Sunday, November 10, 2013

Midnight Cowboy

Directed by John Schlesinger.
1969. Rated R, 113 minutes.
Cast:
Jon Voight
Sylvia Miles
John McGiver
Barnard Hughes
Bob Balaban
Ruth White
Jennifer Salt


Joe Buck (Voight) is tired of his life as a dish washer in a Texas diner. On a whim, he quits his job and boards a bus headed for New York City where he hopes to become a gigolo. He figures there are a lot of lovely ladies there and, in his words, all the guys are “tutti fruitties.” Once he gets to the Big Apple, he discovers it is not so easy to make money slinging ding-a-ling. To make matters worse, he gets ripped off by Ratso (Hoffman), a local miscreant who pretends to be helping him break into the industry. Unable to continue paying for his hotel room, Joe finds himself on the streets with only the clothes on his back and his trusty portable radio. By chance, he runs into Ratso again. Instead of beating him up as he intends, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ratso whom we shortly find out is a squatter in a condemned building. The two men carrying on this friendship while trying to make money any way the can ensues.

What draws us in first are the performances of our two leads. On the surface, Jon Voight has the slow “aw-shucks” southerner thing going, complete with clothes that make him look as if the most garish outfits in a Country-Western store exploded all over him. What’s beneath that is what sells us on him. He obviously has a dark and complicated sexual history. He also has no idea how to deal with it. We the sense that he was always a fish out of water, even in his own hometown. Voight, with plenty of help from director John Schlesinger, brings this across wonderfully. As good as he is, Dustin Hoffman is even better. We’re inclined to dislike a person as unscrupulous as Ratso, especially when that person appears to be constantly drowning in their own sweat and generally looks shifty. This applies even if the person is a cripple, as he describes himself. However, Hoffman makes his character a sympathetic figure long before the movie itself actually tries to accomplish this. It’s truly a brilliant piece of acting.


The story of Joe and Ratso also ensnares us. We become interested in their plights and get excited when it seems their fortunes might change for the better. Eventually, it becomes apparent that there is some repressed sexual tension between them. Though rather brazen for its own era, what it holds back is what makes the movie work. It shows us this without spelling it out for us. If made today, there would likely be a moment in which Ratso misconstrues something Joes says and kisses him only to have his advances rebuffed. That doesn’t happen here and the movie is better for it. While it is true that we see Joe being “gay for pay” when he has absolutely no money and needs a meal, it feels more genuine that neither would engage in anything physically intimate with another man without the threat of starvation hanging over their heads. These are two guys who identify themselves as straight and maintain their macho veneers, at least in part, by verbally disparaging those they call fags. Neither would ever admit there was anything other than a platonic kinship between them. These simmering emotions permeate the movie. We notice them in one of Ratso’s jealous rants and when Joe has sexual performance issues with a woman. She even taunts him with questions about his sexuality. The feelings are there, though neither guy will admit it.

It is said that everything happens not only for a reason, but when it is supposed to. With that in mind, I’m no longer surprised this is my first viewing of Midnight Cowboy, even though it is a couple years older than I. Truth is, I may not have been ready for it before now. No doubt, a much younger me may very well have liked the movie a lot, but missed much of the movie. I don’t mean I would physically miss it, because I’d watch every second. I mean the subtleties and subtexts would fall silently on my ears. I’d liken this bromance to any number of others without really differentiating it from them. The complexities of Joe and Ratso’s relationship would be lost on me. In short, I wouldn’t appreciate the masterful filmmaking on display.

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