Midnight Cowboy (1969): Only Gay-Themed Oscar Winner A-
In 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director John Schlesinger, and Best Adapted Screenplay to Waldo Salt.
John Schlesinger became the second openly gay director (following George Cukor, in 1964, for “My Fair Lady”) to have garnered the Directing Oscar. Vincente Minnelli, who had won the 1958 Oscar for “Gigi,” was a latent (repressed?) homosexual.
“Midnight Cowboy” was based on a respectable source material, the 1966 novel by James Leo Herlihy (who by the way committed suicide).
Though tough, gritty, and controversial, the movie, with the help of the Oscars, was quite commercially successful.
It was a year of mixed bags as far as the Oscar race was concerned. Released in the midst of the Vietnam War and Anti-War movement, “Midnight Cowboy” won over the flawed historical epic “Anne of the Thousand Days,” the campy and exuberant revisionist Western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Newman and Redford, the old-fashioned musical, “Hello Dolly! with Streisand in the lead, and Costa-Gavras’ political thriller “Z.”
Though taking considerable liberties with Herlihy’s more frank depiction of a homosexual relationship, “Midnight Cowboy” still surprised audiences with its candid view of sex and daring dialogue, though by today’s standards, it’s conservative and mild.
In essence, it was a bittersweet, occasionally touching tale of a “strange” friendship between two men who are both victims of the American Dream, albeit in very different way.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a good-looking, uneducated and naive Texan who, under the influence of radio and television commercials fancies himself to be a stud. His ambition is to strike it rich by providing sexual services to wealthy women, only to discover that the image projected by his buckskin jacket and cowboy paraphernalia has appeal mainly in the homosexual market.
The other character, Ratzo Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is a crippled, ailing mousy scrounger living in a vacant, decaying building, barely eking out an existence by his street smarts.
Some critics, such as Pauline Kael, found the movie offensive and inaccurate in its seedy portrait of New York City. However, reflecting the zeitgeist, the film tried to capture the ambiance of nightlife at Times Square and the area’s alienated and lonely creatures. In the process, it perpetuated the myth of New York as a big, sleazy, dehumanized, impersonal city. Schlesinger explored the Dante-like Inferno the 42nd Street area long before it was Disneyfied.
A relationship between a flawed “innocent,” a victim of the American Dream, and a cynical, illusionless, moribund loser, is a result of need for some kind of human companionship. The movie is sporadically moving and it certainly has energy that transcends the depressing context and awful surroundings. The film focuses on their squalid adjustments to loneliness and desperation. The tone is more morbidly exploitative than honestly realistic—or humanistic, for that matter. The relationship doesn’t go far enough; it never overtly sexual, despite innuendos
Joe may have been America’s last unenlightened fool, a small-town bumpkin, unable to adapt to faster world and new markets. This comes across in most of his interactions, but particularly with Sylvia Miles’ Cass, a restless ex-hooker who welcomes the excitement of Joe’s visit to the plush penthouse provided by her current protector. She is an aging floozy that Joe picks up under the mistaken interpretation that she is a society lady.
Moral ambiguity prevails throughout, specifically in the gratuitously brutal act Joe commits in an effort to realize the dying cripple’s fantasy about getting to hot climate Florida. Aesthetically, Schlesinger relied on rapid-fire intercutting. His frequent use of the spurious exuberance of mass media slogans as a counterpoint to joyless real-life encounters. But the fragmented flashbacks into the cowboy’s lurid formative years are irritatingly ambiguous and incoherent too. Ultimately, though what the audience cared about was the characters and actors, not the visual pyrotechnics.
The acting of Voight and Hoffman was superb, and both were nominated for Best Actor, though the winner that year was the sentimental favorite John Wayne for the retro Western, “True Grit.”
The movie is about the awakening of affection—and conscience–in two alienated young men, who discover for the first time in their lives what it is to care about another human being. Neither the cowboy nor his pal Ratso, the Times Square derelict who first cheats and then befriends him, has ever really “communicated” with anyone before.
The film catered to and reinforced the facile pessimism of the then young moviegoers, just as the facile optimism of the older generation used to cater to a simpler age. The film used freedom of expression with balancing responsibility and constructive-hopeful purpose.
Grounded in its socio-political context, there is a Greenwich Village hippie party that feels like an orgy was a gesture toward the then fashionable kind of decadence.
The movie was released just a few weeks before the seminal Stonewall riots.
“Midnight Cowboy” became the first prestigious movie to get an X-rated in the new rating system, (which was initiated just seven months before its release). It is often credited as the picture that certified the death of the old studio system and its archaic Production Code.
Judged from today’s perspective, “Midnight Cowboy” shrewdly combines the hot and hip of 1969 with the old and conventional Hollywood of yesteryear, sort of old wine in a new bottle.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” got more Oscars (four) than Midnight Cowboy, which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three.
“Midnight Cowboy” was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, two Best Actors (Voight and Hoffman, thus canceling each other out), Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles), and Editing (Hugh A. Robertson).
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