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Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight
Running Time: 1 h 53 m
TMM Score: 3.5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Acting, Writing, Creative Dream/Fantasy Sequences
WEAKNESSES: Failed to Engage Me Emotionally
A naïve self-proclaimed hustler from Texas travels to New York, but finds he’s unable to do so. Instead he teams up with a streetwise lowlife, and the two form an unlikely friendship.
I guess I don’t know what I was expecting when I went into this film. I’d never seen it before my viewing for this review, but everything I’d read about it online always talked about how it was extremely controversial that this would win best picture in 1969. Originally, this film was rated X, and even the tagline suggested risqué material: ‘Whatever you hear about Midnight Cowboy is true.’ I suppose I expected something a little more shocking; sure the subject matter could be considered controversial, but the way the film executes it is very tame. Nigh fifty years have passed since Midnight Cowboy first came to theatres, and now it would pass as a soft ‘R’. The film itself is a pretty straightforward drama, elevated by the performance of the two leads, the innovative dream and flashback sequences, and the writing.
"I'm walking here!"
This movie is carried by its performances. Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) and Jon Voight (Deliverance) are both at the top of their game; Hoffman especially. Hoffman plays Ratso, a greasy, sickly lowlife navigating the streets of New York. He squats in buildings, steals from people and sells it to pawn shops, and when he comes across Joe Buck (Hoffman) he tries to pimp him out to old ladies. Joe Buck is a naïve man with big aspirations but no brains driving him. He continuously gets taken advantage of until he meets Ratso. Buck is our main character, and as we follow him from rural Texas to the streets of New York, we realize how truly innocent his view on the world is. Buck is lost without someone to guide him; he’s all gusto but no plan. Even Ratso takes advantage of Buck the first time he sees him, and soon Buck is penniless and alone, wandering the cold streets. I had a rather hard time really sympathizing with Buck, despite all of his charisma. I feel like Voight is a fine actor, and no one else could’ve brought him any more life, the character of Joe Buck is just not one I can seem to care about. He’s a clueless redneck whose only plan is to go to New York and prostitute himself out until he’s rich. What’s so good and noble about that? Nothing, really. I don’t necessarily need a character to have more redeeming qualities than bad ones to find them sympathetic- I find Renton from Trainspotting more sympathetic and likeable than Joe Buck, despite him being a thieving heroine addict. This may be heartless to say, but Joe Buck, at least for me, was in a narrow area where he wasn’t stupid enough to be sympathetic solely on that aspect of his personality, nor was he smart enough to do anything of merit on his own, and as a result, I found his character more annoying than anything else. I understand the literary appeal of someone like Joe Buck especially when comparing this movie to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but for me it just didn’t really work. Ratso, however, was different. For some reason, though his character was a conniving, shifty lowlife, he was a character that had a dream that was at least somewhat noble; he wanted to better himself. He was also a character that thought about the big picture, where he fit into the world and the universe, what would happen to him after he died. He was a contemplative and thoughtful character, even if he never really made an effort to change himself in a major way. And holy cow, Dustin Hoffman’s commitment to Ratso’s walk is incredible.
The writing is good too. This movie is based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy. The characters themselves are well developed, and interesting, especially Ratso. Even though I didn’t particularly care for Joe Buck, I have to admit he’s a compelling character, if not a sympathetic one. I particularly liked the way the film weaved through the characters back-stories, exploits, and their hopes and dreams. Some scenes flowed into a sort of pseudo realism imagination of what was to come, and those scenes were always the most interesting as far as cinematic imagery and innovation. One of my favorite scenes in the whole film is when Ratso lands Joe Buck his first mark, and Ratso proudly watches as Buck approaches the hotel. As Buck enters and wanders through the lobby, we see inside Ratso’s mind as he imagines how this will help him make his fortune, and in the end, help the two of them move to Florida (a constant theme in the film). But as Buck naively messes up the gig, we see that dream world of Rizzo’s crumble before his eyes. Scenes like that, and there are a few, are where the film really works for me. Towards the end of the film, as the stakes are raised and the friends’ situation becomes more desperate, I felt that I almost knew where the film was going, and in the end I was right; I predicted the ending probably thirty minutes before it happened. The ending isn’t necessarily some big twist, in fact, it almost feels like an inevitability, but as the film came to a close, I couldn’t help but just wonder when it was going to happen. When it finally did happen, I didn’t feel the emotion necessary to really appreciate this film.
This is a good film on a lot of levels, and for other people, I’m sure they’ll be able to connect with it more than I was. There were certainly a lot of elements I liked about the film, particularly Dustin Hoffman, but overall I failed to see it as an amazing piece of cinema. Good film, it is; tremendous, it isn’t.
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