Before bromance, there was Midnight Cowboy. Brama? Bragedy? This movie – on rerelease for its 50th anniversary – is about two men finding friendship in the desolate common cause of their loneliness. It was adapted by screenwriter Waldo Salt from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, and the original author’s friendship with Tennessee Williams shows up faintly as an influence in the film’s depiction of vulnerable small-town boys in the big city. The director was John Schlesinger – an Englishman who brought the kitchen-sink realism and hopeless yearning of earlier movies such as Billy Liar to Midnight Cowboy’s domestic scenes of our two sad heroes squabbling in their grimy New York squat, quarrelling over the cooking and fantasising about riches and relaxing in the Florida sun.
Jon Voight plays Joe Buck, a pretty young guy with a poignantly open and trusting face who is kicking the Texas dust off his cowboy boots and heading for New York City on the bus, leaving behind sad memories – which return as traumatised flashback-fragments – of being brought up by his grandma, a lost love, small-town spite and apparently rape, of both his girlfriend and Joe himself.
With heartbreaking naivety, Joe figures he can be a handsome gigolo stud for rich Park Avenue ladies, and duly sets up in a flophouse Manhattan hotel room, putting an aspirational picture of Paul Newman up on the wall (apparently from his movie, Hud). There’s a view over Times Square, which in those days was the epitome of peep-show squalor. Nowadays, a hotel room with that view would be way out of Joe’s price range, and, like The French Connection and Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy is richly evocative of New York’s vanished porno sleaze.
Poor Joe is soon scammed by everyone. A prospective sugar mommy (played by Sylvia Miles) cons him out of 20 bucks, and Joe realises that the only paying customers are other men in the darkness of movie theatres, furtive acts to the ironically appropriate accompaniment of sci-fi trauma on the big screen. Soon, Joe finds that his only friend is the fast-talking lowlife conman Ratso who had been one of the many people who had suckered him, played with an array of arch mannerisms by Dustin Hoffman. Ratso finds Joe a place to live and soon they are bickering like a tragic married couple with the bigoted language of the era, Ratso knocking Joe’s ersatz-cowboy image: “That’s faggot stuff. It’s strictly for fags”; “John Wayne? You’re telling me he’s a fag?”
I shiver every time I see the “blood donation” scene, with desperate Joe’s paid-for blood drifting and clouding in the plastic bag. Is that bag going to split? And there’s a frisson of pure skin-crawling horror when Joe is tricked by Ratso into going to see a shadowy individual called O’Daniel who will supposedly hook him up with wealthy women. This creepy man (unforgettably played by John McGiver) lives in a scuzzy room – one of so many in this film – and Joe’s growing alarm at his excitable behaviour climaxes when O’Daniel unveils a flashing neon Jesus next to the lavatory and invites him to “pray” with him. It is a kind of rape scene or #MeToo scene in itself – and a reminder of how Midnight Cowboy is unexpectedly gendered. All of Joe’s humiliations and calamities are the things that usually happen to women.
In the end, Midnight Cowboy is a film about homelessness. Ratso and Joe are always on the brink of living on the streets; effectively they are living on the streets, given that their derelict building is like a cave. Schlesinger’s camera discovers everywhere something rarely glimpsed in Hollywood movies – poverty. And their one chance at escaping this poverty, an invitation to a Warholesque party of smug hipsters, has come because, without realising it, they’ve come to look grotesque: the cowboy and the tramp.
It is here that Joe gets a chance at getting paid for sex with a wealthy, beautiful woman – a great cameo for Brenda Vaccaro. But of course it does not lead to the career that Joe fondly imagined in commercial sex with attractive older women (like Patricia Neal in Hud). His only real chance is robbing a trick who is paralysed with the kind of guilt and despair that Joe is learning to suppress.
I am a little agnostic about Hoffman’s mannered performance – especially as Voight’s is so miraculously easy and light – and there are some uneasy nods to the zeitgeist: a rather unconvincing generic “demo” with placards reading “Liberate Freedom”. But everything is delivered with such potency and force and the Harry Nilsson song Everybody’s Talkin’ is one of the most evocative of the age.
• Midnight Cowboy is released in the UK on 13 September.
• This article was amended on 15 September. The original mis-named Patricia Neal as Patricia Dean.
Source: The Guardian