In December 1963, Life published a special issue on The Movies. The United States, the magazine claimed, had fallen behind the rest of the world. Hollywood was too shy, too preoccupied with the national image. Meanwhile, Swedish, Japanese, Italian and French filmmakers were making films that people were talking about. While the world of cinema as a whole has been in turmoil, the magazine concluded, Hollywood felt like Charlie Chaplin stood before the millionaires’ door, lost and abandoned.
Exactly four years later, which in the production time of a feature film is practically overnight, Time, the sister publication of Life, published a cover story on The New Cinema. The most important fact about the screen in 1967, he announced, is that Hollywood has finally become a part of what the French film journal Cinema Notebooks calls for the furious spring of world cinema. How did it go, how did Hollywood suddenly go from losing millions of dollars on puffy glasses like Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) to producing clever, questionable images like The Graduate (1967) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) How Old Hollywood Became New Hollywood is a popular subject for film historians.
One movie often left out of the story is Midnight Cowboy. When it was released in May 1969, Midnight Cowboy looked as fresh, as surprising, and as unmissable as The Graduate. But he is not mentioned once in Robert Sklars Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. It comes up a few times, but only in passing, in Peter Biskinds Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood and in Mark Harriss Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth. of New Hollywood.
Glenn Frankels’ new book, ShootingMidnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), aims to change all that. Over fifty years later, Frankel believes, Midnight Cowboy remains a dark and disturbing work of romantic and cinematic invention, floating well above most other books and films of its time. Frankels’ book is generous with context, but it is essentially the biography of a movie. He has also written books on The Searchers and High Noon. These have the same value as biographies of famous people: they show us the ifs and the “buts” hidden in the backstory of the finished product.
A lot more movies just got to be made: there are so many things that have to go right, and so many things that can go wrong. Film production requires the collaboration of creative people working under constant pressure to control costs and generate profits. With dozens of egos in the game and millions of dollars on the table, it’s inevitable that things won’t go as planned.
So it’s not too surprising to learn that Midnight Cowboy director John Schlesinger struggled to secure studio funding, which wasn’t helped by the fact that his previous film, Far From the Madding Crowd, with Julie Christie, had bombed. Or that he initially considered the novel on which the film is based to be unreadable. Or that he didn’t want to pick one of the actors who became the stars of the movie: Dustin Hoffman, as the lowlife Rico (Ratso) Rizzo of Times Square, and Jon Voight, as Joe Buck, the innocent from Texas who comes to New York looking to make a fortune in the service of wealthy women and ends up taking care of Ratso.
Robert Redford (who had also hoped to get Hoffman’s role in The Graduate) and Warren Beatty both lobbied for the role of Joe Buck. Someone from MGM, who declined to produce the picture, suggested Elvis Presley, and the role was offered to Michael Sarrazin, but the deal fell through, when the contracted studio demanded more money. The name of the casting director responsible for including Hoffman and Voight in the project, Marion Dougherty, was not entered in the credits.
What most people remember from the movie, after the performances of Hoffmans and Voights, is Harry Nilsson singing Everybodys Talkin. Frankel says Nilsson didn’t really like the song and only recorded it on one of his albums in favor of his producer. What Could Have Been: Leonard Cohen kicked off Bird on the Wire by singing it to Schlesinger on the phone, and Bob Dylan wrote a song for the film, presumably Lay Lady Lay, but it was not cut, as it l ‘submitted too late. Another thing that everyone remembers, a line eternally implanted in every head of New York, I walk here!, is not in the scenario. Hoffman added it.
The screenwriter hired to adapt the novel, Waldo Salt, was another bet. He had been blacklisted and, for eleven years, he rarely wrote under his own name. He was fifty-two and hadn’t worked on a notable Hollywood film since the 1940s.
The film’s editor was Hugh Robertson. Schlesinger did not get along with him; producer Jerry Hellman called it a disaster. Robertson, for his part, despised what Schlesinger had shot. He thought it was ignorant, an idea of New York tourists. (Schlesinger was English.) Eventually, Schlesinger brought in a film editor he had previously worked with, Jim Clark, to fix the mess he thought Robertson was making in his film.
The graduate had made Hoffman a morning idol. Female fans assaulted him. But he felt that people thought he was just playing himself in this picture, and he really wanted the role of Ratso in order to show his range as an actor even though Mike Nichols, his director on The Graduate, the warned it would ruin his career. . Hoffman got the highest rating, but he was annoyed when he realized Voight was the center of the movie. He complained that Schlesinger had cut a scene he was particularly proud of. He was absent during promotional events. The producer denied him points.
And yet, everything worked. Midnight Cowboy made nearly forty-five million dollars on a budget of less than four million. It won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Hugh Robertson was nominated for Film Editing, and Waldo Salt won the Best Suited Screenplay award. Everybodys Talkin made Harry Nilsson famous, went to No.6 on Billboard, and sold a million records. And the film didn’t ruin Dustin Hoffmans’ career. He and Voight both received Oscar nominations for Best Actor. The Oscar, however, went to John Wayne, who called Midnight Cowboy a story about two queers.
Of course, Midnight Cowboy isn’t a two-fag story. But somehow it soon became associated with a new era of homosexuality franchising, an association reinforced by the unrelated fact that the Stonewall Riots, which conventionally mark the start of the gay liberation movement, erupted a month after Midnight Cowboy opened.
Frankel thinks the association is important. He sees the film against the backdrop of the rise of openly gay writers and gay liberation. And Mark Harris, in the DVD cover notes of the Criterion DVD, says that Midnight Cowboy is, if not a gay movie, a movie that at least helped make the notion of a gay movie possible. They are right, but it is a delicate matter to do.
It is true that Midnight Cowboy is the story of two men who develop a loving relationship under difficult circumstances, much like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which came out that same year and was his main rival for Best Picture. You can read an element of homoeroticism in buddy images like these, in which women are often treated as consumable props. But no one imagines that such films give audiences a more enlightened way of thinking about homosexuality.
Frankel thinks it’s important that Schlesinger is gay. But, as he concedes, it was not common knowledge. Schlesinger only came out publicly in the ’90s, and he has said he doesn’t consider Midnight Cowboy a gay image. His next film, Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), had a likeable gay character, played by Peter Finch. But there’s no one like that in Midnight Cowboy.
Joe and Ratso are shown to have little sympathy for gay people, and they often use John Waynes’ F word. According to Schlesingers biographer William Mann, Hoffman thought his character should use the N word as well, but Schlesinger was horrified and refused to let him. Still, he was fine with homophobic slurs. Many years later, he claimed that the characters’ use of the word was a sign of overprotestation, but that seems a justification in hindsight.
There are few gay characters with speaking roles in the film. One is a sad teenager, played by Bob Balaban, who bumps into an obviously disgusted Joe at a Times Square movie theater and then confesses that he has no money to pay him. Another is a self-loathing middle-aged man (Barnard Hughes) who takes Joe to his hotel room and gets beat up, which turns him on.
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