Our Spring magazine is finally here! Click here to view and read our new articles!

Retro-spective: Midnight Cowboy (1969)


Midnight Cowboy is a wonderful film. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay in 1969. It thoroughly deserved the accolades and I think would still be a formidable opponent to many modern Best Picture Nominees of recent years (I’m looking at you, 12 Years a Slave) and easily eclipses many others (Wolf of Wall Street, you cannot hold a candle to this).

The film, which is about clinging onto the American Dream, tells the story of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naïve Texan who travels to New York to become a male gigolo and falls into a friendship with a conman called Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).

Midnight Cowboy was a provocative and shocking film at the time, earning itself an X rating in the US. The film has lost none of its edge and it seems as relevant now as it ever did. I am a stickler for consistent – or at least realistic – changes in tone; a film such as Boyhood may not be the world’s most interesting film, but its control of tone is perfect whereas something like Captain America: Civil War lurches from dour, weighty scenes to quip-filled comedy action set pieces. John Schlesinger’s handling of tone in Midnight Cowboy is perfect in shifting tone from scene to scene, the comedy of Joe Buck and Ratso’s relationship and their mannerisms placed alongside the gradual and terrible exposure of Buck’s reasons for coming to New York. In the hands of a lesser director, the comedy could seem horribly misjudged and the tragedy lightweight, but Schlesinger deftly balances the light and the dark to paint a incredible tableau of Buck’s life.

Jon Voight is a very fine actor and here he delivers a phenomenal performance as Joe. He nails the idealism and melancholy of the character. The audience can root for Joe through Voight’s performance, with the kindness, gentility and warmheartedness shining through. We can relate to Buck’s hopes and see him as a innocent dreamer rather than a sinister seducer. Becoming a gigolo is Buck’s choice, not for licentious reasons but in desperation as a means to achieve his dream.

The star of the film however is Dustin Hoffman. As Rizzo, Hoffman gives a performance that makes you laugh and cry. His constant fight for survival in a world which is unsympathetic to his poverty and disability has earned him the nickname Ratso. His disability could make him a source of sentiment but Schlesinger and Hoffman keep the character nasty and fast-talking enough to sometimes make the audience reluctant to acknowledge his vulnerability. But when we think about the pain etched on his face, his tortured walk, where he lives, his dream of warmth and comfort – we understand. Rizzo is unforgettable. In other hands he may have become a caricature but Hoffman turns him into a real person, an imperfect but utterly human character.

The deft direction, which balances fantasy sequences, flashbacks, black-and-white cinematography as well as colour, is the reason I feel the film is as effective today as it ever was. The fast-cut editing and gorgeous cinematography is incredible and gives the film a pace that means the 1hr 41min runtime zooms by.

I love this film and if you want to watch a classic that doesn’t play by the rules, Midnight Cowboy is definitely worth a watch.

Retro-spective is a feature looking back at films through history from a present-day perspective. Image source: Theconservativetreehouse.com