gritty, bleak, and poignant 1969 classic, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, helmed
by director John Schlesinger and starring Jon Voight and Dustin
Hoffman, has the distinction of being the sole X-rated motion picture
to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Film scholar Glenn Frankel, who
previously authored excellent histories of two other iconic films,
THE SEARCHERS and HIGH NOON, traces the development of MIDNIGHT
COWBOY from its beginning as a 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy to
its appearance on the big screen four years later. Frankel brilliantly
contextualizes the movie, which was chiefly set on the grimy, unforgiving
streets of late Sixties New York and examined the improbable friendship
between male prostitute Joe Buck (Voight), a naïve "country boy"
recently arrived from west Texas, and sickly Manhattan con man Ratso
Rizzo (Hoffman). In addition to Herlihy, Schlesinger, Voight, and
Hoffman, other significant players in this story include producer
Jerome Hellman, screenwriter Waldo Salt, cinematographer Adam Holender,
actresses Brenda Vaccaro and Sylvia Miles, casting director Marion
Dougherty, and musicians John Barry and Harry Nilsson. The film
won two other awards besides Best Picture; it also earned Oscars
for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and in 1994, MIDNIGHT
COWBOY was added to the National Film Registry as a "culturally,
historically or aesthetically significant" motion picture.
Lone Star history enthusiasts may be interested to know that in
addition to being filmed in New York City and Florida, MIDNIGHT
COWBOY has a number of scenes shot in and around Big
Spring, "a traditional" west Texas town "dominated by frontier
culture, cars, alcohol, and church life." While in Big
Spring, Frankel asserts, "Voight had observed the politeness
that young people in Texas displayed not just to their elders but
to everyone they met. He incorporated that sense of deference and
respect to the strangers Joe Buck meets on his initial bus ride
to New York and to those he encounters once he gets to the city."
According to Frankel, the citizens of Big
Spring were intrigued and excited that a motion picture was
being filmed in their community. He adds, however, that "few if
any of the residents knew what MIDNIGHT COWBOY was really about…They
had no idea that Joe Buck was dreaming of becoming a male prostitute
and that [the film] was replete with sexual content, straight and
gay." When the movie was released, many Big
Spring denizens, some of whom had appeared in the film, were
appalled by the frankness of MIDNIGHT COWBOY.
Although not every reviewer embraced the movie, "MIDNIGHT COWBOY
received a relatively warm reception." For example, Stanley Kauffmann,
writing for THE NEW YORK TIMES, contended that "with intelligence,
flourish, and extraordinary skill, [Schlesinger] has made an unusually
moving film." NEW YORKER critic Pauline Kael declared that while
the movie's "spray of venom is just about overpowering," the performances
of Voight and Hoffman "save the picture."
MIDNIGHT COWBOY blazed "a trail during the brief golden era of the
New Hollywood. With its frank, adult treatment of sexuality," Frankel
maintains, "the movie crashed through the gates that THE GRADUATE
and BONNIE AND CLYDE had tried to storm two years before." In short,
it stands as a groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece. Pop culture
fans, especially cinephiles, will relish this commendable book.
"Everybody's talkin' at me/I don't hear a word they're sayin'/Only
the echoes of my mind/People stoppin', starin'/I can't see their
faces/Only the shadows of their eyes."
Review by Dr.
Kirk Bane, Central Texas Historical Association