1969

Film #301: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I continue my evaluation of stars that came into their own in the late 1960s and early 1970s now by taking a look at Dustin Hoffman. Though we first met Hoffman in his breakthrough role in The Graduate, it was his career in the 1970s that made him a star. The next three posts will look at a trio of Best Picture nominees featuring Hoffman; two of which saw him garner a Best Actor nomination as well.

We start with John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy; a film that would go on to win the first Best Picture prize awarded in the 1970s. Though Hoffman was nominated for Best Actor, he lost to his co-star Jon Voight who gave a career-defining performance as hustler Joe Buck. The naive and emotionally-scarred Joe starts the film as a Texan dishwasher who feels his only success is in pleasuring women. He decides to journey to New York in order to become a male prostitute but finds it tough to seek out clients and even finds himself paying out money to one of the women he has liaison with. He is later duped by Hoffman’s conman ‘Ratso’ Rizzo who introduces him to what he believes to be a pimp, but is in fact an extreme Bible basher. Joe later seeks out Rizzo but the latter offers an olive branch when he invites Joe to live in the squat he calls home. The rest of the film sees the pair build up a friendship of sorts as they navigate their way through New York and attempt to survive on what they can find. Towards the end of the film, Rizzo’s health begins to deteriorate just as Joe is beginning to build up somewhat of a client base. Instead of keeping an appointment with a wealthy woman, Joe decides to help his friend by buying them both bus tickets to Florida. The final scenes are rather emotional as the simple Joe, who has up to now worn nothing but a cowboy outfit, changes his look just as his friend loses his life.

Earning the honour of being the only X-Rated film ever to win the Best Picture award, Midnight Cowboy is a work of pure genius. The film is hard to watch at times but it is always brilliantly executed and contains some wonderful pieces of visual flair. John Schlesinger seems keen not to make Midnight Cowboy just a standard film and so the editing is great throughout as he inserts flashbacks and fantasy sequences into the narrative. The flashback scenes are particularly harrowing as we witness Joe and his girlfriend being raped and her later being carted off to an institution. I do feel that Midnight Cowboy was the film that ushered in a change to the Best Picture category, especially considering the previous year’s winner was Oliver! Another of Midnight Cowboy’s distinguishing features is its use of music with both John Barry’s score and Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ both sticking in the mind long after the film has finished. But to me the film belonged to two men – Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, whose partnership makes Midnight Cowboy the masterpiece that it is. Voight brings an innocence to Joe Buck that is incredibly endearing but also makes it clear that this is a man who has gone through an enormous amount of suffering in his life. Voight’s wide-eyed innocence is perfectly counter-balanced by Hoffman’s quick-talking as the charismatic ‘Ratso’ Rizzo. Hoffman is absolutely outstanding at making us sympathise with a man who could easily have come off as incredibly unlikeable in the hands of a lesser actor. Voight and Hoffman really make you care about Joe and Rizzo and I was really emotional when the final credits rolled.

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