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After the passing of time, the lost souls of Midnight Cowboy still present a glimpse of hopelessness, portrayed and executed with an arcane beauty in one of the most fearless movies of the last century. It is a movie that licks the grime off the New York City streets and makes it taste addictively sweet. In this seedy tale of hooker and conman, Midnight Cowboy still defies boundaries and craves worship fifty years after its initial release.
At its very core, the story of Midnight Cowboy is one of friendship, loyalty and trust in the most unlikeliest of circumstances. The characters are thrown together by sheer bad luck and rely on each other for survival within the abysmal concrete landscape of New York in the late 60s. Texan pretty boy Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves the boredom of his small-town to become a stud for hire in the big city. Dressed in a cowboy outfit with a radio at his ear, he tries to hustle in a world that is hustling him back.
Joe gets lost along the yellow brick road through naivety, and as the weeks pass, the loneliness of the reality is broken by a chance encounter with small-time con man and wannabe pimp Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).
Through flashbacks the audience is allowed into the bleak world of Joe Buck and finds a life of heartbreak, abandonment, and abuse. His mother left him at an early age. Meanwhile, an early sexual encounter with a young mentally unstable girl, Annie (Jennifer Salt), was interrupted by a gang who proceeded to rape both Joe and his partner.
Joe becomes a tragic figure in a system in which he is used and abused for his looks. Beneath his outgoing bravado is a thread of struggle, as Joe continuously wrestles with his sexual identity. Attempting to prove to himself and the world he is not gay he becomes a gigolo. However, everything points to that very certitude. Joe Buck can perform in a cinema with a guy for money but cannot with the lady who finally pays him for sex. Only through this rich lady’s teasing and spelling out with scrabble tiles about Joe being gay can he start to perform out of anger, a fact again attributed to the suffering of his own forced sexual episode.
His need for a father figure (or someone to simply need him) comes in the form of Hoffman’s character Ratso. Yes, he is thinking of the business end and earning literally off Joe’s back. However, he is the only person who does not take from Joe or leave him. As Ratso’s health deteriorates, he becomes bedridden and so Joe Buck uses the only money he has earned to buy bus tickets to bring Ratso to Miami, his dream. Discarding his skin of the cowboy suit and getting fresh clothes at a rest-stop, it’s only now that the character of Joe Buck is at his happiest, even though he is chasing someone else’s dream.
The heartbreak at the end of Midnight Cowboy is paralyzing, to the verge of devastation. You can almost feel the loneliness creep into Joe’s mind. Ratso succumbed to his illness and dies tragically on the journey. Again, he is alone in the world, and the audience feels the panic and uncertainty gushing forth from Jon Voight’s blue eyes.
Midnight Cowboy stands firmly on its own with no sequel or continuing adventure for Joe Buck. For its content, it was classified as ‘X-Rated’, a standard that does not exist in movie rating anymore but applied to over 18s and, at times over 21s. Despite this the movie went on to win three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – the only X-rated movie ever to accomplish that. It also became the first LGBT Best Picture winner.
Director John Schlesinger (Marathon Man, The Falcon And The Snowman) and screenwriter Waldo Salt (Coming Home) took the plot of Midnight Cowboy from the book of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. Herlihy was himself an outwardly gay man who grappled with his own identity and poured his experiences out through the pages of his 1965 novel.
The charisma conveyed by Hoffman and Voight as the two damaged characters of Buck and Ratso trying to rise above the degradation of life is part of the movie’s longevity. With one streetwise and haggard the other naive and immature, they project the frailty of life itself. Of course the impact of this movie can be measured by how it broke further boundaries at a time of cinematic revolution. It presented taboos fearlessly, as part of life, which at the time were spoken about as hushed statements of illicit activity, which would otherwise remain in the shadows. With no happy ending and no romantic ride off into the sunset, Midnight Cowboy remains a masterpiece of human values projected through a controversial lens.