Let’s Talk About… ’Midnight Cowboy’ (1969)

Film #50 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies.

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

On July 21st, 1969, two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first humans to walk on the moon. A little over one year earlier, on April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside his motel in Memphis, Tennessee. These two seemingly unrelated events hang like dueling punctuation marks on the end of an already tumultuous decade. The first signified a nation’s, perhaps even the world’s, hope for the future. The two astronauts even left a plaque on the moon with the refrain “We came in peace for all mankind.” But if Armstrong and Aldrin’s walk on the moon was an excited exclamation point for American achievement, King’s murder was certainly a question mark.

One month before Armstrong and Aldrin’s stroll on Earth’s closest neighbor, the Stonewall Riots began in New York’s Greenwich Village, signaling the beginning of the modern Gay Rights movement. One year before King’s assassination, 100,000 mostly young people gathered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco for the Summer of Love, the culmination of the hippie movement towards world peace that had begun earlier in the decade. Just four years earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, ending racial segregation (among other things) and signifying a sea change in the country towards a brighter, more hopeful future for all Americans, regardless of race, color, or creed. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy, another symbol of hope, was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. All of this drama played out against the backdrop of two undeclared wars, the Cold War and the Vietnam War.

Historians and politicians have declared many of these events defining moments of the 1960s, but the truth is, the 60s, as a decade, was a collection of contradictions, opposing ideas and ideals colliding in disputed territories, both figurative and literal. John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy wrestles with these contradictory versions of 1960s America and, maybe, makes sense of them.

Midnight Cowboy’s plot isn’t complicated: it’s basically the story of two unlikely friends told from the perspective of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young, wannabe cowboy from small town Texas, who leaves his dusty hometown behind for adventure and opportunity in New York City. Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman, the other half of this odd couple, is a small time grifter with a limp and dirty fingernails. Joe imagines a city full of desperate, wealthy, older women, and fancies himself a hustler. But Joe lives in 1969. He doesn’t have the internet. He doesn’t even have a TV. Joe has a transistor radio. Joe doesn’t know what he’s in for. Enter Ratso. He’s a local. A city dweller. Voight’s Joe Buck, in his brightly-colored cowboy shirt, black cowboy hat, and tasseled suede jacket, is like chum in the water to Ratso’s small time shark. The two meet and Ratso quickly scams the young Buck out of $20. It’s Joe’s first hard lesson on big city life (Always keep your guard up.) and his introduction to the wider world.

Midnight Cowboy is a film filled with contrasts. It begins on the Texas prairie. Big sky, sun-drenched pastures, and earnest “Howdy dos”. Joe Buck is the picture of youthful vigor. Slim, muscular, sun-tanned and always ready with a smile. Joe’s manner is as open as the Texas vistas he leaves behind for the city. Ratso, by comparison, is a hunched, ever dirty, and limping creature. His eyes are always moving, always scanning for a new mark, or, perhaps, on guard for an old one come to collect revenge. If the big Texas sky allowed Buck to grow and thrive, the oppressive Manhattan skyline, with its dark, soaring skyscrapers and tumbledown tenements, seems to have hobbled Ratso, stunting his growth in the process.

Plenty of films use the structure of the odd couple pairing to tell a good story (When Harry Met Sally, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Nice Guys, and probably most of the buddy cop films you’ve seen), but Schlesinger is interested in more than just amusement. Buck and Ratso, as archetypal characters, represent opposing visions of 1960s America. But Schlesinger is careful not to map a single set of social issues onto his characters; Midnight Cowboy isn’t that obvious and there’s utility in Schlesinger’s lack of overtness in the film’s messaging. Audiences, then and now, are allowed a lot of latitude in interpreting the two characters in ways that speak to individual predilections, and the film remains relevant and watchable for contemporary audiences as a result.

And while the film may not spell out its meaning for the audience, it’s not hard to infer meaning based on the political and social climate of the time, particularly from our perspective in the present. Voight’s wide-eyed Joe, with his dreams of hitting it big as a hustler, is easy to peg as a stand-in for the “City upon a hill” vision of America, while Hoffman’s Ratso represents a corrupt future vision of an idealized past – some might say the logical end to a country built on slavery and the displacement of its native people. The symbolism can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, but at its most surface level, Midnight Cowboy is at the very least a portrait of two Americas colliding: one, the gentle, if not prospering, contented small town; the other, the crime-riddled, angst-stricken, deteriorating city.

But even without the social and economic politics seething at the heart of the film, Midnight Cowboy excels as a simple character study. Not only does Schlesinger and Co. sell Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo to the audience and make us believe in them as people who might have existed at one time, the filmmakers pull off an even greater feat of storytelling: Midnight Cowboy makes us care about two characters who offer little incentive for doing so. Neither Joe nor Ratso are particularly bad guys – their crimes are mostly victimless – but neither epitomizes the kind of human virtue one hopes society aspires to. But there’s something undeniably human at the heart of these two characters, a yearning for something better, but without the ability to articulate exactly what and in the absence of any sense of how to reach that abstraction “better” we watch them spiral past rock bottom towards some horrifying sub basement of human degradation.

Depending on your disposition, your politics, or your level of attachment to these characters, Midnight Cowboy could be said to end on either a downnote or an upnote. I’ll stop short of spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen the film, but I will say that I’d like to think that Schlesinger’s final verdict is a hopeful one. Perhaps his vision of America at the end of the film is of one that has shed its old skin, learned lessons from its past, and is moving ahead towards a more just future.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Schlesinger was right or wrong.