Here’s what most people know about Midnight Cowboy, if they know anything at all: it is that it is the only X-rated film to win Best Picture. What they may also know is that, by current standards, it’s more of an R-rated film, the R-rating didn’t really exist back then, and what we know of today as an X-rated movie isn’t what Midnight Cowboy was all about.
With that basic stuff out of the way, let’s look at the actual film.
Midnight Cowboy is primarily the story of Joe Buck, a wannabe hustler/male prostitute played by Jon Voight. Joe is from a small Texas town, raised by what appears to be a sexually promiscuous grandmother, and wants out of town for reasons that are gradually revealed. He dresses up like a movie cowboy with the grand plan to move to New York City where he will make a lot of money selling himself to lonely, wealthy socialite women. Buck speaks in the most exaggerated “hick” voice possible, and if you think this plan has a lot of problems where it can’t possibly work out for Joe, well, you are automatically ten steps ahead of Joe. Joe may be a tall, handsome man, but he’s also pretty damn naive.
As if to hammer home that point, the women he approaches either know exactly what he is and shoot him down, or when he finally does go home with a woman, he ends up paying her. He’s soon down to just the cowboy outfit on his back and a transistor radio he carries everywhere. He loses his room and all his belongings inside of it. He even stoops to selling himself to another man, but the nervous guy doesn’t actually have any money and might actually be looking forward to the beating as much as anything else.
That all leads him to Rico “Ratso” Rizzo, as played by top-billed Dustin Hoffman. Yes, Hoffman is top-billed and he doesn’t appear until about 25 minutes into the film. It doesn’t matter. This is Joe’s story, and Ratso, a really low level con man and pickpocket, doesn’t seem to get respect from anybody. That leads to the most famous line from the film, one Hoffman ad-libbed when a driver almost ran him over as he and Voight crossed the street. That it happens to more or less keep him in-character is one of the big reasons why Hoffman is rightfully considered a brilliant actor.
Yes, as much as this is Joe’s story, Ratso makes it what it is. When we first meet him, he’s already got something of a cough and a dream to move to Florida. He’s living the 1969 equivalent of “off the grid” by staying in a condemned building with no heat, repeating he’ll be in Florida by the time the winter rolls around. He insists he’d prefer to be called “Rico,” but no one, not even Joe, respects him enough to actually do so. He does seem to know the New York City underworld, or at least he knows it better than Joe, something he uses to his advantage when the two first meet by sending Joe to a “manager” for a “finder’s fee.” Joe and Ratso only really become friends when Joe finds the guy who conned him out of his dwindling cash supply by chance.
And therein is basically the rest of the film. Joe and Ratso try to get Joe a career as a hustler, something he really isn’t all that good at, Ratso’s health deteriorates, and eventually they get invited to an avaunt-garde party. Joe seems to really get into. Ratso is suspicious of the whole thing, grabbing what food he can even though it’s free, and trying to keep himself clean while Joe tries drugs and even goes home with a society woman for his first ever paying gig.
I find it interesting, given Voight’s publicly stated politics, that his character is the one who finds some fun with the hippie artistic types.
As it is, even though Buck’s career may finally be working out in his favor, Ratso’s health goes down the toilet, and Joe opts to try and save Ratso with a trip to Florida, especially as Ratso refuses to see a doctor. As such, we see the thing that matters the most to Joe is Ratso. Given how often there’s talk of Joe being gay, something he vehemently denies, we can see this as a little suspicious, but I’m the one who always asks why can’t two characters be friends? Why do characters who are close always have to be romantically involved?
The trip to Florida shows how much Joe has changed. He commits an act of violence to get the money for the bus tickets. He ultimately discards his cowboy outfit and even talks of getting a regular job once they get to Miami. Most importantly, he calls Ratso by the name Ratso has been asking people to call him for the entire film: Rico. Rico has finally found someone who respects him enough to use his real name. Not even the closing credits do that much.
Sadly, Rico dies before they get to Miami by what appears to be only a few minutes. The film ends with a heartbroken Joe holding Rico’s body as the bus moves on.
Director John Schlesinger does some interesting work here. He intercuts scenes with flashbacks and fantasies, most of them Joe’s, to explain backstory as well as Joe’s and Rico’s hopes and dreams. We see Joe’s past relationship with a mentally unstable woman who appears to have been gang raped, as well as Rico’s idea of what Florida will bring him, a dream every bit as naive as Joe’s idea of New York City. But reality moves on, and ultimately few care what happens to the likes of them. Midnight Cowboy shines a light on the sad lives of lowlife hustlers, making them more human, but ultimately, there isn’t much either of these two can do to get ahead of the hand life has dealt them.
NEXT UP: We’ve got the first film to ever win all five of the big Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) in the form of the 1934 screwball comedy It Happened One Night.