Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Thirty-Three


#33 — Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
I don’t expend a whole lot of words on the physical appearances or general attractiveness of actresses or actors, especially when I’m writing film reviews. Mostly, I don’t see how it’s relevant. So what if I’m one of the millions who looks at Mila Kunis and thinks, “Well, I wouldn’t mind kissing that,” it doesn’t change my opinion of her acting or the films she’s in one whit. Even so, I’ll concede that there are times when it is pertinent, even unavoidable or at least shortsighted, to ignore a performer’s beauty. Which is all preamble to allow me to make the following observation: Jon Voight is freakin’ gorgeous in Midnight Cowboy. And I’m not even the target market, so to speak, for his beauty.

In John Schlesinger’s film adaptation of the 1965 novel of the same name, Voight plays a Texan transplanted to New York City who goes by the name of Joe Buck. He’s come to the big city to be a hustler, certain that he’ll quickly develop a cadre of wealthy female clients and work his way to the seediest version of fame and fortune imaginable. Instead, the most valuable thing he gets is a relationship with a low-level con artist known as Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman. The movie is about two struggling individuals trying to make their way in a world crumbling away from pervasive rot. It’s the contrast between the two men that gives the movie its fraught energy, Voight striding down the street like a sunbeam made human and Hoffman shuffling along beside him, as if plucked from a completely different spot on the March of Progress evolutionary illustration. Joe Buck may start out as a boyish Greek god, but there’s a sense that he’s befriended a scruffy, runty cautionary tale, his future right before his eyes, beating on the hood of a taxi that infringed on the crosswalk.

This was Schlesinger’s first American film a few well-regarded and veddy British features, and his outsider status helps him peel back the layers of protective national pride to reveal the ugliness of a frayed culture. A few years before Martin Scorsese vigorously devoted himself to honestly depicting the mean streets of his home turf, Schlesinger did it with an unerring eye. Watching the film is like moving through the smoky, sooty haze with the main characters, peering right at a bloodshot city that refuses to blink. It where dreams go to die, often with a hacking cough that unleashing buckshot blood spatter. Schlesinger isn’t offering judgment or condemnation, but almost an anthropologist’s empathetic attention.

This remains–and will certainly always remain–the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (though that rating has long since been adjusted downward to an R), which is a reminder of the paradoxical new freedom the MPAA’s rating system, then only a year old, once promised. By eliminating any reasonable notion that a more delicate soul might wander into the theater without forewarning at least offered, filmmakers ostensibly now had the full range of adult experience at their disposal. And Midnight Cowboy showed just how gratifying adult the subject matter could be.

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