5 April 2006 | EUyeshima
Two Stellar Performances and a Pervasive Honesty Make This One Still a Winner
It's not quite the timeless masterpiece you would hope it would be based on the acclaim it garnered, but 1969's "Midnight Cowboy" is still a powerhouse showcase for two young actors just bursting into view at the time. Directed by John Schlesinger and written by Waldo Salt, the movie seems to be a product of its time, the late 1960's when American films were especially expressionistic, but it still casts a spell because the story comes down to themes of loneliness and bonding that resonate no matter what period. The film's cinematic influence can still be felt in the unspoken emotionalism found in Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain".
The meandering plot follows Joe Buck, a naive, young Texan who decides to move to Manhattan to become a stud-for-hire for rich women. Full of energy but lacking any savvy, he fails miserably but is unwilling to concede defeat despite his dwindling finances. He meets a cynical, sickly petty thief named "Ratso" Rizzo, who first sees Joe as an easy pawn. The two become dependent on one another, and Rizzo begins to manage Joe. Things come to a head at a psychedelic, drug-infested party where Joe finally lands a paying client. Meanwhile, Rizzo becomes sicker, and the two set off for Florida to seek a better life. This is not a story that will appeal to everyone, in fact, some may still find it repellent that a hustler and a thief are turned into sympathetic figures, yet their predicaments feel achingly authentic.
In his first major role, Jon Voight is ideally cast as he brings out Joe's paper-thin bravado and deepening sexual insecurities. As Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman successfully upends his clean, post-college image from "The Graduate" and immerses himself in the personal degradation and glimmering hope that act as an oddly compatible counterpoint to Joe. The honesty of their portrayals is complemented by Schlesinger's film treatment which vividly captures the squalor of the Times Square district at the time. The director also effectively inserts montages of flashbacks and fantasy sequences to fill in the character's fragile psyches. Credit also needs to go to Salt for not letting the pervasive cynicism overwhelm the pathos of the story. The other performances are merely incidental to the journeys of the main characters, including Brenda Vaccaro as the woman Joe meets at the party, Sylvia Miles as a blowsy matron, John McGiver as a religious zealot and Barnard Hughes as a lonely out-of-towner.
The two-disc 2006 DVD package contains a pristine print transfer of the 1994 restoration and informative commentary from producer Jerome Hellman since unfortunately neither Schlesinger nor Salt are still living. There are three terrific featurettes on the second disc - a look-back documentary, "After Midnight: Reflections on a Classic 35 Years Later", which features comments from Hellman, Hoffman, Voight and others, as well as clips and related archive footage such as Voight's screen test; "Controversy and Acclaim", which examines the genesis of the movie's initial 'X' rating and public response to the film; and a tribute to the director, "Celebrating Schlesinger".