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Midnight Cowboy  

Midnight Cowboy represents an historical landmark in a number of ways. The most significant is its depiction of the street life of New York City, with its homeless, prostitution and homosexuality. The film dared to depict these elements in ways never as brutally frank in previous Hollywood pictures. In 1969, this film was considered scandalous enough to warrant an X rating from the MPAA. Yet it also managed to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. At the time, the X rating was not nearly as harmful for a film`s success, and the film itself was both daring and good enough for the Academy to take notice.

Viewing this film in our more permissive times is very illuminating. The content is fairly mild; with a few cuts, Midnight Cowboy would be a PG-13 today. The nudity is fairly naturalistic, as opposed to erotic, and is certainly not exploitive. The f-word, uttered so much in today`s films, is not used even once. The X rating at the time was not due so much to the extremity of the content, but to the actual subject itself, which was never discussed truthfully before.
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The story is well-known. Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight, dreams of leaving his small-town life for the glamour of New York. For him, success involves being a hustler, who will get lots of money for satisfying many rich women. Once he reaches NYC, however, reality sets in, and he falls into poverty and male prostitution, including a scene where he is serviced by a teenaged boy at a movie theatre. Buck finds himself with an individual even more pathetic than himself, Ratzo Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a dirty, ill, amoral con-man who attempts to teach him the rules of living with barely nothing.

The acting is the highest virtue of the picture. Joe Buck`s character is interesting due to the fact that he is not very bright. He is a male bimbo, with an accent to match, and with occasional bouts of foolish talk, his attempt at impressing people: ("I ain`t a ferreal cowboy, but I`m sure am one hell of a stud!!") Yet Jon Voight creates a lot of sympathy and reality to this guy. We know that his view of the world, and his hopes for the future, are totally fantastical and misguided; we know that only a naive fool would expect to walk into NYC and be able to sleep with rich women for cash, but we believe in him all the same. Voight is able to take us with him, through his anticipation and, eventually, his disappointments.

Dustin Hoffman, after The Graduate, proved that he could act with the Ratzo role. The character is not loveable or sympathetic, yet we understand his misery, and his need to pretend to stand above the concerns and customs of society in order to scrape by. Ratzo goes so far as to, whenever he first meets Joe, shove him off to a contact who turns out to be a religious fanatic, but not before asking for payment for "expenses". The fact is that Ratzo needs to exploit others and commit petty crimes in order to even have a not-so-good meal every day. Another twist to Ratzo`s hard-bitten realist is that deep down he is just as affected by dreams and hopes as Joe Buck. Ratzo`s dream is to go to Florida, where he believes true happiness and health (he suffers from assorted respitory problems) lies.

My most startling realization was the fact that this film reminded me of a seemingly different sort of film, the Canadian film Goin' Down the Road (1970). Both films punctured the image of a better life in the glamourous big city. Road depicted two Maritimers attempting to find great jobs in Toronto, but only found the same thing, only worse. They were crushed by the weight of their expectations. Midnight Cowboy is a more American version of the dream, which means that more sex and sleaze enter the dreams of small-town folk, yet the result is the same. The truth is not so pretty. And yet, just like Goin' Down the Road, Midnight Cowboy is somewhat flawed by the fact that it is a film which gingerly entered uncharted territory. It is no longer a hard-hitting, original story. The whole homosexual aspect, for example, which critics seem to go nuts over, is really not that important at all. I am not really convinced that Joe Buck is actually supressing his true orientation; in fact, the movie suggests that Buck is merely shamed by degrading himself to such acts, when what he really wanted was to be with women. Also, Cowboy`s story is damaged somewhat by odd cinematic tricks, meant to rebel against the dying classical filmmaking style. If these parts were left out, it would not have hurt the film.

So while the film is dated, and is not really hard-hitting enough for those looking for shock, Midnight Cowboy has the virtues of Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, and, of course, that famous song "Everybody`s Talkin' at Me"; virtues which certainly elevate the viewing experience.

David Macdonald

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