Friday, January 24, 2014


I’m sometimes asked if I only like movies about women, or if a film has to have a female protagonist in order for me to enjoy it. Granted, even a cursory look at the films I list amongst my favorites would lean toward the answer being, yes; but the truth is, I’m not drawn specifically to movies about women so much as I have a strong aversion to what passes for manhood in a great many motion pictures. Preoccupied as most films are with perpetuating a narrow, outmoded, and distinctly white, hetero-normative vision of manhood, often consisting of oversimplified macho/hero stereotypes and care-worn heroism tropes, I have merely grown weary of outsized masculine totems standing in for fleshed-out, human-scale men.

Never being one to find plot-driven action and adventure to be a preferable alternative to the intensity of simple emotional conflict, I gravitate instead to movies about flawed characters grappling with the human condition. That these have largely been movies about women says more about our culture’s rigidity in its onscreen depiction of masculinity than it does any gender preferences I may hold in the way of  narrative central characters. 
Joe Buck sees the cowboy as the epitome of hetero-masculinity
Hollywood has never lost a dime trafficking in gender stereotypes. In the standard Hollywood film, men “do” while women “feel”; men propel the action, women do all the emotional heavy-lifting. The prototypical American male movie hero is a stoic, unemotional, lantern-jawed man of action, rarely given to moments of self-doubt, diffidence, or introspection. He’s the strong, silent type, indigenous to westerns, war movies, crime dramas, espionage thrillers, sports films, sci-fi, or any testosterone-leaden genre requiring things being “blowed up real good,” or cars raced fast and furiously. Few things are more boring to me than films about men fearful of losing their "masculinity." I really have no idea what that means, and I suspect if I did, I'd have a hard time being convinced of it being anything of value to lose.

Happily, a great deal of this changed (albeit briefly) in the late-'60s with the emergence of the movie anti-hero. The New Hollywood, in its youthful repudiation of America's cinematic status-quo, challenged the old-fashioned concept of masculinity and reimagined the traditional Hollywood leading man as an individual of unprepossessing countenance (Elliott Gould, Richard Benjamin, Malcolm McDowell, et. al.) capable of uncertainty, and more apt to be at war with some inner aspect of his character than to be found pointing a .44 Magnum at some punk and asking, “Do you feel lucky?”
Urban Cowboy
Archaic notions of masculinity collide with the modern world 
A perfect example of the American male redefined can be found in one of the films I consider to be a true, genuine-article, movie classic: John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. A buddy film for a new generation which in every way embodies the kind of perceptive, complex characterizations I love to see in movies. When a film is this textured in exploring emotional isolation, vulnerability, loneliness, and (a favored theme of mine) the human need to connectfrom the relatively rare perspective of the maleit only emphasizes how much time has been wasted and how many rich stories we've missed out on due to Hollywood's persistence in depicting men in terms of masculine archetypes rather than authentic, recognizably flawed individuals.
Jon Voight as Joe Buck
Dustin Hoffman as Enrico Salvatore Rizzo
Sylvia Miles as Cass Trehune
Brenda Vaccaro as Shirley
Midnight Cowboy is the story of Joe Buck (Voight), a naïve Texas dishwasher with a sad, abandoned past who, possessed of little beyond an elemental self-awareness“The one thing I ever been good for is lovin’”seizes upon the tin-pot ambition of going to New York and making it big as a sought-after gigolo, servicing the sexual needs of neglected, Park Avenue socialites. Unfortunately, a string of bad breaks (not the least of them being Joe’s ignorance of the largely homosexual implications drawn from his beloved cowboy attire in a Metropolitan setting) results in a drastic reversal of fortunes for Joe, leading to his forging an unlikely friendship/bond with a tubercular, disabled grifter and pickpocket: one Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Hoffman), or, as he's loath to be called, Ratso.
In detailing the tentative alliance between these two wounded misfits, director John Schlesinger (Darling, The Day of the Locust) and screenwriter Waldo Salt (from the James Leo Herlihy novel), have not only fashioned one of the screen’s great (platonic) love stories, but in the bargain create a terribly moving and heartrending essay on isolation and the need to be needed.
"Joe sees how profusely Ratso is sweating and untucks his shirt to pat down his friend's hair. Ratso, not used to such tenderness, holds onto him, his eyes closed in a stolen moment of bliss."
                        - Dustin Hoffman commenting on one of the film's most poignant scenes

The kind of mature-themed major motion picture unimaginable in today’s teen-driven multiplex marketplace, the then X-rated Midnight Cowboy fairly knocked me for a loop when I saw it in 1969 (I was fairly shaken by it, finding some parts absolutely harrowing, later feeling heartbroken and bawling my eyes out at the end...then staying to watch it all again). I was just 12-years-old at the time, and in my film fan fervor, Midnight Cowboy looked to me like the future of American movies. Strange to think of it now in the age of Iron Man and The Avengers, but try to imagine: I was only an adolescent movie enthusiast, but already I'd had the good fortune to have been exposed to the brilliance that was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rosemary’s Baby, Secret Ceremony, and Bonnie and Clyde…and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was just around the corner.

Like an unspoken promise, the quality of these movies led me to the optimistic (naïve?) belief that American films were headed in an entirely new direction. I thought that motion pictures, freed from the constraints of censorship by the dissolution of the Production Code and recently-relaxed definitions of obscenity, could at last take their place as the emergent pop-cultural art form of the 20th century. Alas, conservatism and consumerism ultimately won out, but for a brief time there, Hollywood was turning out the most AMAZINGLY offbeat and thought-provoking movies.  Small wonder that the '60s and '70s still linger in my memory as my absolute favorite era in American film. I see now that it's because we were both growing up at the same time.
Bernard Hughes appears as Townsend "Towny" P. Locke in one of Midnight Cowboy's most  controversial scenes

Putting aside for a moment Waldo Salt’s absolutely incredible screenplay (and if you've read Herlihy's novel you know what a splendid adaptation it is), as far as I’m concerned, cinematographer Adam Holender (Puzzle of a Downfall Child) and composer John Barry (and all sundry music contributors) are as much the stars of Midnight Cowboy as Voight and Hoffman.
Displaying the kind of seamless collaboration which served to both feed and mislead auteur theorists critics back in the day,  Holender and Barry create a look and sound for Midnight Cowboy so cinematically well-suited to its themes of fractured dreams and abandoned hopes (the use of disorienting flashbacks and subjective audio were considered innovative for its time), that the mode of storytelling becomes as important as the story itself. And, of course, who can listen to Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin' (sung by Harry Nilsson) without visualizing Joe Buck strutting like a peacock down the crowded Manhattan streets, the diminutive Ratso Rizzo at his side, struggling to keep up.
Repeat viewings reveal the incredible amount of backstory and character exposition that's relayed through the film's economic and artful use of flashbacks and dream sequences. Everything you need to know about Joe Buck's troubled past is revealed in jarring flashes, like memories he's trying to repress. But I find the true richness of this device in that it reveals so much without explaining anything. It's both refreshing and challenging when a film asks you do some of the work yourself.
Shown in flashback, Joe is sexually assaulted by town rowdies jealous of the attention paid to him by the town goodtime-girl, Anastasia Pratt, aka Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt, daughter of screenwriter Waldo Salt). 

Midnight Cowboy is so chock full of amazing performances that it becomes an exercise in futility to extol the virtues of any one particular actor. Still, each time I watch it, I find I'm left with lingering impressions of newly-discovered bits of brilliance in performances I thought I was long-familiar with.
Making his film debut, long-time favorite Bob Balaban is appealingly vulnerable as the young student who, even in his naif outing as a sexual outlaw, has it over Joe Buck in the street-smarts department
"I got a strange feelin' somebody's bein' hustled!" - Doris Day in Calamity Jane
Oscar-nominee Sylvia Miles makes more out of 6 minutes-worth of screen time than any actress I've ever seen. As the Park Avenue "socialite" with the braying voice and whiplash temper, Miles creates a vividly dimensional character out of little more than a sketch. I could go on about what I adore about her performance, but I couldn't put it any better (or more hilariously) than a fellow blogger does HERE
Sylvia Miles had the showier part, but I have a soft spot for Brenda Vaccaro and what she does with her thoroughly unique role as the emancipated woman who gets a kinky kick out of paying for sex with, as she puts it, a "cowboy-whore" she meets at a party. Like almost every supporting role in Midnight Cowboy, hers is a character one can easily imagine having a life beyond the frame of the screen (judging by her apartment, possibly a pretty fascinating one).   

Midnight Cowboy was my first exposure to both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom give the kind of performances that make stars. Some of the actors considered for the role of Joe Buck include: James Caan, Don Stroud, Alan Alda (!), Michael Sarrazin, Lee Majors, Alex Cord, Gary Lockwood, Robert Forester, and Michael Parks.

Hoffman is, of course, a revelation, especially in light of the extreme departure Ratso Rizzo is from his work in The Graduate; but it's the sad-eyed Jon Voight who ratchets up the film's pathos by way of achieving, in his portrayal of the hapless hustler Joe Buck, what I've always admired in the work of Julie Christie: the ability to instill in shallow, not-very-bright characters, a considerable amount of inarticulate depth.
If it's disappointment and sadness that leads Joe to willingly accept sexual objectification as a viable means of existence, then Midnight Cowboy qualifies as the male perspective of a tragic real-life circumstance we tend to see played out in public most often by women. Consider the doomed fates of sexualized small-town girls, Dorothy Stratten and Anna Nicole Smith.

Fantasy isn't perhaps the best word to describe what I mean, but I adore the seedy, grimy look of late '60s New York captured in Midnight Cowboy. It's an Alice Through the Looking Glass view of Manhattan inspired, one can't help but assume, by Brit director John Schlesinger's unfamiliarity with the city, and his fascination with its sordid contrast to the cheery image of America presented in advertising and TV commercials. As would be the case in later years in films like Klute (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976), Midnight Cowboy uses New York as though it were another character in the story.

As it is rare for a director to even turn out ONE classic film in the entirety of their careers, I find it sometimes a little baffling how easily John Schlesinger's namethe man who gave us Midnight CowboyDarling, and The Day of The Locust...three genuine classics, in my bookis so often bypassed in discussions of great directors. Even the gay community rarely gives it up for this director (to my knowledge, the only "out" director working in mainstream film at the time) whose body of work is decidedly uneven, but nonetheless yields several impressive efforts. Happily, Schlesinger won the best directing Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, and the film won Best Picture that year (Salt also won for his screenplay).
There’s no telling what, if any, impact Schlesinger’s sexuality had on the way Midnight Cowboy turned out (after all, the original novel was written by a gay man, but adapted by a straight). But even by today’s standards, what still impresses me about Midnight Cowboy is how strongly it stands as one of mainstream cinema’s most persuasive examples of the purposeful deconstruction of the masculine myth.
Joe Buck embraces a traditional concept of masculinity no longer considered relevant or even valid in an urban (modern) environment. In fact, Joe is rather stunned to learn that everything he once thought represented masculinity and manhood (macho posturing, sexual pursuit, and dressing like a cowboy) has, somehow, become perversely feminized ("You're gonna tell me John Wayne's a fag?!"). Manliness of the sort he admired as a boy in the movies, or copied from the rodeo cowboys that populated his grandmother’s bed, had transmogrified into the macho “drag” adopted by homosexual prostitutes plying their trade on New York's Forty-Second Street.
Joe discovers he's but one of many Midnight Urban Cowboys
Like a great many men who haven't a clue as to how to view themselves without clinging to an antiquated hunter-gatherer/alpha-male paradigm; Joe, without a defined code of “masculinity” to follow, is at a loss. Ironic, because, as revealed in the novel and an early draft of the screenplay, what inspires Joe to come to New York in the first place is his learning that the urban phenomenon of the overworked businessman has resulted in a surplus of sexually frustrated city women. In short, Joe believes there is a shortage of "real men" in New York, and his goal is to step in and fill the void, so to speak.

Even within the sex trade where he hoped to make his fortune, Joe finds himself unwittingly cast in the feminine role of being the one pursued by males rather than in the (equally passive) part of easygoing stud sought after by women. Yet, in his inarticulated longing to love and be loved (his only familiarity with it is as a purely physical act) Joe finds the closest thing he has ever known of it in the deep friendship he develops with another male. One every bit the misfit he is. 
Scenes of Domesticity
Over the course of the film, as Joe and Ratso come to need and depend on one another, Joe’s deep-rooted masculinity anxiety shows signs of being replaced by both a fragile sense of self-worth, and a broader concept of what it means for him to be a man. Joe even tables his dreams and awakens to the reality that he's not cut out for hustling. He places the needs of someone else before his own, and though he commits a violent act out of desperation, it's one born of a genuine concern for the only person that has come to mean anything to him (the only person he has, in fact). Rico drops his tough-guy front and reveals his vulnerability (who could call a man in a Hawaiian shirt Ratso?) forcing Joe to abandon his own false macho attitudinizing, resulting in two individuals at last becoming defined (in our eyes and their own) by their humanity; not the empty labels of masculinity.

And for a rather bleak and somber film, I think that's a really lovely, bittersweet  message to end with.

Bernard Hughes - 1980

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. As usual, a great and thoughtful essay. So many great films that year, films which would never be made now, at least not in Hollywood. Films of the late '60s and '70s really not only pushed the envelope but stretched the medium in ways that led one to believe things would be a lot more progressive now. A "golden age", in retrospect, but at the time nothing more than creative people making art. Sigh...

    1. Thanks, so much, Thom!
      Your points you make about the 60s and 70s echo my own. Something as simple as "creative people making art" sounds like an oasis in the film industry of today (shrewd deal makers pitching package deals) .

      I know there are a lot of amazing independent films made today, but the economic side of the business has really made Hollywood an industry of feeding the people familiar images of themselves. "Midnight Cowboy" gets me because it humanizes just the kind of individual one might pass on the street without looking twice at.
      Lots of chances being made during that era, and a kind of naive trust that there would be people out there interested in being challenged at the movies.

  2. Frequent reader here. I really love this delicate take on the movie. I don't think you do "requests", but this review sparked an interest in hearing what you thought of Sunday Bloody Sunday (Schlesinger's "out" "gay movie") and Coming Home, the film that won Voight the Academy Award he was first nominated for here. I'd be also dying to hear your view The Last of Sheila, scripted by Stephen Sondheim & Anthony Perkins (!). - Sandra

    1. Hi Sandra
      So pleased to hear from a frequent reader! I'm so pleased you liked this piece and flattered that it would spark curiosity about my takes on the films you mentioned.
      Of the films listed, I am perhaps most taken with "The Last of Sheila," a film I dragged my family too when i was young, and definitely plan on writing about it here.

      As a major Glenda Jackson fan, I saw "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" many times at revival theaters and remember loving the matter-of-fact gay character Peter Finch played. I haven't seen the film in years.
      Likewise, "Coming Home," which I think I saw only once (gasp!), when it came out. i probably would be more interested in knowing what YOU felt about that one than writing about the film myself (I remember liking Bruce Dern, but-as usual- finding him scary). Thank you for taking the time to comment, and who knows, essays on these films might pop up sooner than you think.

  3. Very observant points in regards to "Midnight Cowboy", a film I've seen at the cinema on a number of occasions as a double feature with "The Graduate".

    Interesting that you point out Joe Buck's lack of awareness as to how his cowboy costume might be perceived in the big city. The strange thing is that nowadays, ostensibly hetero-masculine men, in their misguided efforts to prove some sort of hyper-hetero alpha-maleness, adopt modes of physical appearance and sartorial attire celebrated in gay circles. They're oblivious to the irony of it all. Not sure who's telling all these callow "straight" youths that rampant heterosexuality is best conveyed by walking around shirtless in public and having a gay male fashion designer's name on your underwear (and wearing your pants low enough to make a show of it in public, too!), but this is the peculiar "hetero" culture of today--and in further irony, these are most often the types who display aggressive homophobia when confronted with anyone male whom they consider to be less than "manly".

    The reverse of this equation is to be found in "Easy Rider", when the small town hicks ridicule the counterculture motorcycle riders from the city for their long hair and crazy clothes. Wyatt and Billy would be more or less left alone in the big city (Dennis Hopper's Billy character is a bit cowboyish, but not so flagrantly archetypical as Jon Voight's Joe Buck persona--he really does look like a Ken Doll in a Western theme), but they are magnets for small town ignorance.

    Tempting though it is to label Joe Buck as naïve in respect to his ill-fated attempts at hustling, I prefer to think of Joe as "decent". It's easy to look down upon the easily swindled as being naïve, but it's more likely they simply don't have the guile to make it in the prostitution racket. The hooker with a heart of gold? That's Joe Buck all over.

    By the way, if you ever read a list of the "best movie prostitutes", make certain you have a barf bag at the ready. Far too often, it's little more than a list of the "hottest-looking movie prostitutes", with no regard to character depth and psychology. I dare say if these men (and note I do say men) were to meet an actual real-life prostitute, they'd be in for a rude awakening indeed, and have their Disney/Julia Roberts fantasies destroyed in an instant. No such list would be complete without Bree Daniels from "Klute" and Joe Buck from "Midnight Cowboy" (and most incredibly, there are such lists that omit BOTH characters!).

    1. Hi Mark
      Yeah, I hope the day eventually dawns (although I doubt it) that anyone who seeks to define their masculinity in anything as superficially taste-driven as modes of dress will be seen for the fools that they are. IMHO, clothes have NEVER made the man, and the more macho the effort, the more certain I become of looking at sheep’s clothing.

      I especially like that you see Joe’s behavior as being basically decent, not naïve. I agree with both. It’s certainly his decency that stops him from taking the young boy’s watch when he’s cheated out of his “fee”.

      In light of the kind of behavior considered “smart” or “savvy” by people nowadays (the reprehensible swindlers in Wolf of Wall Street, for example), I’d take naïve decency any day.
      And for that list of “best” movie prostitutes…I ‘m sure you’re right. It’s really a list of “Actresses I wish real prostitutes looked like.”

    2. "It’s really a list of “Actresses I wish real prostitutes looked like.” "

      As usual, you've said it better than I could!

      Oh, and before I forget again: ALAN ALDA considered for the role of Joe Buck?

      I think the same person who thought THAT would be a good idea still has a job in Hollywood green lighting Adam Sandler movies.

  4. Thank god I stumbled on this blog. I've spent some time now going through old posts, and thoughtful and appreciative comments. These are the movies of my youth (!) and Midnight Cowboy was one of the most influential. I was only 12 when my mother took me to see it. I may have been young but her feeling was, well, it won Best Picture. Oddly enough, it's a "New York" movie that made me want to move here. Klute, as well. Ken, as for sordid shot-on-location New York movies, any chance of ever covering Who Killed Teddy Bear?

    1. What a wonderful compliment, Max! But I'm the one most thankful for the kind of people who stop by this blog and always contribute such thought-provoking and kind comments.
      I guess we're the same age, and it sounds as if in both of our households, "Midnight Cowboy"s Oscar prestige was very persuasive, where mothers were concerned. I love that you are attracted to films shot in the New York of old. Best of all, you brought up one of my all-time fave movies..."Who Killed Teddy Bear!"
      I saw it on TV as a kid, and in later years dragged my partner to a revival theater to see it with me. He thereafter surprised me with a rare DVD copy of it on my birthday, so yes indeed, I plan on writing about that really seamy NYC classic. Thanks for asking!

  5. Argyle, here. Ken - your ability to summarize and analyze is truly extraordinary. Were you an English major? I can never think that straight; your essays are so spirited, organized and evocative that my thoughts and recollections just spill out. Herewith some of the random ideas that have cropped up in the days since I read your post.

    For me, this is one of those movies that drifts into a category just slightly higher than Great Film. It is a great film, but it also (inadvertently? I don’t know!) strikes very deeply. It’s not just masterful technique, astounding style or a great story. I think Jon Voight’s performance is key to that, and I mean no slight to Dustin Hoffman. There are not too many films like that - the only one that comes to mind right now is “Kes” by Ken Loach, interestingly, also from 1969. And, interestingly, also about dealing with masculine expectations, friendship and tough breaks.

    I first saw “Midnight Cowboy” many years after it came out, maybe in 1976 or 1977 on TV. But of course I was always aware of it, the newspaper ads all blocky and black with the X in the circle. It was incredibly mysterious; I had no idea what it was about. And at that time, X didn’t mean porn - there really wasn’t porn where I was. To me it meant: this is serious business.

    When I eventually saw it on TV, fortunately alone, I was stunned. What I mainly remember now is how shocking, upsetting the flashbacks to Texas were. I’d actually forgotten about the assault until I saw your screen cap. Staying slightly more detached, I loved Sylvia Miles and, having become a Warhol obsessive, the chance to actually see Viva in action. (This seems so quaint now when everything is always available.) I have to think that I never made it to New York to live (which was always the plan) because I think I knew I’d eventually end up freezing, wearing all my clothes, huddled in bed, in an apartment like Joe and Rico’s.

    I had a friend in college who was sort of a Joe Buck. I’m sure I saw “Midnight Cowboy” with him. His home life was very tightly wound. But back to ME - I don’t think I was ever naive. I’ve always been very watchful and fearful - always poised to deal with a coming insult, slight or snide remark. I think American masculinity is rooted in fear.

    I was wondering what it would have been like to see this movie with my father. What would he have thought? Could he have handled it? He was not a macho nut at all, but I don’t know that he could have looked beyond the surface “seaminess.” Maybe if he was alone. He was not a movie person. The only movie he ever expressly wanted me to see (and actually got me to the theater where it was playing in revival) was “Captain’s Courageous” with Spencer Tracy from 1937. At the time, I thought it was a great adventure story - I enjoyed it. Now, when I happen across it, I see (and am moved by) the sort of crazy father/son story and, interestingly, another tale of masculine expectations, friendship and tough breaks.

    I have never been a particularly masculine guy. Waiters all the time come to my table and say “What would you ladies like?” and then realize I’m sitting there. I’ve never known what it was. I think it’s just my gestalt. So eventually it just became my version of subversiveness. I’ve always been annoyed by the simple constructs we have made of the masculine and the feminine. Hazarding the profound, I’ll say I think a lot of this world’s problems are rooted in the oversimplification and attempted enforcement of binary systems of identity of all kinds. But people don’t want to be alone, I guess. I’m left thinking about Joe and Rico on the bus. Thank you, Ken!!

    1. Hi Argyle
      I’m deeply flattered that my posts spark memories and recollections of your own. That’s as it should be. I’m especially pleased that you share those recollections here. It feels like a real dialog about the power of films to move us and stay with us decades after we first see them.

      I love your description of how newspaper ads for “Midnight Cowboy” seemed so mysterious! That’s exactly how they appeared to me. That “X” symbol was endlessly intriguing (and
      You are so right…it meant “this is serious business”) and who knew what the term midnight cowboy even meant (at least what 12-year old did)?

      Did you ever see Sylvia Miles in Warhol’s “Heat”?

      I’ve never heard of the film “Kes,” but upon looking it up, it sounds fascinating. Got to give it a look! Although I’m hopelessly nostalgic about films from the 60s and 70s, it does seem as if movies were really telling daring stories and calling upon us to look at ourselves.

      What I glean from your comments about your own life and personal experiences with Joe Buck-types, the whole masculinity issue as something perceived as opposed to something one is, and your feelings about the film as a whole is what I've said before; you seem to allow movies to be more than a story being told. You allow yourself to make the film an experience, and as such, you give yourself that terrific gift that movies represent…the opportunity to learn something about ourselves through being made to feel empathy for others. Very cool thing, that.
      Thanks, Argyle. Always get a kick out of hearing from you.
      (By the way, I studied English in college, but was actually a film major…so of course, I've had a near-30-year career as a dancer. That’s what a liberal arts education will get you!) :-)

    2. Argyle, again. I haven't seen "Heat" with Sylvia Miles (or "Bad" either, for that matter.) I need to fix that. I've really only seen "Chelsea Girls" and several "Screen Tests," but I did see them in a theater, projected, from film - an accomplishment these days!

      Regarding "Midnight Cowboy", yesterday something brought to mind Joe Buck's suede jacket and the scene when he spills something on it (catsup?) and struggles to clean it. It's been a while since I've seen it, but I remember his grief and the sense that things are slipping out of his control. Such a great, relatable detail. Who hasn't scarred something precious that you're convinced is part of your identity? And when you don't have much to begin with.

    3. Ha! You've seen the few Warhol films I've NEVER seen!
      Oh, and your memory serves you his lowest ebb (having to ask for the leftover crackers from a patron at a diner) he spills ketchup on the vrotch of his pants and has to walk around with his hat in front of him. It's like a rock-bottom moment, given that his suitcase of clothes has been confiscated. Nice detail to remember!

  6. This is indeed a brilliant film, and the writing, direction and performances are unparalleled. It's one of my best friend's all-time favorites, so I have seen it a number of times.

    I must admit that to me the film is more than vaguely homophobic...I'm sure that's no more than a sign of the times, but I always feel a little sad when Voigt (and the director) degrade the men that need to hire a male the scene you mentioned with Balaban, for example, I always feel sorry for that character, not Voigt...

    I LOVE Vaccaro and Sylvia Miles...and it's true, the chemistry between Hoffmann and Voigt is touching, but I just can't seem to see Joe Buck as a sympathetic character. Ratso, of course, is heartbreakingly vulnerable.

    Beautifully written post, Ken, and it truly is a film that captures an era. I do love the Harry Nilsson song and the iconic New York imagery, and the great acting. But I don't see it as a landmark in gay film...there is no positive message there to me. Even the acidic Boys in the Band has more gay-positive ethos...

    I will have to take another look at this film to see it more through your eyes.

    1. Hi Chris
      I think you make a really fascinating and valid point. One that I hope you one day pursue in an essay on this film on your own site, perhaps. What I like about what you bring up is something I often discover in textured films of some emotional complexity that reflect strongly the input of a particular director or writer.
      What I notice is that of times a film can be really successful in one way, yet flawed in another. Like "Gone with the Wind" is a terribly racist film to me, yet it has a provocatively complex, almost feminist characterization at its center. Similarly, I really like the film "The Women", but for me it also has a strong misogynistic streak.
      The homophobia you pick up on I think is indeed in Midnight Cowboy, and it's intriguing that it trumps for you what always tears me apart about Joe Buck's story (his childhood is so sad to me, I always choke up at the brief glimpse we see of him being dropped off by his mother, then later left alone in front of the TV set by his mother).
      I daresay that how one responds to art is always a reflection of us, and I think any good film, if it's a really personal work, will hit people on different levels. Movies by committee work to eliminate that kind of stuff.
      So thanks for the food for thought, Chris, and the refreshing take on a rarely spoken of aspect of an iconic film.
      By the way, have you ever seen "Some of My Best Friends Are...?
      I hope to write about it one day, but would be interested in knowing what you thought.

    2. Ken, yes, I see exactly what you mean. A film like Gone With the Wind is indeed racist but can also be a work of art and groundbreaking on other levels. The same is definitely True of Cowboy.

      I also did want to add that none of the "everybody talking at" Buck in the film are particularly sympathetic either, and it is the flawed nature of humanity that Schlesinger captures well. And I do love many films about the "seamy" or dark side of life (I STILL love Minnie Castevet even after she gives poor Rosemary all those drinks and cakes and capsules, 'cause she's a hoot), so the gay thing in Cowboy must be a little sore spot for me.

      Your analogy made me understand how my own filter colors the film! (One of the cinema's great powers--to somehow personalize every story.)

      No, I have not yet seen Some of My Best Friends Are. I missed it when it was shown on TCM a couple years ago, and now I can't seem to find it easily. It is on my list of want-to-sees.

    3. Hi Chris
      Well, what you bring up is one of the things that makes the IMDB chat forums such an abuse-hurled battlefield. People come to movies from different backgrounds, emotional wiring, sensitivities, and life experiences, and I think these play into how a film "reach" us.
      On IMDB, the film chatterers seems to take the position that there is but a single way to see a film and that there is no room for psychological underscoring or subjective subtext.

      "Midnight Cowboy" depicts a world populated by "losers" and, almost like in Schlesinger's "The Day of the Locust" - it feels like a through-a-glass-darkly view of humanity. Everybody is unsympathetic, yet everybody is also a little sad, pathetic, and ultimately, wounded (I think the only time anyone actually smiles at Joe warmly is when he has dropped the cowboy drag and is in Florida).

      So, that's why I liked your comment and why I tend to slip a little autobiographical information into my movie posts...I think we can't help but react to movies - at least in part - through our own "filters."

      By the way, a really good "streaming only" copy of "Some of My Best Friends Are..." is available on Such an amazing cast of familiar faces in jaw-dropping roles. I hope you check it out!

    4. I agree with both of you. Homophobia is just as evident as the homosexuality in the film. the horrifying scene with Barnard Hughes is embarrassing, humiliating, disturbing in the desperation for some gay men at that time. the story is not positive at all about homosexuals because, at this time in history.....homosexuality was still a negative in society. a complete negative. it's possible that one of the major themes of the movie is "the desperation, pain and humiliation" of being gay. As a gay teen, when I saw the film, I was horrified by the whole movie. it certainly is NOT a film to watch if you were gay and in the closet at that time. it would only put me even further in the closet and try to block the images out of my mind long after seeing the movie. it is an important movie....passionate....but way too painful to remember.

    5. Were "Midnight Cowboy" made today, Joe Buck would be a failed wannabe porn actor who falls into gay-for-pay. The cycle of abused and confused young men who are sexualized too early and fall prey to defining themselves by a narrow, culturally rigid definition of masculinity is still with us. Only instead of donning a cowboy outfit to look like the macho images from a kiddie western, today they pump themselves full of steroids, cover their bodies in ink, all in a sad effort to emulate/imitate the juvenile, hypermasculine image of sports figures and action movie heroes.

      Any movie that can convey a truth like that can be labeled disturbing, harsh, lacerating, and ugly, but in my book , it can’t be called homophobic. An unpopular truth is still a truth, and it’s the duty of the arts to explore that.
      “Midnight Cowboy” is an adult film in that these concepts can look very scary and hateful to the eyes of teens who encounter them at a time when they are forming their own images of themselves. That’s why I love the 70s and that brief moment X-rated meant mature audiences.

      I fully understand your take on the movie and I think it is a valid and real response for you and the time you saw it. But “Midnight Cowboy” would be homophobic if it showed us well-adjusted heterosexual relationships, and then contrasted them with the sad couplings-for-money we see with the gay characters. But it doesn’t. The heterosexual relationships are horrific (the rape, the drunken cowboy in his grandmothers bed, the Park Avenue virago) as well. The film’s sole “positive” relationship is between Joe and Enrico. They forge a touching and loving relationship – one neither of them fully understands – that is likely the only family either of them has known. That the film fails to label it gay or define it for us makes it brave and honest, not, in my opinion homophobic.

      Since, even in these “enlightened” times you can come across a half dozen Joe Bucks a day here in Los Angeles; where gay self-loathing thrives in gays who use terms like “straight acting” and who consciously turn their backs on relationships with other gay men, seeking instead, contact with “straight” trade…well, I just think the mirror “Midnight Cowboy” holds up may be a brutally honest one. Homophobia doesn’t play into the narrative for me. Wanna talk to me about homophobic, don’t get me started on “Can’t Stop the Music”…now THAT’s a homophobic film.

      Of course, I have to thank you for offering yet another opportunity to explore a very important film, and perhaps you have more you’d like to contribute from your point of view. But in the end, a movie that lets each of us come away with whatever it is we feel is something of a miracle. It means it didn’t pander to us, it didn’t spell things out, it didn’t feed us comforting images. Art is meant to incite thought, inspire discussion and maybe make us feel uncomfortable. I think the one thing we both can agree on is that on that score “Midnight Cowboy” , like “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”, does so with a vengeance.
      Thanks for sparking a marvelous contribution to this post!

    6. LOL.....Can't stop the music?? I NEVER would have felt that movie is homophobic....but now I completely see your point. I saw that as a "a movie so bad it's good" film. and you watch it because it makes you laugh. Is that how you felt about Inside Daisy Clover? I was thinking about midnight cowboy today. and thought about the "homophobia" theory.....and I even thought if I was making sense. again, I was an 18 year old, in the closet, depressed about going to college, etc. yeah....homophobic doesn't make sense, after reading your review. I did think so because the film hit so hard at that age and the situation I was in. in fact, when I saw Joe Buck....I thought "this is me." this will be me. this is what being a homosexual is and how their lives are". oh, the other thing I thought about .....was that seeing that at 18....I thought Joe Buck is gay. if I saw it now....I would say he is confused abouth sexuality and his identity. Isn't it the same problem for many actors, theater students, the arts, dance, have an diluted sense of reality about NY and how to "make it" like Joe? that's how I felt about relating to Joe as well. I was going to major in theater for college, so of course I would feel that my life would end up like Joe's. No real stability, no identity....intimate relationship. But now I'm kind of going all over the place. But I agree ....Homophobic doesn't make sense....maybe I should watch Can't Stop the Music...where, apparently it makes Total sense!!!!

    7. Yes, both "Inside Daisy Clover" and "Can't Stop the Music" are so-bad-they're-good movies for me, but whenever the village People movie ends, there's this weird sense that the movie is the cinematic equivalent of Corky St. Clair in "Waiting for Guffman": it's deeply closeted and flamboyantly gay at the same time!

      In regard to "Midnight Cowboy," I think you are spot-on in replacing the word homophobic with a word that conveys how the film reflects an attitude toward gay sexuality that is "fearful" but not phobic.
      Back in these days there really was no way to imagine oneself as gay except as a person who was perpetually single, on the prowl, and alone. I remember when my mom got a copy of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex..." and I read the section on homosexuality. Here was this so-call hip and enlightened book about sex, and it still described being gay as this subterranean culture of anonymous sex and secret lives. No wonder this film hit you hard, and no wonder the image it presented of gays seemed particularly bleak.
      And you're sight about the closeted, sexually-confused youngsters in the arts. The dance world in the 80s, a place where you think guys would be comfortable being themselves, were full of closeted, confused types. It really hasn't changed a lot internally for a lot of people.
      Your personal journey to yourself sounds very fascinating. Maybe one day you'll let me know if there was ever a film that presented to you a positive or inspiring image of homosexuality or perhaps just a character coming to terms with self-acceptance and recognizing one's worth. Since it sounds like you like movies a great deal, it would be enlightening to know if films have been as helpful, inspiring and instructive to you as they have been to me.

    8. There were two movies that I watched repeatedly that were inspiring and helpful. Longtime Companion was the first movie that showed gay men as friends, and men who were truly in love. They maintained that love throughout the 80s during the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It was a wonderful feeling to see two men naked in bed get up and have breakfast together. ( I had a crush on actor Craig Dossett, who I saw in Gypsy with Bernadette Peters....that was fun) My Own Private Idaho helped and inspired....River Phoenix was so great. I saw that many many times over. Even though things went totally wrong for River in the end....the story, his journey....was the most important. I lived vicariously through I did Theresa Dunn in Goodbar (unfortunately) and I think that might be it....can't recall others. if I do, I will let you know. :)

    9. So nice to put a name to these wonderful comments!
      Everything you write about points to that cliche-but-true maxim "Representation matters".
      Seems we both grew up (you a bit later) in an era where onscreen representations of gay life were mostly sensationalist. It helped a good deal that I grew up in San Francisco and saw a great many happy gay couples to counter the twisted screen depictions.
      But even I hungered for more of a balance onscreen, and the films you note put a more human and humane face to gay, so I can see why they were influential.
      There's still so much more to be done these days, but it's fascinating to look back at what images we were exposed to as youngsters and ruminate on the impact they had.
      Thanks, John!

    10. Hi, Ken. it's been awhile, I know. I watched Mid/Cowboy for the third time tonight. had some questions for you....does it bother you that some people try to put labels on Joe and Ratso as both "gay/in the closet" instead of just "friends". Is Joe's running away from his hometown a metaphor for him "running away" from the possiblility that he is gay? maybe its for the audience to the decide. also.....and a strange to put it? who is the woman, in Joe's dream, putting together an enema? is it his grandmother? and if so, why did she do this? I'm afraid to know the answer, maybe I can google it if I'm brave enough. one more....did Joe actually end up killing the older man at the end? some friends of mine were arguing about it if he did or did not. I thought Ratso saying, "did you kill someone?" to get the money to mean that he did. but I'm not sure. but it will be nice to catch up and your reviews/analysis. here comes fall/winter!!!!

    11. Hi John! Nice to see you here again.
      I think it speaks volumes about "Midnight Cowboy" that you can see it three times and still discover new things.
      Because I think it's fair game for people to interpret films as they like, it never bothers me how viewers interpret Joe and Ratso's relationship. In fact, i think that's kind of the point.
      A non-traditional friendship that has a layer of what Tennessee Williams called a non-literal homesexuality with a heterosexual adjustment.
      "Friendship" is friendly....these two love one another, that we as a culture don't have a word that adequately describes two men in non-sexual love speaks to the heterodominant imitations of our language.

      It's been many years since I read the novel, but I think Sally Buck gave Joe an enema when he was sick as a child (a common cure-all in some circles), but it is thrust together with many association memories from his childhood. It is the wont of contemporary audiences to read thing s INTO films, so I have no idea what could be made of the image beyond a kind of "Sybill"-like upbringing with a grandmother with few boundaries, but...even mis-interpretation is fair in mature works. That to me is the risk-challenge of movies aimed at adults.

      That leads to the possible death of the final john that Joe visits. One could debate in an IMDB way, if he was killed or not (I don't think so) but either interpretation to me is OK if it fits a particular viewer's impression of the film.
      I would be wary of anyone bringing in outside suppositions to fill in the blanks in a movie, but if a sequence is shot ambiguously, I think one is allowed to come from it with what feels like the most authentic (personal) reading of the circumstances.
      I'm happy your re-visit to the film occasioned your revisit to this site. And you flatter me thinking I might have any "answers"!
      Hope to read some of your comments in other posts should you wish to contribute anything. Thanks!

    12. you are always welcome!! thanks for your insight once again. you have helped me understand these films/stories much better, from your analysis/feelings. do you try to write about the movies that truly moved you and loved? it doesn't seem that you write about movies that you felt were badly done. I do notice that you can really love a movie....but you are honest in your feelings about what went wrong with it (your analysis of my fav The Great Gatsby is a good example) thanks so much!!!

    13. One of the things I truly believe about film criticism (and life in general, i guess) is that it's far easier to rip something to shreds than it is to analyze hy one enjoys something.
      Before I started my blog, I would look over the internet and all I'd encounter were snarky reviews, pans, and people trying to be clever as they bashed one film after another.
      Although I could crank out reviews of films I hate far more easily (the bad stuff is just so accessible and doesn't require any real introspection), I decided I'm confine my blog to movies that mean something to me.
      And what you noticed is true; I do try to be as honest about what I feel are a film's shortcomings as I do it's merits. (I'm no more a fan or cheerleader criticism: which risks being delusional).
      So I try to write about movies from my emotional truth, where I may not be right, but I can never be wrong.
      It does really mean a lot to me if someone like you picks that up in my writing. Writing is all about communicating, and what you say to me makes me feel I am in some way connecting to another with my words.
      The goal is to inspire what we just did: communicate about what a film means to us and compare thoughts and impressions. So, thanks for that, John!

  7. Excellent comments, all!

  8. Young Bob Balaban, looks like Rick Moranis in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

    1. Ha! I never thought of that before, but you're so right! Even down to the windbreaker.
      I only hope that in future viewings of "Cowboy" I don't instantly have my mind go to Seymour Krelborn when I see Balaban. :-)

    2. :o) Best regards from Paris, France.
      I love your blog !

    3. Bonjour mon film d'amour ami! (Sorry if ungrammatical. Trying to learn French in my old age)
      I'm very flattered, and I thank you!

  9. Hello Ken,
    I just stumbled upon your website and am immensely impressed by your insight, level-headed consideration, and kindness in responding to readers' questions and interpretations.
    It is amazing.. I was 12 years old when I saw my first newspaper ad in the Chicago Tribune for Midnight Cowboy. The very first Oscar show I was allowed to see was the year Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture. It seems as though you and I could have been separated at birth, LOL!!! Our tastes and viewpoint, as ell as our historical perspective on film, dovetail so closely.
    I am happy I found your site, and am looking forward to catching up with you, and engaging in further discussion with you about this movie era (60's-70's) that I love so much and that seemed to greatly inspire us both!

    1. Hello Tom
      What a very nice and complimentary way of introducing yourself to the blog! Thank you! I always get a charge when I learn that someone might have shared a parallel exposure/appreciation of film.
      growing up at roughly (if not exactly) the same time, I really look forward to finding out what movies made an impact on you and which ones have remained favorites over the years. The 60s and 70s was such a fascinating time in film, and to be an adolescent movie lover during this era was heady to say the least.
      I'm glad you stumbled on the blog, but happier you've decided to perhaps stick around awhile. As you can tell from the comments, it seems like only the nicest and most people seem to stop here.

  10. Hi mate - a great article They actually wanted Elvis to play Joe Buck but Tom Parker rejected it (not Elvis to whom Parker didn't even tell reportedly) Elvis would have captured well Joe Buck's sensitivity and vulnerability.
    One of the greatest stories of mate-ship and change ever.

    1. Hi Frank
      I didn't know about Elvis being considered! But like you, I could imagine that 1969 version Elvis (under a good director like Schlesinger) could have turned in a sensitive performance. Parker really had Elvis' image on lockdown. The potential of his film career has always been left untapped.
      Thanks for contributing the new info and I'm glad you enjoyed the article! Appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  11. Great essay about a movie that manages to engage and stay provocative even when your brain tells you its dated or socially backward or whatever... Have you ever read Vincent Canby's original review from the New York Times? Its really wonderful. He describes Hoffman's voice as something that Mel Blanc might have created "for a despondent Bugs Bunny" and Jon Voight as "a tall, handsome young man whose open face somehow manages to register the fuzziest of conflicting emotions within a very dim mind." It's amazing how they seem to get everybody from Andy Warhol's Factory (except Andy Warhol) into this movie and make them seem like they belonged there! And I love Brenda Vaccaro's scene in the stairwell. ("Hey Fella! You fell!"). Finally, a shout out to the great Ruth White, a truly brilliant character actress who was in everything from Richard Brooks' EDGE OF THE CITY to UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE before her sudden death from cancer. This was her last film. She only appears in flashback, in snippets of film instead of scenes and has almost no dialogue. Yet somehow you get everything you need to know about her character from her expressions, her costume changes and her amazing screen presence.

    1. Hello Kip
      I just took a look at Canby's review and I agree with you that it's quite wonderful. The descriptions of the gifts Voight & Hoffman bring to the film are vividly written.
      It's a very well-cast film. As you note, the film creates a real sense of time and place the many members of the Warhol factory that appear here.
      Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro are terrific and frequently cited, so I'm glad you gave a well-deserved shoutout to Ruth White, who indeed creates an indelible character with minimum screen time.
      Thanks for contributing here, Kip. Even if it takes me a while to get around to these posts!