All right so you’re not into westerns. I don’t blame you. Good thing this isn’t a western, at least not in the traditional sense. Part of my initial hesitation in viewing this film was the deeply ingrained feeling that I did not want to see another Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969; #73) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967; #42) both of which are fantastic films, but I had had enough of the brash shoot out based on an arcane code of honor. But then I read that Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman starred in Midnight Cowboy so I gave it a gander. And I am sure glad I did.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young Texan dishwasher, is determined to make his way to New York to become a male prostitute. He may dress like a rodeo cowboy, but he’s anything but when he makes it to the east coast. Just how ill-equipped he is to deal with the urban wilderness is immediately apparent as he winds up paying his first client, and gets ripped off by Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a polio-crippled con man who says he’ll help Joe with his business plans and winds up taking him to a religious fanatic. Ratso flees, but when Buck catches up with him, he demands all the money he has. 64 cents later, both are broke and decide to strike up an unlikely friendship in the form of a business arrangement. They share a condemned apartment as Ratso’s health deteriorates, trading pieces of their past in the way only hard-on-their-luck New Yorkers can—with just a hint of nostalgia and little time to dwell for fear it will overtake everything else. Just when Joe’s “career” starts to gain traction, Ratso’s health is at its worst, and Joe abandons his tepid success to take his friend to Florida.
No, Midnight Cowboy is not a traditional western. But with a name like that, we’d be fool to think it has nothing to do with the ideals of the west. That sense of adventure and yearning is omnipresent throughout the film, and struggling blindly against the unknown just as the original cowboys did is also a major theme present. There’s the surprising relationship between the two principals, a la Brokeback Mountain but with a strict “bromance,” nothing more. Above all else, there is austere determination in both Buck’s pursuit of his career and his at-all-costs approach to helping Ratso. Though Ratso starts out as the unlikable, to-be-avoided character, you come to see much of Buck in him as he is as determined to survive, really, to surpass the life of his working-class father, and to maintain his identity (he adamantly prefers “Rizzo” over “Ratso”). Any of these values sound archetypically American west?
Midnight Cowboy is surprising in virtually every aspect—straight through from the title to the mental reconciliation needed to remember that Jon Voight is Angelina Jolie’s father. Good luck wrestling with that image while you watch. It’s also the only X-Rated film to ever win an Oscar (3, if you wanna be exact). You’re reminded of why Dustin Hoffman is such a legend, which may not be immediately apparent from his work in Meet the Fockers. But he really is a Hollywood gem of an actor, capable of a wide range of emotional depth and completely embodying the character. His adlib capabilities are unparalleled. The movie is a stunning depiction of New York in the late sixties, if a little stereotypical of the hard life that New York represents. Of course it’s not always such a struggle, but for these two eccentric characters, their battles are real, their plights life or death. A modern, urbanized western if there ever was one, and definitely a standout from the genre. And if you really need another reason to watch, there’s always the anticipation of seeing Dustin Hoffman slam the hood of a taxi screaming, “I’m walkin’ here! I’M WALKIN’ HERE!” What New Yorker hasn’t wanted to do that?