Released in 1969, Midnight Cowboy, Directed by John Schlesinger and Produced by Jerome Hellman, is one of the best films about friendship, despite the odds, and how the people we forge connections with help to shape our lives. Based upon the novel by James Leo Herlihy, adapted by formerly blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Waldo Salt, MC is about a good natured southern boy named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) who decides to quit his dishwashing job, leave Texas and use his good looks to go work as a male prostitute in New York City where he believes women will be lining up for his services.
Once he gets there he quickly comes to understand that life in New York is a Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest. Thinking he can simply walk up to women and they’ll throw money at him, Joe gets shot down but remains undeterred in his fantasy of being a hustler as youth is on his side while he’s a relatively gentle spirit. But his blissful ignorance does him no favors which is how he’s easily duped by Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who cons him. Soon things goes sour as Joe finds himself broke and made homeless, his only possession a tiny radio that’s his constant companion. He spots Rizzo who offers him a place to stay in the abandoned apartment tenement he’s squatting in in order to keep Joe from extracting revenge.
Joe has nowhere else to turn and accepts while also taking up Rizzo’s offer to manage him as a stud. But the two of them are hopelessly out of their depth and develop a codependency which helps them swirl further down the toilet as Joe’s desperation increases while Rizzo’s health deteriorates and their buildings oncoming demolition serves as literal and metaphorical wrecking ball that threatens to destroy them while the bitter cold of the New York winter furthers their pessimism.
One of the themes of the movie is how people hope for a better life which is both paralleled and contrasted with the dreams of Joe, who fantasies of a life of luxury and easy women which he believes he’ll receive in New York, compared to Rizzo who is a New York native and, knowing the harsh realities of life in the city, wants to get away to Florida. As things start to get bad, Joe is plagued with dreams of his childhood, living with his Grandmother and the various surrogate fathers she brought into their household which influenced his association of cowboy’s with masculinity, as well as his near avant garde impressionistic nightmares of New York and a girl he was once in love with in Texas, played by Jennifer Salt, daughter of Waldo. Rizzo meanwhile dreams of being healthy and working at a hotel as women call to him.
True friendship or love is when neither of you has anything to offer the other yet you stick together because you know you’ve found a kindred soul and begin to genuinely care about each other. As Midnight Cowboy moves along we see this bond develop between Joe and Rizzo, while his friends failing physical condition forces Joe to betray his good nature by assaulting and robbing a religious fanatic, that picks him up at an amusement arcade, in order to get the money they need to travel to Florida.
Despite the means of which he obtained the cash, it’s a selfless act done out of loyalty to his friend while falling soo low has shaken Joe out of dreamlike haze and left him with a new level of maturity as he looks towards a bright future tempered with realistic expectations and gives up his faux cowboy persona as his love for Rizzo gives him a note of grace. But it’s a bitter-sweet conclusion as Rizzo succumbs to his ailments and dies while on the bus with Joe, on their way to Florida. The look on Joe’s face as the picture fades to black is one of the most crushingly sad things I’ve ever seen as we’ve witnessed two lost souls find each other and enrich one another before being separated by mortality which is what we all must face in our lives as we lose those we care about in the fullness of time and reminds me that our only true goal in life should be to make better the lives of the people we love.
Beautifully lensed by Cinematographer Adam Holender, who captures New York city as it really was back in the late 60’s in all its cold bleakness, with an eloquent score from John Barry, including its haunting theme, Midnight Cowboy was financed and distributed by United Artists at a time when the walls of the studio system were coming down as the artifice of old Hollywood was making way for a new type of raw and gritty aesthetic that gave the movies of that era an aura of realism as the lax in censorship made it possible for filmmakers to explore the darker corners of life. This is what allowed a movie like MC to be made which is why it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, the only X-Rated film ever to do so, because it was an uncompromised artistic triumph and one of the greatest motion pictures ever produced that still stands as a towering achievement almost fifty years later!!!FACT!!!