Sunday, August 8, 2010

Canon Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy

The Canon Review's weekend of Jon Voight continues with the film that made Voight famous, the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy. Starring Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and directed by John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy won three Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. In fact, Midnight Cowboy is the only X rated movie to win the Academy Award for best picture, although by today's standards the movie would be rated R. Midnight Cowboy is about a young man from Texas named Joe Buck (Voight) who goes to New York in the hopes of becoming a high-priced gigolo. While there, he meets a crippled con artist named Enrique "Ratso" Rizzo, who at first cons Buck out of twenty bucks, but eventually gives Buck a place to stay after learning that Buck had nowhere else to go. The two then try to scrape by in the big city, doing whatever it takes to survive and make money and improve their surroundings. A few thoughts about this film (SPOILERS AHEAD):

- The director, Schlesinger, used a lot of flashbacks and fantasy sequences in the film, to the point where there are a couple of times where you're wondering what is real and what is not. Despite that, Schlesinger uses the flashbacks and fantasies to great effect, telling of the background of Joe Buck from his confusing relationship to his grandmother to the relationship he had with a girl named Crazy Annie. The fantasy sequences also give a deeper impression of both Rizzo and Buck's ultimate dreams, Buck's to become a man making his money making love to rich women and Rizzo's desire to leave New York behind and start a new life in Florida, using Buck to accomplish that goal.

- One of the aspects that make this film such a work of art is the soundtrack. From the use of Harry Nilsson's "Everybody Talkin at Me" whenever Buck is featured in a scene either walking around or riding the bus, to the haunting tone of John Barry's score, including his Grammy Award winning "Midnight Cowboy Theme". The soundtrack adds a lot to the film and really helps tell the story being presented.

- Last night I laid into Voight's performance in Anaconda, although to be fair, it wasn't as if he had a whole lot to work with. Well today I have a completly different opinion on Voight's acting in a movie, as he just did a magnificent job playing the naive cowboy Joe Buck. Voight perfectly captures Buck's transformation from a hopeful man ready to make a living for himself in New York to a man willing to do just about anything, except going back to washing dishes, to get by and provide himself and Rizzo with a life outside of a condemned building they currently call home. The experiences that Joe has had in New York changes him greatly, and Voight is able to capture and show all of the little changes of Joe's personality effectively.Voight even gets the Texan accent down perfectly, not bad considering he's a native New Yorker.

- Meanwhile, Hoffman also turns in a strong performance as Ratso Rizzo, a crippled low-rate thief who will do anything, much like a rat, to survive his environment another day. Even though Rizzo is little more than a petty thug, Hoffman is able to humanize him, to make Rizzo a sympathetic and likable character to the audience. A tour de force performance from one of the greatest actors of his time.

- Ultimately, the heart of the story is the strange friendship that develops between Buck and Rizzo, mainly because they realize that one can not survive without the other. Buck is hopelessly naive about life as a hustler in New York City, which Rizzo at least knows a little about, while Rizzo comes to depend on Buck as not only a physical protector of sorts, but also as the one person that can help him escape from be a rat in New York and enjoy a new life in Florida. So, while the story is at first glance a tale of hustlers trying to scam a buck, it's actually a story of despair and loneliness and a friendship between two out-of-place people who have nothing to rely on but each other.

- Sylvia Miles received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the film, even though she may have been in the movie for three minutes. She plays a rich lady who Buck tries to hustle for a few bucks in exchange for a good time, but Buck's attempt backfires to the extent that he consuls her for daring to ask money for his services and ends up giving her twenty bucks for cab fare.  While the scene shows that's it is not going to be as easy as Buck thinks it will be to become a hustler, there's so much going on later in the movie that you somewhat forget about the scene, so it's a mystery why a person in what amounted to a secondary scene was nominated for an Academy Award.

- This was an X rated movie by 1969 standards, although if it came out today it would hardly be shocking to today's audience. Sure, there is nudity, graphic violence and strong language, but those things can be found in nearly every movie out these days. What made it particularly shocking to audiences of this time period was the subject matter being explored, from male prostitution to homosexuality to rape and other controversial subjects that have been in movies for many years since then, but by 1969 standards was highly shocking to see in a film.

- Jon Voight actually wasn't the first choice to play Joe Buck, as other actors such as Lee Majors and Michael Sarrizan were offered the role first, but turned it down. An actor that wanted to play Joe Buck was none other than Elvis Presely, although if he had been in it the film would have to be completely changed and Joe would probably end up singing a few songs. Instead, Elvis did a film called Change of Habit, which bombed, and Midnight Cowboy ended up being an Oscar winning film. I guarantee that doesn't happen if Elvis plays Joe Buck, no disrespect to Elvis.

Overall, Midnight Cowboy is just a great movie. There are a couple of weak spots, the whole party scene and the idea that a cowboy like Buck would actually be invited to an Andy Warhol-style party is a little weak, and the scene just goes on forever before finally something of significance happens. Other than that and a few minor hiccups, I have no complaints about this film. The soundtrack is great, the director did a fantastic job, and Voight and Hoffman turned in performances that few actors and actresses will ever be able to match. I'll give the film an 8.75 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts about this post or other previous posts, or ideas for future posts, than share them either by leaving a comment or by sending me an e-mail at

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