Retro Heaven

The Midnight Cowboy

Re-watching Midnight Cowboy….

A wander around my local flea market and £3 later and I was watching a film I haven’t seen in over thirty years. Midnight Cowboy (1969) starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman won three Academy Awards and was the first Best Picture winner to feature a gay related theme.

It’s an intriguing film in many ways, centred round Joe Buck (Voight) a Texan pot washer who chances his luck in the Big Apple as a prostitute, it charts his dismal foray into city life and the naivety of his attraction to the bright lights and the illusion of meeting wealthy women willing to pay for sex.

His mild manners cost him dear, his first encounter sees him paying the woman for sex and from there his limited cash reserve quickly capitulates. He meets his apparent salvation in Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman) a down and out, handicapped conman who takes another $20 from him for an introduction to a high flying pimp who turns out to be a religious fanatic. Buck eventually catches up with Rizzo and after a fiery encounter he agrees to share Rizzo’s apartment squatted in a disused building in the poorest part of the city.

Despite Rizzo’s failing health the pair embark on a series of hustles to get money and clothes. Here we see the real New York of the late sixties, it makes for grim but enthralling viewing before descending into a psychedelic tip of the hat to French avant garde cinema at a Warhol-style party at which Buck unknowingly smokes his first joint and pops a pill before finally securing his first paid sexual encounter. All the while we see Rizzo’s health declining and as a result, their increasing dependence on the other. As Rizzo fantasises off sunnier, healing climes in Miami, Buck sets out to earn the money to pay for it through sex with other men.

What struck me most was the fact that none of it seemed far-fetched. Abject poverty and the need to succumb to the lowest means of obtaining money hit home. Their existence is a miserable one and whilst Rizzo paints a wretched character Buck retains his naïve optimism until the very end when Rizzo dies on the bus just before they finally reach Miami. Buck’s childhood nightmares revisit him throughout the film, snapshots of his sordid upbringing bring a sense of order and understanding. The tragedy in Rizzo’s passing and Buck’s subsequent tears is the realisation that for as grubby as Rizzo was, his affection for Buck was all that Buck had ever known and ever likely to know.

It is a film which is hard to compartmentalise, it clearly had and continues to have an impact which resonates through the myriad of ‘top 100s’ and it’s easy to see why. Hoffman gives a clear taste of what is to come from him in future films and Voight, who took a chance and a low fee won us over. Next time you pass by a flea market, take a look in, you might get a nice surprise.

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