A “cowboy,” Joe Buck, moves to New York City from Texas to make his fortune as a hustler servicing rich Park Avenue women. Shortly after arriving, he is hustled by homeless con man Ratzo Rizzo, who had said he would manage him for a $20 fee. Bent on getting his money back, Buck finds the rapidly deteriorating Rizzo, ends up feeling sorry for him, and moving into Rizzo’s room in an abandoned building to care for him. The two remain hopeful of striking it rich with Rizzo managing Buck’s career, but it soon becomes obvious that they are no match for the urban jungle.
In 1969, following an anti-establishment path blazed famously by Bonnie and Clyde, then-X-rated Midnight Cowboy lumbered into the cinema consciousness and swiped the Best Picture Oscar. While Hollywood was producing Hello, Dolly! (also nominated that year), Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and director John Schlesinger were chronicling the bizarre tale of a wannabe male prostitute and a sickly cripple trying to survive together on the New York City streets.
Academy voters had a lot to be impressed with — tenacious, unrelenting performances, Waldo Salt’s fearless screenplay adaptation — but, perhaps they were also swayed by Midnight Cowboy’s distinct feeling Schlesinger paints New York as an uncomfortable amalgam of society ladies and society dregs, a city slathered in advertising messages, covered in money and hopping with cheap hustlers. In the last 35 years, the word “gritty” has often been used to sum up the film, accurately, usually referring to the disgusting abandoned apartment our two protagonists call home.
Hoffman, in his first lead role since The Graduate, is Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, a limping, slimy looking loser who wanders the streets aimlessly, trolling payphones for change and dreaming of moving to Florida. Voight, in his breakout after six years of TV work, plays Joe Buck, an ultra-naïve Texas boy who comes to New York with delusions of Park Avenue women paying him for sex.
A fool and his money are soon parted, of course, and Buck (“I’m not a real cowboy, but I’m one hell of a stud!”) is broke and homeless quickly. After Ratso meets Joe at a bar — and promptly rips him off — he eventually offers up his condemned, heat-free living space, and the two bond in an unexpected way that is both awkward and touching.
There’s a sad symbolism to the lead roles that makes the characters’ simpatico even more tragic. Buck, the strapping Texan, eyes his New York future like a modern-day immigrant. His image of rich dames in bed is about as false as the adage about streets made of gold, and his lack of urban savvy means he doesn’t speak the language either. Ratso is New York itself circa 1969, welcoming to a point, cynical, and heading toward certain crumbling. Together, they work low-level shoplifting, attend a Factoryesque party — where they pretty much fit in — and fantasize about magic bus tickets to Miami.
In the years since the film’s initial release, as Voight’s become an acclaimed performer and Hoffman an acting superstar, images from Midnight Cowboy have become iconic. Nearly every movie fan has seen the lonely photo of Voight with his trademark cowboy hat and a scruffy Hoffman with greased-back hair. There’s Hoffman hollering, “Hey, I’m walking here!” at a stray taxicab. And there’s the pair’s freaky pas de deux set to a radio jingle for orange juice.
In perfect step with the acting and setting is the superb editing by Hugh A. Robertson, also nominated for his work. In addition to choosing an ideal rhythm for the one-on-one sequences, he also creates uncomfortable jigsaw puzzles of images, rat-a-tatting troubled pasts and a troubling New York to an unsuspecting audience. The editing contributes in making Midnight Cowboy a maverick effort, much like the editing of another tide-turner from 1969… Easy Rider. The world was going to change.