Reassessing "Midnight Cowboy"

Last seen: 12 years ago

I wrote earlier this week about how upon seeing On the Waterfront as a budding film enthusiast in my early teens I was left unmoved; Midnight Cowboy (dir. John Schlesinger, 1969) was a film that had quite the opposite effect on me.  I was virtually obsessed with it for a period of about two years, I think particularly because of its expressive style—its clever montage sequences, hypnotic use of dreams and flashbacks, dense layering of sounds and images—and its grittiness; I discovered the movie at an age when I was constantly in search of the “weird” and the “disturbing.”  (Some of Midnight Cowboy’s creepier moments—like a drugged-out mother tickling her young son’s face with a rubber rat, or Jon Voigt’s assault of Barnard Hughes—particularly affected me, and they’re still a bit queasy-making.) 

Much of the film’s humor was, not surprisingly, lost on me at the time; its persistent but intelligent and subtle references to homosexuality also escaped me.  I distinctly remember my shocked and rather confused reaction to an interview with Schlesinger in which he recalled having been asked, “What do you want to make a movie about these two faggots for?”  As far as I knew, Joe Buck wasn’t queer—he just didn’t have much luck scoring with women, and that was the movie’s big joke.  (It is one of the movie’s big jokes, of course, but its punchline is more, shall we say, ambiguous.)  I think I like Midnight Cowboy now—and I like the film even more now than I did as a teenager— because it engages with issues of homosexuality in ways that are remarkably mature and compelling, especially considering that it was made over forty years ago.  It doesn’t reduce Joe or Ratso to shrieking queens, abject monsters, or pitiful victims.  Hell, it doesn’t even definitively mark them as gay.  Rather, Schlesinger—who later displayed his sensitivity and intelligence about the spectrum of sexual orientation in Sunday, Bloody Sunday—treats homosexuality as a kind of simmering, constantly occluded presence that we can’t always place, but that structures our understanding of his characters and their world.  It seems to me a landmark film in that regard.

I also now fully appreciate Midnight Cowboy as a revisionist Western that marks the ushering-out of the classical cowboy (represented by John Wayne’s name on the crumbling cinema marquee, pictured above) and the ushering-in of the ironic cowboy, the pastiche cowboy, the cowboy as cartoon fetish, as shtick.  The matinee cowboy has been replaced by the X-rated cowboy of the midnight movie.  Midnight Cowboy opens, tellingly, with the sounds of a Western movie fading away over a shot of an abandoned drive-in lot.  By 1969, Wayne and Gary Cooper had already forfeited their leading-man status to “sensitive” new method actors like Brando and James Dean.  And significantly, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture at the Oscars the same year that Wayne won a Best Actor award for True Grit—some timing, huh?  Original rating: ***½  New rating: ****   

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