I’d bet many people who walked into the Whitney Humanities Center for the Sex Week showing of “Midnight Cowboy” Thursday night were lured by what is perhaps the films most sensational accolade: It is the only X-rated film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Knowing this is a bit of a red herring for the audience. Though the film did win the 1969 Oscar, it is no more sexually explicit than the average movie marketed to adults today. In fact, after the movie received Best Picture in 1970, the filmmakers requested an R rating without making any cuts to the movie, and the MPAA agreed that changing the rating was appropriate.
“Midnight Cowboy” probably sorely disappointed those looking for a pornographic romp. It depicts some sex, and graphically, yet it does not have the brazenness of an X-rated film by today’s standards. Its sex is social commentary, desperately self-aware. In one such sex scene, the copulating bodies are juxtaposed with a television clicking through channels. Lurid and distracting scenes flash by — soap operas, game shows, commercials for food and detergent and what seems to be footage of Vietnam. The scene employs brilliant cinematography and foreshadows our current sex lives, addled by an attention deficit.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a Texan good ol’ boy who puts on the costume of a rodeo cowboy and journeys to New York City to become a “stud for hire,” a cutely-uttered colloquialism for a male prostitute. It’s jarring to see Voight in this role because he is an actor known to our generation for his superb turns as every type of grumpy old man imaginable. “Midnight Cowboy” is ostensibly about Joe’s (largely failed) attempt to become a hustler and the unsavory characters he meets along the way. But the movie is really about Joe’s attempts to make a space for himself in a world that becomes lonelier with every additional human encounter.
When he quits his job as a dishwasher in small-town Texas, Joe tells his former employer, “What the hell I got to stay around here for? I got places to go, right?” What is hard to translate into text is the way Joe’s voice wavers slightly when he intones “right,” as though he has doubts about his decisions, as though he needs the affirmation of someone, anyone really. Voight brings nuance to the character – the movie would fall flat if it centered on someone with the swagger of George W. Bush ’68 or Jay-Z. But Joe doesn’t possess this confidence. He adopts the clothes and affectations of a rodeo cowboy throughout the whole film even though it seems everyone from Texas to New York tells him that he looks ridiculous. He lacks the callousness and brutality of a successful hustler; when a client tearfully demands money from him at one point, he obliges. He’s a child playing dress up in a terrifyingly adult world.
When the camera focusses on subjects other than Joe, it’s an exercise in character studies of eccentricity with very little emotional effect. There are cameo appearances by a few of Warhol’s Factory regulars, bizarrely bleached-blonde aging socialites and a religious fanatic complete with his own light-up bathroom Jesus. Con man Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) single-handedly explains the outcry upon the arrival of “Jersey Shore.” Like the reality show’s stars, he is a caricature of an Italian American. Though he is written as a sympathetic character (he’s a tubercular squatter and a disabled polio victim) and he becomes Joe’s closest partner-in-crime, the character never manages to transcend the stereotype. He’s being exploited for comedic value, and when the tone of the film takes an unexpected Lifetime movie-like turn, the emotional range suffers because of Rizzo’s overwhelmingly ridiculous presentation.
The movie takes place in this run-down, seedy and entirely magic New York City in the days before urban renewal and declining crime rates. The disgusting deserted subway stations, the hole-in-the-wall diners and the condemned motels and apartment buildings are depicted with forceful emotional honesty. It’s hard to watch this film in clean, safe 2010 and not feel a little nostalgia for New York at its dirtiest and most dangerous.
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but wonder why it doesn’t have the same cult following among our generation as some movies from around the same time — “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Graduate” come to mind instantly. I think it’s because the Best Picture of 1969 is a movie with no clear answers. It doesn’t tell you to blow your inhibitions and get the girl. It is a sexy movie but the sex is fraught and bizarre. It deals in the currencies of meaninglessness and loneliness and disguise, and unlike its contemporaries, doesn’t make you feel even a small amount of breathless happiness in the end, only empty.
“Midnight Cowboy” will probably not make it into your DVD library, you probably won’t watch it repeatedly, but it is undoubtedly a classic for it’s unsettling and enigmatic power.