Midnight Cowboy is celebrating it’s 50th Anniversary this year. Despite being a half a century old, though, it holds up. I think that’s mainly because the heart of John Schlesinger’s Oscar winning movie is a friendship. An unlikely one. One that starts off on the wrong foot, with a lie. But in the end, it’s the only thing that really matters. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman deliver terrific performances as two outcasts who find some sort of solace with one another.
Joe Buck (Voight), a virile young man in a small Texas town, heads to New York to make it as a hustler. Not exactly #careergoals, but that’s his dream. He’s going to service rich Park Avenue ladies and make a fortune. So, he quits his dishwasher job at the local diner and hops on a bus for NYC. What’s interesting is how optimistic and joyful he is about this move. He just knows everything is going to turn out his way. He’s young, good looking, dressed like a cowboy, and can make love for hours. It just occurred to me that this could be the premise for a porn flick. No wonder this film was rated X. Anyways, things don’t go quite as planned for Joe. And his hustling career gets off to the rocky start.
Meeting Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman) doesn’t help things. Ratso is the complete opposite of Joe. Unattractive, sickly, and run down. Compared to hopeful Joe, Ratso is jaded and hardened. He doesn’t see any opportunity in NYC. Not unless he’s conning it out of someone. Poor naïve Joe doesn’t see the con coming. Ratso promises to introduce him to a man who can basically be his pimp. The intro comes for a fee of course. The pimp turns out to be a crazed religious fanatic who scares the hell out of Joe. And the audience. Soon after Joe hasn’t made any progress with his hustling. He ends up broke, kicked out of his hotel, and desperate. So desperate that he picks up a gay man and allows the guy to give him a blow job. Since Joe has the worst luck, it turns out the john has no money to pay him. Always ask for the cash up front, man.
Enter Ratso…again. Joe runs into the con man and basically wants to beat the crap out of him. Ratso doesn’t have his money, but he can offer a place to live. In a condemned building. Joe can’t be choosy and accepts. Ratso isn’t just trying to avoid a beating with this invitation. He doesn’t want to be alone. Even though he barely knows Joe, he’s somebody. And Joe is probably thinking the same. Ratso even offers to be Joe’s pimp. During this time the two get to know each other more as they struggle to get by. They get into a debate about Joe’s cowboy getup. Ratso thinks the look is stupid. Joe defends his clothes and says they make him feel good. I like the vulnerability Voight shows in this scene. Later in the film, Ratso and Joe break into a shoe shine stand. Ratso shines Joes shoes and talks about how his father had this same job for years until it basically killed him. Ratso is determined not to go out like that. There’s another great sequence with the pair dancing around their icy apartment to keep warm. They’re listening to a jingle on Joe’s beloved radio. The one he’s had with him throughout the film. They dance all the way to the pawn shop where he sells it. It’s depressing, but necessary for their survival. On a sunnier note, one of my favorite JoeRat (just made that up) scenes is when Ratso daydreams about moving to Florida with Joe and hitting it big with the rich ladies down there. Seeing the two of them frolicking on the beach is worth the price of admission alone. It’s manic and weird and wonderful.
After a random encounter takes them to a crazy Warholesque party, things take a turn. Not so good for Ratso, who is getting sick and takes a header down a flight of stairs. But Joe ends up meeting Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a rich woman who wants to sleep with him. And pay! I’ll skip over the erotic cribbage game and get to Shirly offering to introduce Joe to her friends who also want to partake in his services. His luck is finally turning around.
Well it was for a second. Joe gets back home to find Ratso is deathly ill. He can’t even walk, but he refuses to go to the hospital. Instead, he begs Joe to get him to Florida. Hoffman does an amazing job of conveying Ratso’s dread and weakness in this scene. The hardness he had is gone. After a disturbing encounter where Joe beats and robs a john, he and Ratso board a bus to Florida. They’re off to a brand-new life. And then Ratso dies on the bus. It’s heartbreaking. They were so close to finally winning. The bus driver says they’ll carry on since there’s nothing they can do for him. Joe puts his arm around Ratso, holding him. It’s an incredibly sad and sweet moment. The film ends with an amazing shot, looking in thru the bus window at the two friends in their final moment together.
Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin” is the perfect soundtrack to this story. As beautiful and haunting as the scenes it accompanies.