Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Midnight Cowboy ****

There are some who have called Midnight Cowboy the greatest film ever made, and I can understand where they're coming from. I once thought so and perhaps once again will in the future. I haven't seen Midnight Cowboy in a long time, and perhaps I've forgotten. The film is one of the 5 most devastatingly sad films I've ever seen. The two superb lead performances are by John Voight and, especially, Dustin Hoffman, in his 2nd big film role (the first being The Graduate). Midnight Cowboy is the only film to get an "X" rating and win best picture (it definetely doesn't deserve an X rating, and was rerated "R" a few years later by an embarrased MPAA). It is also (I don't believe this!) the only "X" rated film to be viewed by a president in office. But Shelsinger wasn't surprised by the rating. He said: "Well, we did make the film for adults. It's not something you'd take your 7-year-old to."

Now, it's acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made, but still, in my opinion, a little undderated. Very few films in history have come close to this great filmmaking.

In a middle-of-nowhere Texas town, naive Joe Buck (John Voight) dreams of becoming a prostitute in New York city, servicing many lonely, aging women. As we begin the film he is already packing for his trip. No one seems to take him seriously. We don't know much about Joe at first, but through confusing, dreamlike flashbacks, some points become clear: He was raised by his grandmother, who we see spanking him as a child in some of the flashbacks. Joe, as a teen, falls for a girl, who, when they are in the back of a car, is raped by Joe's jeleaous gang of friends. It's implied Joe may have been raped too, and this seems especially disturbing later.

Joe arrives in New York after a brilliantly edited sequence in which the people sitting next to him on the bus get steadily less sociable as he travels further north. As "Everybody's Talkin'" plays on a faraway radio, Joe, as the bus enters New York, fantasises countless women all looking for a man of just his description.

New York, however, seems to be a letdown. We watch involvingly embarrasing scenes where Joe tries to pick up women in their 50's, and runs so low on money he is eating ketchup packets on rolls. He finally does manage to pick up a woman (Sylvia Miles, shortest Oscar nominated performance in history) , but, after a tryst in her apartment, cannot convince her to pay him - she is so shocked and angry he ends up paying her. Only later does he realize he has been conned by a master.

Joe is kicked out of his apartment, and the man who owns the building (perhaps noticing his naivity) refuses to let him even get his things from the room. Finally Joe Buck looks around one night and realizes all the other men dressed as cowboys are gay prostitues. He makes a decision and goes into a dark theater with a young student (then unknown Bob Balaban). Schlesinger exercises his cruelest sense of humor here: the movie playing is Moonraker, and he makes the opening clip as suggestive as possible. Then Joe discovers the student doesn't have anything to pay with. He wants to steal his watch but takes pity on the student after he whines pitifully that it's his mother's watch.

He may have finally found help with a street bum who takes pity on him, played by Dustin Hoffman. The character's (and what a character!) name is Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, or, as Joe calls him, Ratso. Ratso is a crippled, sick con man who lives in an abandoned building where he generously allows Joe to live in an extra cot. The two form an unlikely friendship. It's winter and they are freezing to death. There are failed plans to seduce women at hotels, and while Ratso waits outside he imagines being in Miami, playing poker with old ladies, and even racing Joe on the beach (impossible because he is crippled). It is Ratso's dream to live in Miami.

Joe and Ratso eventually sell their only solace, the radio, Joe's last item from Texas. Ratso visits his father's grave. He steals flowers from someone else's grave to lay on his fathers.

Much more will happen, and, in a cliche used many times since, just when it seems Joe and Ratso "have it made" there is only more heartbreak. John Barry's haunting score drives many audiences to tears in the final scene. Just listening to it brings back the power of the movie.

Schlesinger, an outspoken homosexual (some have argued there are homosexual themes between Joe and Ratso - I disagree with this, I think they are just really close friends) had directed many films previously, but this was his first American one (he led Julie Christie to an Oscar in the satire Darling and brought more credibility to his name with Far From the Madding Crowd, among others). He brings an angry, anti-establishment tone to much of this film (used in scenes where Joe, starving to death, sees a gigantic Coca Cola sign blaring down on him), and it is anger as well as sadness that prevails in the end, right up to the apathetic bus passengers who simply turn away.

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