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Midnight Cowboy Discussion

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Midnight Cowboy Script Film Background John Schlesinger is a British filmmaker known for directing films with controversial topics. Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969 during the height of the baby boomer counter culture revolution and protests against the Vietnam war. Between 1967 in the early 70s, students and activists throughout the country had actively worked against what they considered to be “the system”: a set of public and private institutions that supported a dominant ideology which offered little to the youth of America. The most evident example of youth resistance, what one could describe as new counterculture, can be seen in the Vietnam war protests. At the end of the 60s, students and activists had closed down universities, arranged on mass demonstrations both against the war and the concept of the system, and protested on mass scale . Even in Vietnam, soldiers were disillusioned with the war. Having access to anti-war materials, many believed that they were fighting for cause that had little to do with them. Despite the high visibility of protests against the system, and the development of an new baby boomer counterculture designed to both question and deconstruct the system, Schlesinger’s characters—despite their youth– –continue to function within the traditional system, a system that will ultimately fail them. The main protagonists—Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo—are not part of America’s counterculture. Upon its release, Midnight Cowboy caused much controversy. Its representation of a different kind of counterculture––one that had not hit the headlines in the same way as the Vietnam War protests or the concerns of hippies, students, and civil rights activists––was seen as a potentially dangerous influence upon young audiences. Throughout the history of film censorship, particularly since the implementation of the Hays code in 1930, the morality of youth had always been of concern with American censors. And even by 1969, such fears were still prevalent. Midnight Cowboy was the first film of its kind to present the dark underbelly of New York City; the invisible lives of drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless destitutes, none of whom had previously been considered suitable content. The film’s focus on homosexuality, in particular upon gay prostitution, was cause for concern for the producers at universal studios who originally agreed to give the film and X rating, mainly due to its “homosexual frame of reference.” Despite this, however, the film was a hit. Despite the fears of the censors, and producers at universal, the film won an Academy award for best picture in 1970. It was the first, and the last, X-rated film ever to win an Academy award. Schlesinger won an Academy award for best director, and a number of the actors in the film when nominated for Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards. The film grossed almost $45 million in the United States, $11 million of that in rentals. Soon after its release its rating which changed from an X to an R. Both the industry and American audiences had indicated that the films content was not only suitable viewing material, but of great interest to the general public. The film paved the way for even more controversial depictions of drug addiction, prostitution, and homosexuality, in later films such as Panic in Needle Park and Drugstore Cowboy. It is now considered a classic piece of fiction film, and continues to be enjoyed by audiences worldwide. The Protagonists The protagonists in the film are Joe Buck, a naïve Texan who dreams of great success and wealth in New York City; and Ratso Rizzo, a down and out grifter. In addition, a number of women—both rich and poor— drift in and out of the men’s lives at various points throughout the film. Joe Buck is played by John Voight, a practically unknown actor at the time. Originally, Warren Beatty was considered for the role. However, Beatty’s clean cut image made him seem unsuitable for the parts. In his role as Joe, Voight gained international recognition, and went on to make a successful career as an actor in Hollywood. Ratso Rizzo is played by Dustin Hoffman, an actor who only two years before gained international recognition as both an actor and as America’s Golden boy in the hit film The Graduate. As with Beatty, there were concerns that Hoffman was too clean cut for the role of Ratso. However, Hoffmann improved this is not to be the case when he visited Schlesinger dressed as a hobo and persuaded the director to visit the unseemly parts of the city with him. Hoffman demonstrated that he could fit into New York’s dark underbelly. And, as a method actor– –an actor who consistently stays in character whether filming or not– –Hoffman was without a doubt convincing as the down and out Ratso Rizzo. In one particular scene, Hoffman shows his ability to stay in character no matter what. Early on in the film, when Joe and Ratso are walking across a New York City street, a street that was meant to be cleared during the course of the filming, a yellow cab appeared from nowhere, almost hitting Hoffman as he crossed the road. While Hoffman wanted to scream at the cabby that they were filming, he instead stayed in character and shouted “hey, I’m walkin’ here!” This particular scene, while improvised (Schlesinger allowed his actors to improvise often) has become one of the most famous scenes from midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck is a good-looking working-class man stuck in small town in America, Texas to be precise. While working as a dishwasher in a local diner, Joe dreams of a better life himself. He is both a narcissist and a dreamer, who believes that his good looks and charm—as well as his new cowboy outfit––will lead him into a better life in the big city. However, being unaware of 60s counterculture, having no idea either of the dark underbelly of New York City or the ways in which his cowboy outfit will be interpreted by New Yorkers, Joe Buck ultimately fails to attain his dream to become a wealthy gigolo. Rather than appealing to uptown women in the city, Joe—in part as a result of his cowboy hat and boots— comes across as a homosexual grifter. And it is not until his unlikely friend Ratso Rizzo points out that his demeanor and outfit is “strictly for fags,” that Joe fully recognizes the true nature of his situation: that is, why he does not appeal to women. To a large extent Joe is a filmic representation of the “lonely homosexual dream hero” of 1950s fiction. Despite wanting to woo women for their money, he fits well into the role of gay prostitute, perhaps because his only view of work as a child was of men paying his female relatives for sex. Unlike Joe, Ratso Rizzo is a native of New York City and is fully aware of the difficulties of surviving in an environment where there is an extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unwilling to work himself to death, as his father did, Ratso chooses to survive as a con-artist and petty criminal. He is grifter, an opportunist, and an unlikely friend for the dreamer Joe Buck. Ratso takes what he can when he can. Ratso Rizzo is virtually homeless: living in a condemned building, with no heat or amenities. When his home is eventually torn down, he and Joe are left completely destitute. Like many poor people living in neighborhoods targeted for gentrification, he becomes one of the displaced and his already tenuous situation worsens. Without Joe, he would not be able to survive. It is unclear throughout the course of the film whether or not Ratso is a disillusioned realist or an unrealistic dreamer.
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