29 August 2012 | secondtake
Moving, funny, sad, unaffected, astonishing...
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
This is such a gritty, touching story of two ordinary vulnerable young men, told with such honesty, it's impossible to criticize it taken whole. "Midnight Cowboy" is a terrific movie.
It's terrific because of the two actors--an astonishing Dustin Hoffman, still a new name in Hollywood but already famous from "The Graduate" in 1967. And an equally astonishing Jon Voight, making his first large role in a movie. Each is a type of struggling man living on the fringe of New York (barely surviving in a boarded up building), extreme but never a caricature. They gel as a pair, helping each other but with a bit of reluctance because neither wants to quite admit they need help.
It's terrific further because of the filming, with lots of available light magic in dingy places. The cinematographer, Adam Holender, is remarkably making his first film here, though that might explain the freshness to a lot of the filming. There is in particular a lot of long lens (telephoto) shooting between more intimate scenes, showing layers of people and isolating the star in a moving world (a difficult thing to do with good focus).
It's also terrific for the writing, not just for the story but for the dialog. It strikes so subtly to some truth you don't quite expect, even though it's simple and almost obvious. The screenplay won an Oscar, as did the movie (Best Picture) and director John Schlessinger (Best Director). It's worth noting that Schlessinger is a British director with some very tightly conceived movies already under his belt (including the fabulous "Darling"), and here he seems to make New York as familiar as if he'd grown up here. Along those lines, Voight, playing the naive cowboy to a perfect pitch, is a native New Yorker. And Hoffman, though familiar with the city, is an L.A. kid.
Where does the movie run into trouble? Why isn't it in the top ten of all time? I think it might boil down to three kinds of inserts into flawless the main narrative. The first is a series of flashbacks that in various ways try to "explain" or fill in the psychological background of Voight's character. As if it needs explaining. Or if it does benefit us all to know how he got to his beautiful troubled state, maybe there is something shocking and sensational about the inserts, as effective as they are on their own nightmarish terms.
A second "insert" is a series of short sunny daydreams Hoffman's character has envisioning life in Florida in the sun. It's comic relief, and it mostly works, but there are cracks there. Finally there is a section of the actual narrative where the two men go to a party they've been invited to for spurious reasons (weird luck, mostly). It's too obviously an excuse to film a scene in a drug-addled Warhol-esque party. The hosts are effete artist types who want to film some strange New Yorkers out of context, and so we see the film film these filmmakers and so on. A great scene, but weirdly out of place.
But all of his is to be taken in stride as the meat of the story kicks back in each time. And here, with a melancholy soundtrack, you will be moved and entranced. Amazing stuff. Brave and a lesson in how a film can be adventurous and heartfelt and not painfully slick, all at once. And succeed artistically and commercially.