Midnight Cowboy

Released:  1969

Cast:  Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture, Best Director (John Schlesinger), Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles), Best Film Editing (Hugh A. Robertson)

SUMMARY:  Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a young man from Texas who decides to leave his job as a dishwasher and move to New York.  There, he believes that he will be able to make a fortune by becoming a male prostitute for wealthy women.  After a long bus trip, he arrives in New York and gets a hotel room.  He goes out looking for wealthy women, and quickly finds one who is interested in him.  When he gets ready to leave her apartment, she asks to borrow money for a cab; learning that he expects money from her, she begins sobbing and yelling.  Joe ultimately gives her $20 before leaving.  He then goes to a bar, where he meets Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).  Ratso tells Joe that his problem is management:  he needs a good pimp to set him up with the right women.  Ratso claims to know one of these men, and offers to take Joe to him.  At the man’s apartment, Ratso demands $20 for his services, then leaves before Joe enters.  It all turns out to be a con:  the man is not a pimp, but an ultra-religious man bent on converting Joe.  After escaping, Joe tries to track down Ratso, but is unable to find him.  He soon runs out of money, and is kicked out of his hotel room (though the hotel keeps his belongings).  In a desperate attempt to make some money, Joe agrees to an encounter with another man, but afterward discovers that the client has no money.  The next day, Joe finally finds Ratso again.  He forcefully intimidates the smaller Ratso, who ultimately offers Joe a place to stay:  the condemned apartment building where he is squatting.  Joe agrees and moves in, and soon the two decide to form a business partnership, with Ratso acting as management.

Ratso uses a series of tricks and cons to set Joe up with clothes, money and an in with an escort service, though this doesn’t work out.  During this time, he also teaches Joe how to operate simple cons, like stealing food or small amounts of money.  Unfortunately, Ratso’s efforts do not result in any clients for Joe, and the two start to run out of money.  They suffer through a brutal New York winter in the condemned building, which has no heat.  Ratso, who has always had a nagging cough, begins to noticeably decline.  He dreams of one day moving to Miami, where he believes Joe could be much more successful.  One afternoon in a diner, the two are handed a flyer for a party.  The party turns out to be extremely odd, but they enjoy themselves:  Ratso helps himself to huge quantities of the free food, and Joe mistakenly smokes a joint, then takes a mystery pill.  He also meets a woman interested in his services (Brenda Vaccaro).  After a rough start, in which Joe’s lack of education is exposed, the two have a pleasant time.  In the morning, she arranges an appointment for Joe with her friend, and pays him before he leaves.  Unfortunately, when Joe gets home he finds that Ratso has become seriously ill:  he is feverish and has lost the use of his legs.  When Joe wants to get a doctor, Ratso informs him that the only thing he needs is to go to Miami.  Joe then robs another homosexual man for enough cash to buy two bus tickets to Miami, and sets off with Ratso.  Joe cares for the worsening Ratso on the journey, buying new clothes for the pair after Ratso loses control of his bladder.  Joe continues to talk to Ratso about the future, but looks over to find that Ratso has died; the bus driver decides to continue to Miami, since there is really nothing else to do.  Joe closes Ratso’s eyes and holds him as the bus drives on.

MY TAKE:  First things first:  when I saw the credit list, I knew I had seen the name Brenda Vaccaro somewhere before.  I checked out her filmography/TV list, and there it was:  she played Sophia Petrillo’s sister, Angela, on several episodes of The Golden Girls.  Frankly, you can’t tell it’s her by the face, but I was pretty proud of myself for at least recognizing the name.  Now on to more serious matters:  this is famously the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture.  As such, I was a little hesistant to watch it, because if it’s rated X, it’s got to be awfully graphic and obscene.  I was quite surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as graphic and obscene as movies like A Clockwork Orange.  In later years, this movie’s rating has been changed to R, and that’s probably mainly because of the subject matter — Pretty Woman is also rated R.  In this one, you get a couple of nudity moments, but all you really see is boobs and butts.  Having recently watched a few movies with way more detail, this seemed pretty tame.  The movie focuses primarily on the relationship between the two male characters, and how it evolves.  They kind of end up reversing roles:  at first, Ratso takes care of the incredibly naïve Joe (the guy sets out to be a hustler, yet gets hustled by four different people, two of them almost immediately upon arrival in NYC) by teaching him to work small cons, and making him somewhat more realistic (less of a dreamer and idealist).  However, as Ratso’s health worsens, it is Joe who cares for Ratso, finding ways to make money and bring home food; it is Joe who finally sets up the trip to Miami.  It’s kind of weird, but one of the funny moments in the film comes during the bus trip to Florida, when Ratso announces he’s wet his pants:  even though Ratso is really close to death, both men recognize the humor in the situation, and are able to make light of it.  Joe soon buys both of them new clothes, and dresses the nearly unconscious Ratso, leading to another funny line.  It’s a more serious movie than Pretty Woman, but shares a basic element (as well as a rather rosy view of prostitution):  the two main characters, who are initially at odds, ultimately develop a close personal relationship.

RATING:  Way better than I expected.

 

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