Midnight Cowboy is an accomplished film. It would win Best Picture in 1970, the first X-rated film in America to do so, and has endured with a certain admiration in the decades since. It is wincingly visceral, and immaculately performed, but through it all one can’t help but wonder how truly great it could have been if director John Schlesinger had a clearer focus.
The film calls to mind a previous Schlesinger nominee for Best Picture, Darling, with both movies founded upon the unrelenting grubbiness of the lifestyles they depict. Darling seeks to indict a hollow lifestyle of decadence without true relationships, rendering its settings filthy in their moral depravity, while Midnight Cowboy fixates on the physical dirtiness of its world. The grimy, bleak streets of wintery New York are absorbing as Midnight Cowboy triumphs over its director’s previous work through the humility it brings to its characters. However, as Darling was too focussed with rendering its background so detestable that the characters couldn’t help but follow suit, Midnight Cowboy’s characters are on occasion lost in Schlesinger’s desire to paint such an austere, nightmarish portrait of tone and place.
What we do get out of the characters is brilliant. The film is wonderful in its ability to create a relationship that is miraculously beautiful in spite of the calamity that envelops it, an accomplishment that hinges on the writing and enlivening of Joe Buck and Enrico Salvatore Rizzo.
Jon Voight is Joe Buck, a strapping Texan who moves to New York to capitalise on its wealthy, female socialites as a “hustler”. Love making is all Joe has ever been good for, and as he hears over his portable radio, which he clutches like a child would their favourite teddy-bear, the women of New York are supposedly pining for a man just like him. His eyes ignite like a slot-machine that just came up jackpot, but he quickly learns he’s in over his head on the gritty, dog-eat-dog streets.
Jon Voight is brilliant, bringing such a tragic simplicity and naivety to a character made so involving in his humble ambition and kind-heartedness. Joe Buck is like a stray puppy, clumsily moving from one rejecting client to another. He’s youthfully hopeful, but gut-wrenchingly hopeless, and his is an amazingly sympathetic portrait. When he’s mocked for his caricature-like Texan outfit, and when he takes pity on a woman he’d hoped would be his first paying client, giving her a precious 20 he’d slaved for back home, one can’t help but sway their head to the tune of “poor Joe”. Joe covets his appearance, it’s all he has, but when he learns that the cowboy shtick in 60’s New York is more laughable than macho, he withers. “I like the way I look” he chokes out from behind welling eyes, “makes me feel good”. It’s like seeing a child weep upon being separated from a parent. This is where the film works, with its simple moments of a character so painfully recognisable in his hopefulness and struggle, that seeing him flail is like having a knife slipped and twisted between the ribs.
Equalling affecting is Dustin Hoffman as the limping Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo. His is a more physical performance, one which embodies the grit of the streets that have claimed him. His narrow features, stained teeth and dripping face every bit as vermin-like as one would expect from a character that couldn’t have been more aptly named. You can smell Ratso, you can feel the decay in his body as he and Joe grow to become soul mates, finding common ground in their combat against a city that never gave them a chance. Ratso isn’t naive, he’s a grifter and a pickpocket, but he’s every bit as hopeful as Joe, taking him in as a protégée after he initially cons him. It’s a beautiful friendship, subtly growing and made all the more powerful by its contrast to the unrelentingly grimy New York that contains it, as the two dare to dream of sunnier climes where Joe will be admired, and Ratso will instead be known as Enrico.
If only Schlesinger played it straight and honed in on the story’s wonderfully humanist core.
The director can’t help but be distracted, unveiling a series of flashbacks designed to reveal Joe’s back-story that are more pretentious in their ambiguity and wrong-footing in tone than revealing in character. He veers into violence and out-of-place drug parties; perhaps he felt no depiction of New York would be complete without a Warhol-esque detour, or maybe he hadn’t flexed his dramatic muscle enough with his central friendship, whatever it may be, there is a lack of discipline at work. For its deficiencies it never does undo the amazing work put into its two characters, but maybe this is why those deficiencies are so pronounced. Midnight Cowboy could’ve been perfect, and indeed should’ve been, but it can’t help but stumble at the most inopportune moments.
We can never overstate the genius of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. The fact that the relationship of Joe and Ratso is so quietly beautiful in a world where beauty seems to be impossible is an amazing achievement, but perhaps a tragedy even greater than theirs is the tragedy of the film itself, a masterpiece that John Schlesinger let slip through his fingers.