Rereleased for it’s fiftieth anniversary, Midnight Cowboy’s vestiges in the collective consciousness extend little beyond Dustin Hoffman’s ‘I’m walking here!’ line and Harry Nilsson’s classic tune ‘Everybody’s Talkin’.
Yet as something both so quietly moving and the only X rated film ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the achievements and wrenching emotion of this film deserve wider, permanent recognition.
The film focuses around Joe (Jon Voight) an aspiring gigolo moving from Texas to NYC, and his unlikely friendship with petty crook Salvatore ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).
Usually poverty is used as a punchline or a scene setting in cinema, and there are few films that earnestly and without distraction dive into the morass of the urban underclass in as impactful a way as this. Joe’s naivety is both endearing and frustrating, and as his friendship with Ratso develops the audience can see the pain beneath the cocky exterior.
Matching Voight’s performance as Joe (which missed out on Best Actor to John Wayne’s performance in True Grit) is Dustin Hoffman as the pathetic yet fiercely proud Rizzo, a role which following from The Graduate cemented his position as a versatile and immensely talented actor.
Director John Schlesinger excels in showing the Swinging 60s from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, assisted by a Waldo Salt screenplay that propels Joe from mishap to catastrophe, notably his first attempt at picking up a ‘customer’ and an accidental encounter with a frenzied preacher. While this may be considered an early film to tackle themes such as prositution and does so adroitly, it’s approach to homosexuality as reserved for truly desperate and lonely men is dated for a more welcoming 21st century. This is a shame not least as Schlesinger himself was gay, yet he was able to approach the subject more openly in his following feature Sunday Bloody Sunday.
A film nevertheless as radical as Easy Rider and with a more emotive central partnership than Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy without doubt deserves it’s place amongst the very best of an era in which Hollywood was changing so quickly and for the first, maybe only, time its existence unequivocally prizing creativity above self-censorship. A film worthy of a rewatch for sure, but first time viewers might be surprised by how much the theme of being a single voice with big dreams in a city that can swallow you whole will resonate today.
Midnight Cowboy is opening at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas UK-wide from September 13