I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1969 winner, Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. I had previously watched this movie about eight years ago.
Midnight Cowboy is a drama that makes use of experimental editing techniques to tell the story of a would-be gigolo in New York and his down-on-his-luck friend. The story is told primarily through visuals and flashbacks, rather than dialogue.
The other competitors that year were Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello, Dolly! and Z. Midnight Cowboy was the only X-rated film to win Best Picture. It's since been re-rated as a "R."
The movie also won the Oscar for Best Director and for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Waldo Salt).
At the beginning of the movie, we meet Joe Buck (Jon Voight), who is in high spirits as he quits his thankless restaurant job in Texas and makes ready to leave town. He tells a buddy his plan: in New York, he says, the women are "begging for it" and willing to pay for the privilege, and "most of the men are fruits." So he intends to make his living as a gigolo.
We follow him on his long bus trip across the country, as he tries to connect with his fellow passengers and listens to his transistor radio. Of course, in New York he soon discovers that becoming a gigolo isn't so easy, even for an attractive young man in a cowboy hat. He meets an opportunist in a bar, Rico "Ratso" Rizzo, who promises to help but then rips him off instead.
When Joe finally tracks down Ratso, he demands money, which Ratso doesn't have. Then, realizing that Ratso is the only person he knows in town, and having been kicked out of his apartment, he agrees to crash at Ratso's run-down apartment. The two live moment-to-moment, resorting to petty theft and other techniques to subsist, an existence that begins to tell on both of them.
Much of the story is told visually: either through close-ups of people's reactions to events, or through a series of flashbacks, which are snippets of scenes from Joe's past. More of these scenes unravel as the movie goes along, providing psychological insight into Joe and his troubled past.
Certain scenes from this movie are very well known, such as an Andy Warhol-style party, filled with artistes and hangers-on, with drug use, snarky dialogue, and trippy music and visuals. The other well-known scene is the final scene, which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it.
The secret power of this movie is that it becomes much more than viewers initially expect. When we're first introduced to this naive yokel, we know he's in for disappointment. Initially, his exploits seem somewhat humorous. Before long, however, as his living situation gets worse and his flashbacks intensify, he becomes a more complex, even tragic figure. Voight plays this role convincingly, a role very different from the tough, in-charge roles he typically plays today.
Hoffman is great as Ratso, whose wisecracks mask a deep insecurity and who harbors his own painful past. He limps and is sensitive about it. To play the role, Hoffman kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure the limp would remain consistent. Reportedly, when he auditioned for the film, Hoffman feared his all-American image could cost him the job, so he told the auditioning film executive to meet him on a Manhattan street corner. Hoffman got there ahead of time, dressed in rags, and accosting people for change. Finally, he walked up to the exec and revealed his true identity. For sure, watching this movie, there is little of the Dustin Hoffman from The Graduate that contemporary viewers knew and expected.
The movie was shot on location for exterior sequences, which adds to the authenticity. The interior sets look convincing, as well: very much like some of the older buildings in New York.
The minimal dialogue and visual style were ground breaking for the time. Unlike many of the Oscar winners from the '60s, Midnight Cowboy is a simple movie about two people. More than that, though, this movie is about their internal story, what happens below the surface. These characters' internal struggles are what gives the movie meaning and makes it compelling to watch.
Rating (5 out of 5): *****
Telling a story well doesn't necessarily require a lot of words.