Rough Trade, Big City: The Legacy of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Rough Trade, Big City: The Legacy of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Rough Trade, Big City: The Legacy of Midnight Cowboy

Glenn Frankel’s new book explores the making of a film that has become almost synonymous with New York City.


With Shooting “Midnight Cowboy”, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and film historian Glenn Frankel completes a trilogy of behind-the-scenes accounts of cinematic cowboy ballads. Of course, technically speaking, John Schlesinger’s 1969 Best Picture winner isn’t a western like High Noon or The Searchers; its 10-gallon-hat hero Joe Buck styles himself after Gary Cooper and John Wayne, but he’s shooting blanks. Played behind blue eyes by a 29-year-old Jon Voight, Joe is a rootless dreamer, decamping from Texas to the East Coast via Greyhound. Arriving in New York to try his luck as a hustler, he’s quickly reduced to a face in the crowd. From there, Midnight Cowboy unfolds as the tender chronicle of a country mouse lost in a metropolitan maze and of his friendship with a resourceful big-city rodent, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who becomes Joe’s pimp and pedagogue, imparting a few hard lessons about survival before succumbing to his own inherent vice.

Call it How the West Was Lost, and what ultimately endures about this schematic drama—as much as its catchily anguished Harry Nilsson theme song and memorable dialogue (with “I’m walkin’ here” as good a candidate as any for New York motto past, present, and post-pandemic future)—is the way it thematizes a broader transition around ideas of machismo and masculinity, a change localized on 42nd Street but also blowing in the wind. “That’s faggot stuff,” Ratso tells Joe dismissively of the latter’s dude-ranch ensemble, dismantling the younger man’s self-esteem as well the straight-shooting subtext of his frontier get-up. Almost parodically handsome in the manner of a virginal male ingenue—and miles more vulnerable than Schlesinger’s original choice, Michael Sarazin, who marathon-danced his way to fame the same year in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?—Voight simultaneously grounds and adorns Midnight Cowboy’s street-level civic portraiture; a decade before Randy Jones donned a Stetson as part of the Village People’s post-bicentennial Rainbow Coalition, Schlesinger’s camera mined the archetypal erotic potential of a rhinestone cowboy on the prowl through Times Square.

Chances are that even if you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, you’ve seen Midnight Cowboy: It’s one of those classics-by-osmosis that generates—and, give or take, withstands—rip-offs and homages. (At one point in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan reprises Ratso’s close encounter with a yellow taxicab over an “Everybody’s Talkin’” needle drop—one choice cut among many on Robert Zemeckis’s boomer mixtape of the damned.) Like so many movies that take a genuine bite out of the zeitgeist—including The Graduate (1967), from which it borrowed not only Hoffman but its road-to-nowhere final shot, and Easy Rider (1968), whose unexpected commercial success prefaced its greenlighting at United Artists and subsequent, equally unlikely box-office haul—Midnight Cowboy’s fish-out-of-water parable was a right-time, right-place case of unreplicable conditions. “No one involved—not the actors, the director, the producer, or the film community that financed it,” Frankel writes, “expected the movie to make a dime’s worth of profit.”

The irony of a movie about mercenary motivations being made purely for art’s sake by a group of provocateurs is a good hook, and the common denominator in Frankel’s sketches of Midnight Cowboy’s key creative personnel (not only Schlesinger and novelist John Herlihy but also Voight, Hoffman, and screenwriter Waldo Salt) is an urge to go against their own particular grain. For Schlesinger, a gregarious, cautiously closeted ex-documentarian who helped establish the trope of British “kitchen sink” realism in bristling seriocomic films like Billy Liar, Herlihy’s book—about rough trade in the big city—was a conduit for exploring similar class and sexual tensions in the United States; for Hoffman, the fatalistic and disabled scuzzball Ratso was an opportunity to prove his chops beyond The Graduate’s anodyne striver, Benjamin Braddock. (In the end, his performance was affecting enough to inspire its own Muppet namesake—a tribute at least on par with a pop musician who earns a “Weird Al” Yankovich cover.)

There are other, more below-the-line players featured in Shooting “Midnight Cowboy,” which, true to its title, is assiduous in explaining the who, what, where, why, and how of its namesake. The book details the steady stewardship of producer Jermone Hellman, who shopped the project around tenaciously and shrugged off an MGM exec’s suggestion that Joe Buck would be a great role for Elvis; the free-swinging transformation by Salt of Herlihy’s semi-autobiographical prose into a searing indictment of “witch-crushing puritanism” and “paranoid commercialism”; and the guerrilla-style, long-lensed shoots on and around Manhattan’s crowded streets. It also details the thrift-store genesis of Joe’s and Ratso’s costumes and the Brill Building background and Dylan-approved charisma of Greenwich Village folkie Fred Neil, who actually wrote the swirling, gorgeously paranoid “Everybody’s Talkin’” that Nilsson’s cover made a hit. (While not on the level of Elvis as Joe Buck, Frankel uncovers another incredible what-if scenario for Midnight Cowboy’s soundtrack; supposedly, Leonard Cohen called Hellman up and sang him “Bird on a Wire” over the telephone for consideration as the movie’s theme song.)

These and other nuggets of trivia have an undeniable, page-turning appeal, but as in “The Searchers”: The Making of an American Legend, which excavated the violent 19th-century history behind John Ford’s epic, and “High Noon”: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, in which a movie about principled, stand-alone heroism is juxtaposed against a backdrop of filmmakers either holding their tongues or naming names, Frankel is primarily interested in movies as superconductors that channel the larger cultural currents around them.

Joe and Ratso’s odd-couple pairing, which hit the screens one year after the movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1968), provides a sturdy base from which Frankel can contextualize Midnight Cowboy’s various dichotomies: rural versus urban (with New York’s crumbling late-’60s architecture on full, salacious display); innocence versus experience (with Joe falling from grace and Ratso reduced to a cruel pantomime of childhood helplessness); heterosexual versus homosexual desires (both in terms of the film’s plot and its Stonewall-era release date); and, of course, Old Hollywood meeting the New, a summit brokered by a Brit and featuring avant-garde interlopers in the form of cameos by Andy Warhol’s Factory players (minus Warhol himself, who was convalescing from an assassination attempt during the filming of Midnight Cowboy’s psychedelic “Witches’ Sabbath” sequence).

As a piece of research and reportage, Shooting “Midnight Cowboy” is thorough without being exhausting; Frankel’s flowing, curvilinear style intertwines firsthand accounts with wide-angle scene setting, granular anecdotes nested in grander narratives. What does get a bit wearing, though, is the book’s insistence on an underdog triumphalism that either fails to interrogate the pat, deterministic aspects of the final product or else betrays disappointingly conventional taste. Exhibit A is the author’s glancing dismissal of Warhol’s filmic output circa metafictional experiments like Chelsea Girls and My Hustler. Even as Frankel makes it very clear what Midnight Cowboy was up against before, during, and after its production—including and especially the decision by the gay-panicked United Artists honcho Arthur Krim to self-impose the scarlet letter of an X rating on the film—he evasively glosses over any acknowledgement of its flaws.

Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael accused Schlesinger and Salt of a “hysterical cleverness” that hinted they were scoring points off their desperate characters and milieu. While Kael’s opinion isn’t necessarily correct, it does get at the slightly packaged cynicism that infiltrates Midnight Cowboy. The further the heroes’ backs get pushed against the wall, the more it seems like Salt is trying to write himself out of a corner; the final scene is intended to be open-ended but betrays its own engineering as a foregone conclusion. Frankel is of course entitled to call Midnight Cowboy “a dark, difficult masterpiece” that “floats above other films and books of its era,” but such language gives his book the feeling of a victory lap on behalf of a movie already long since garlanded with prizes. As a historian, Frankel is rigorous and revelatory; as a critic—to paraphrase another, more classical ’60s western—he may be a bit eager to print the legend.

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