’s filthy clothes, greasy hair and crooked profession lie a decent and morally faithful companion. The relationship between the two develops until the final 30 minutes which transforms into a heart-breaking send-off for the pair; they board a coach to Florida, they have one last shot of conquering the American dream, Buck and Rizzo’s goal is on the horizon. But sadly, their victory turns bittersweet with sudden tragedy. I won’t shed any spoilers here, but it’s easily understandable why some audience members weep at ‘Midnight Cowboy’s’ lonely finale.
‘Midnight Cowboy’ is certainly one of the better Best Picture Winners at the Oscars out there, found lodged in-between Carol Reed’s ‘Oliver!’ and Franklin J. Schaffner’s ‘Patton’. I don’t mean to disrespect Reed’s memorable musical or Schaffner’s straight-faced biopic, but the material in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ places it as the most risqué film to possibly ever win Best Picture. These days, many viewers will find it daunting to watch since critics hold it in such a high regard, yet thankfully, it has aged like a fine wine. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ has a dynamic presentation of Buck’s unsettling flashbacks, is a lonely but sometimes hopeful portrait of the American dream, and is rich and plentiful in the characterisation department. Now experience ‘Midnight Cowboy’ in all its glory thanks to Criterion’s crisp and lovely release.