The story behind Midnight Cowboy

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’.


  1. dean56 says

    “…John Wayne who said the film was about “two fags”.”
    Hadn’t heard that but not surprised. But, if someone ever cared what famous draft dodger and racist John Wayne said about anything it’s likely they wouldn’t rate Midnight Cowboy as a good movie anyway.

    I’ve always found it interesting that even though Jon Voight auditioned for the role of Joe Buck and really wanted the part, but the first choice of the producers was Michael Sarrazin (who had been in “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”, which I also really like). Apparently Sarrazin wanted too much money for the role.

    Last little story: when I first started dating my current wife I found out she’d never seen Midnight Cowboy, so we watched it. During the bus trip at the end her comment was “If that guy dies on this bus before they get to Florida I’m really going to be pissed.”

    She wasn’t lying.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    When I clicked on the first video screen, I got:

    Video unavailable
    Watch this video on YouTube.
    Playback on other websites has been disabled by the video owner.Watch on YouTube

    Oh well.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    If “two men who develop an affectionate relationship under trying circumstances” defines a fag movie, then most westerns are fag movies. Including ones where John Wayne starred. Maybe he knew what he was talking about…

  4. mnb0 says

    Who cares what John Wayne, of all people, thinks about such movies? He disapproved of European innovations too. Midnight Cowboy was one of the first American answers and a brilliant one.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I agree that John Wayne’s views on the film are irrelevant but the reason the article thought it worth mentioning was likely because he won the Best Actor award the year that Hoffman and Voight were up for it.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Pierce @#2,

    That scene is also shown in the trailer, although slightly shortened.

  7. johnson catman says

    Jon Voight has become WAY worse than John Wayne was back in the day. He is a full-on cultist in support of The Orange Toddler-Tyrant.

  8. garnetstar says

    I read that there is a very, very brief scene, from Joe Buck’s past, where the young hoods in his town throw him onto a car hood and rape him. It’s apparently so brief that many viewers miss it, so I can’t verify this.

    Anyway, maybe that’s the association? if any viewers back then saw that scene. People like John Wayne would reason that everyone who is raped actually likes it, and so Joe Buck must be gay.

  9. Mano Singham says

    garnetstar @#9,

    I do not recall that scene. But it has been a long, long time since I saw that film when it first came out.

  10. dean56 says

    I don’t remember that scene from the movie either, but it’s been a while. The book has a scene where he’s attacked in a “whorehouse” and raped by two men who had been spying on him and a woman.

  11. Ridana says

    garnetstar @#9,

    Iirc, in the movie he was naked in his car with his girlfriend when attacked and raped by some cowboys, which is shown in at least one flashback.
    The scene I most remember from the movie (which I have not seen in later viewings, so it may have been edited out?) was one where some ditzy society matron had put long false eyelashes on her poodle and they were either trying to brush its teeth or spray breath freshener in its mouth. It seems like this was shown on a tv program Buck and Rizzo were watching, but it might’ve been at the Warhol-esque party they went to. I just know that it sickened me because the dog didn’t ask to be part of it for a movie.
    Apparently this is still the only movie with an X-rating (later revised to an R) that won a Best Picture Oscar.

  12. Mano Singham says


    The interesting story of how the film first got an X and then an R rating is told in the link I gave.

  13. Allison says

    In fact, in the film Hoffman and Voight’s characters seem to have little sympathy for homosexuals and use the word ‘fag’ repeatedly.

    That doesn’t preclude them being gay. My impression was that there was a lot of internalized homophobia (self-hatred) in the gay male population back then.

  14. Mano Singham says


    I agree with you that the use of slurs and other anti-gay rhetoric does not preclude the speaker being gay. We see examples of that all the time even now among right-wing politicians and religious conservatives.

    What I meant is that the characters were not overtly gay or even sympathetic to gays. It was up to the viewer to read that subtext into the film. It was all very subtle. This may have just been due to that era when these ideas had to be dealt with indirectly.

  15. mnb0 says

    @5 MS: “he won the Best Actor award”
    Well, the last time those awards were to be taken seriously was 1950, when Sunset Boulevard won. so this kind of confirms my point.

    @JohnsonC: “Jon Voight has become WAY worse ….”
    Hard to say if this is correct, but one thing is sure: John Wayne never was as good as Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @17:

    Well, the last time those awards were to be taken seriously was 1950, when Sunset Boulevard won. so this kind of confirms my point.

    It won for best story and screenplay. But why is that the last time they were to be taken seriously? Just some of the winners of Best Motion Picture since 1950:

    An American in Paris
    On the Waterfront
    A Man for All Seasons
    In the Heat of the Night
    The French Connection
    The Deer Hunter

    I’d rate all those (and a bunch of nominated films) above either Sunset Boulevard or Midnight Cowboy. There was a lot of crap too, but the same could be said for a lot of the pre-1950 winners as well.

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