Thursday, October 20, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 43
Writer: Waldo Salt (adaptation), James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Director: John Schlesinger
Star: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight
When I finished watching “Midnight Cowboy” I was surprised by how little it moved me. It had two engaging characters at its forefront and a few genuinely engaging moments, but so much of its edge has dulled and so many of the things that (I presume) were once groundbreaking are now eye-rolling and cliché.
Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck, the “cowboy” of the title. And yes, his name couldn’t be more on-the-nose. He hops a bus from Texas to NYC with the intention of being a well-paid, well-laid hustler, but the Big Apple has other plans for him. These early sequences on the bus and on the streets of the city take their time and give you a real feel for Joe’s character. There’s also a very funny sequence where a woman picks up Joe off the street and sleeps with him. The apartment she’s in is swanky and rich, but by the end of the night he feels so bad for her that he ends up paying her. Whoops.
There seems to only be two versions of New York City in film: The fairy tale, perfectly-lit version where the moon is always in frame and trees on the street are lit with Christmas lights…and the version where it seems like the production designers have smeared their own feces everywhere just before the cameras rolled. Director John Schlesinger, his cinematographer Adam Holender and editor Hugh A. Robertson have gone out of their way to turn New York City into a dingy, dirty (dirty!) character all its own. The signs Joe steps near seem to mimic his state of mind, and every surface of every room is covered in grime. Anyway, the cutting to the city is fine and interesting while Joe is getting acclimated to the city, but as the film wears on, my nerves wore thin, to the point where a glowing sun electric billboard slowly fading out during an emotional low point caused me to laugh.
Into Joe’s world hobbles Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Not the Muppet, that’s Rizzo the Rat. Joe’s never seen anyone like Rizzo before, and though they butt heads early and often, Rizzo eventually invites Joe to share his shack of an apartment, where they live together and become inseparable. He also has one or more of the following illnesses, so feel free to mix and match: polio, tuberculosis, cancer and/or pneumonia. Like Voight, Hoffman is tremendous in the role, making the viewer really care about the poor guy’s plight without making him a stereotype.
The friendship between these two characters is the best thing about the film and, really, the one part of the movie that hasn’t aged. In a few short scenes, writer Waldo Salt establishes the characters perfectly and there’s a real evolution of feelings and friendship between the characters as the movie progresses that resonates without becoming trite or obvious. When Rizzo tearfully tells Joe that he can no longer walk, our hearts break for both of them. Today it’s much easier to read into the relationship’s homosexual undertones (especially considering the scene where Joe abandons Rizzo to be with a woman and then cannot get an erection) but, to me, there’s a real beauty to the simplicity of two men falling in love without “falling in love.” Ah well, it works just as well both ways, and the ability of the actors to toe the line without being more blatant makes the movie all the more interesting.
After writing that last paragraph, I really wish I could say the rest of the movie was as special as the main characters are, but almost everything else stumbles badly. First, there are those horrible “Screenwriting 101” flashbacks to Joe’s life back in Texas that allude to horrible memories with his grandmother and first love. Even worse is the fantasy sequence where Rizzo imagines himself a gambling king in Florida with a bunch of wheelchair-bound elderly women. Oy. How these moments made the final cut is beyond me, especially considering that they undercut and water down some fairly good sequences they are injected into. Look at the scene where Joe is desperate enough to hustle a young guy in the movie theatre for a real missed opportunity.
And don’t even get me started on the Andy Warhol-inspired psychedelic party Rizzo and Joe find themselves attending.
The movie implodes the moment Joe loads Rizzo on a bus to Florida for the film’s denouement. Even before the bus took off I would have bet any money that Rizzo wouldn’t make it to his final destination…and wouldn’t you know it? He dies miles before he reaches Miami. Such obvious writing that basically does everything but reach out of the screen and forcibly extract the tears from your eyes. How can you emotionally engage in something that tiresome? Yes, I know variations on this have been done thousands of times, in everything from “One Way Passage” to “Battlestar Galactica” to that bittersweet scene that closes “The Age of Innocence.” And yet those works earned their endings. Here the truer thing would have been to keep our characters in the city to face their endings head on.
What makes all this all the more frustrating is because there was so much potential, and every time the film touches greatness it’s undercut by such sloppy storytelling. “Midnight Cowboy” should have been a masterpiece and could have been one. If only…
My Score (out of 5): **1/2