This 1969 film tells the tale of the unlikely friendship that arose between a fresh-faced country boy (Jon Voight) who comes to New York City with the hope of making money as a cowboy gigolo and a lowlife street-wise hustler (Dustin Hoffman) who knows (or acts like he knows) all the angles. I remember most vividly the bleak scenes of the two trying to survive the brutal cold of winter in a decrepit, grimy apartment in a city that looked gritty, dirty, decaying, and crime ridden, the wonderful theme song Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson, and the haunting background harmonica music played by the great ‘Toots’ Thielemans (who incidentally also played the Sesame Street theme during the end credits of that show.)
There is a new book about the film and Louis Menand takes the opportunity of reviewing it to argue that this film, along with others like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate was one of the key markers of a new wave of edgy American films that rescued US cinema from the irrelevance that it was sinking into when compared to the films coming from overseas.
A scene that everybody who has seen the film remembers is where Hoffman yells “I’m walking here!” to a cabdriver at a pedestrian crossing. That, like Robert De Niro’s “You talking to me?” from Taxi Driver is indelibly etched in the memories of my generation. It seems so perfect that it was a surprise to me to read that it was not in the script but that Hoffman ad libbed it.
One question that the film did not directly address was whether there was a sexual relationship between the Hoffman and Voight characters but many thought so. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director for John Schlesinger. While both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Best Actor Oscars, the award that year was won by John Wayne who said the film was about “two fags”.
Of course, “Midnight Cowboy” is not a story about “two fags.” But, somehow, it very quickly became associated with a new era of frankness about homosexuality, an association enhanced by the fact, completely unrelated, that the Stonewall riots, which conventionally mark the start of the gay-liberation movement, broke out a month after “Midnight Cowboy” opened.
Frankel thinks that the association is important. He sees the movie in the context of “the rise of openly gay writers and gay liberation.” And Mark Harris, in the liner notes for the Criterion DVD, says that “Midnight Cowboy” is, “if not a gay movie, a movie that at least helped to make the notion of a gay movie possible.” They’re right, but it’s a tricky case to make.
It’s true that “Midnight Cowboy” is the story of two men who develop an affectionate relationship under trying circumstances, but so is “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which came out the same year and was its principal rival for Best Picture. You can read an element of homoeroticism into buddy pictures like these, in which the women are often treated as expendable accessories. But no one imagines that such films give audiences a more enlightened way to think about homosexuality
The author of the book that the film was based on was gay as was film’s director Schlesinger (who did not publicly reveal this until more than two decades later) but both said that they did not consider it to be about gay characters. In fact, in the film Hoffman and Voight’s characters seem to have little sympathy for homosexuals and use the word ‘fag’ repeatedly.
Here’s the trailer.
Here’s a 2004 documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with Hoffman, Voight, and others involved in the making of it.
And for good measure here’s the theme song Everybody’s Talking’.