Midnight Cowboy ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
Midnight Cowboy was made 44 years ago, in 1969. That was the year man first set foot on the moon. You’d think we would have at least conquered Mars by 2013, but the space program went awry after that. I guess after the moon there wasn’t much interest in taking that next step and, anyway, politicians in Washington were busy (and still are, but on a much larger scale) squandering obscene amounts of our money for their “constituents” back home so they will be sure and get re-elected next time. (The more “entrenched” a politician becomes, the more “powerful” and corrupt, but that’s a different story.) If all the money that has been wasted in Washington in the last 44 years had been used for space exploration, we probably could have conquered all the planets in this solar system and might have encountered some kind of intelligent life elsewhere, since there isn’t much of that here.
So, think of Midnight Cowboy being made in 1969 in this atmosphere of bold adventuring. We had conquered the moon for the good of mankind. There was no telling what would come in the years that followed. We would see people colonizing Mars in the way Europeans colonized the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Midnight Cowboy was, in itself, a bold adventure in moviemaking. When you come to think of it, who wants to see a movie about a dimwitted, though physically gifted, Texas dishwasher named Joe Buck who goes to New York City to become a male prostitute and befriends a nasal-voiced bum with a runny nose and a limp named Ratso Rizzo? (His real name is Enrico Salvatore Rizzo; he doesn’t like being called Ratso.) That’s just too repellent, isn’t it?
Well, it turned out that a lot of people wanted to see it because it’s a terrific movie with an intelligent script and great acting (a fascinating gallery of secondary characters, including Cass, the wily dame who pulls a fast one on Joe Buck; Mr. O’Daniel, the street preacher who Joe Buck is tricked into believing is a pimp; Townie, the mama-obsessed old queen who is in New York for a little fun, damn it!) and is made with such care that it just has to be good. When it came out, it generated a lot of controversy because it was given an X rating and it was just so different from what had gone before. (Isn’t that what “art” is all about?) Changes that were taking place in the world were being reflected in the entertainment industry. (Soon the X rating was taken up by the pornography industry and was no longer used for “legitimate” movies.) When the Oscars came out for 1969, Midnight Cowboy was named Best Picture of the Year, with good reason.
If there’s ever an award for Best Actor in a Lead Role Playing a Bum, Dustin Hoffman wins it hands-down for playing Ratso Rizzo. He lives in a derelict building that has been marked for demolition. He steals overcoats in theatres. His skin has an unhealthy sheen. He’s filthy and his hair is greasy. He has a game leg and a bad limp. His voice is an annoying nasal whine. But, in spite of all these things, he makes us feel for him. Underneath the dirt and squalor is a person we recognize. We somehow end up liking him and wishing he would get well and live a happy life.
No less impressive is Jon Voigt as Joe Buck, the naïve Texas hustler. When he leaves his dishwashing job in Texas and boards a bus for New York City, we know he is headed for some heartbreak. He is a babe in the woods. The first few people he encounters who are supposed to pay him for his services don’t work out the way he hopes; he ends up spending more money than he makes. When he runs out of money and is put out of his hotel room, he casts his lot in with Ratso Rizzo, who had swindled him out of some of his money when they first met. From then on it becomes a story of survival and friendship and the desire for a better life. (If only they can make it to Florida and escape the New York winter, everything will be all right.) These two characters are possibly the most memorable pair of misfits ever captured on film.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp