Skip to main content

I know enough to know that that great big, dumb cowboy crap of yours don't appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street.

Midnight Cowboy
(1969)

(SPOILERS) Midnight Cowboy waltzed off with a Best Picture Oscar and John Schlesinger and Waldo Salt with Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively, but this is a film that was and remains mystifyingly overvalued (there have been plenty of bad choices for Best Picture since, but often with a degree of groundswell surrounding their lack of merit). That’s likely because it does suggest an end-of-an-era starkness – misery porn, one might call it – that, with Easy Rider (rightly) not in the running for the main award, made it an easy pick. Previously, I’d been more charitable towards the film, while nevertheless acknowledging that I didn’t see in it what the cognoscenti appeared to, but on this occasion, I simply found it a patience-testing ordeal.

Even Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’, and the John Barry score, which I regarded as the highlights, became signposts of artery-clogging melancholia I found myself entirely resisting. It may show me up as non-empathic philistine, but I was left entirely unmoved by the pit of blithe despair Jon Voight’s Joe Buck sinks into thanks to his own unswerving dumbness. If Midnight Cowboy wasn’t so excruciatingly maudlin, it would have to be a comedy. Far from Of Mice and Men, in respect of giant lemon Joe and Dustin Hoffman’s “Ratso” Rizzo, a better analogy might be Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Or something with Norman Wisdom, under the impression he’s an irresistible draw to the ladies, who will pay for the pleasure, but instead continually finds a sex-starved Mr Grimsdale beating down his door; Joe essentially walks around with a sign on his back saying “kick me” for the entire movie (a devastating combination of his costume and dimness).

To be fair, not everyone loved it. Geoff Andrew, writing for Time Out, labelled it “outrageously overrated” adding “the film indulges bland satire, fashionable flashiness, and a sodden sentimentality that never admits either its homosexual elements or to the basic misogyny of its stance”. I’d take issue with Andrew in respect of the latter two points however, since its repeatedly stressed – often through irritatingly crude flashbacks/dream imagery, characterising his troubled past and subconscious in Subtext 101 detail – that Joe’s sexual bravado is merely empty posturing. You couldn’t get a clearer statement, where pretty much everyone is accusing him of repressed homosexuality, not least Brenda Vaccaro’s wealthy socialite, rousing him to “prove” himself otherwise; his final (possibly murderous) act in getting money from a self-loathing client by shoving a phone in his mouth (an act of penetrative self-loathing itself) is the natural “climax” of this. And with regard to the misogyny, you don’t need it to be spelled out, surely. Joe’s a fool, and Ratso’s an incorrigible opportunist.

Both Andrew and Pauline Kael refer to Midnight Cowboy as a satire, but this is the blunt, dull satire of scenarios that would normally be played for comedy of pain being considered satirical when played straight (Joe continually finds his attempts to get paid for his services undermined, at one point being shamed into paying his “client’s” cab fare). Robert J Landry’s Variety review of the period seizes on the scene where Joe comes across a body on the sidewalk and wonders what to do, since everyone else is studiously ignoring it; again, it’s the kind of thing that would be played “large” in a “straight” comedy (Crocodile Dundee, say) but here simply underlines the density of our hick hero.

Kael argued “the satire is offensively inaccurate – it cheapens the story and gives it a veneer of almost hysterical cleverness”, but she also becomes hung up on what she perceives as Schlesinger’s attack on America, and how he is “determined to expose how horrible the people are – he dehumanizes the people Joe and Ratso are part of. If he could extend the same sympathy to the other Americans that he extends to them, the picture might make better sense”. It’s certainly true that there’s scarcely a sympathetic soul elsewhere in the film, but the whole point is of an oppressive, predatory urban environment, and I’m not sure one could see it as an attack on the country itself any more than, say, Taxi Driver.

Where I’m apparently most out of step is with the central relationship. Kael again, asserted “what the audience really reacts to in Midnight Cowboy is the two lost, lonely men finding friendship” and “in the midst of all the grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America, the audiences, wiser, perhaps, than the director, are looking for human feelings”. Joe’s rigorous lack of self-awareness is a block to me. Hoffman delivers a sympathetic performance, yes, but it’s also a very showy one, designed for maximum self-glorification.

Andrew references the picture’s “glamorisation of poverty”, but Koraljka Suton considers itone of the most heart-wrenching, raw and deeply empathetic depictions of homelessness we never asked for, but badly needed”. I don’t know about that. The stylisation of the performers – one a caricature of a cowboy, the other a cartoon homeless man – fights against a truly stark depiction, even in the face of the chic shivering and starving. Kael, as per often critical of the film, said “the two actors… at the heart of the story save the picture” and it’s true enough that Voight and Hoffman are, such as they are, very good. Voight doesn’t put a foot wrong. And Hoffman, well, as noted, he employs every actorly trick in the book – hacking cough, limp, affected voice – to make for a very colourful (and Oscar-nominated) type, but there’s a theatrical zest preventing Ratso from being deeply affecting, underlined by the manner in which Schlesinger cynically wallows in their despair and ignorance.

It’s possibly ironic that John Wayne took the Oscar that year over Voight, given that Joe invokes the Duke when claiming that dressing like a cowboy isn’t “faggy”, but Midnight Cowboy still took the big two on the night (Picture and Director) and nabbed formerly blacklisted Salt a Best Adapted Screenplay, leading to a further win for Coming Home and a nomination for Serpico (he was also responsible for the screenplay for Schlesinger’s overwrought The Day of the Locust). Wayne’s win was surely a consequence of splitting the vote between Voight and Hoffman in the Best Actor category (I’m always surprised Hoffman wasn’t in Best Supporting, which you might assume he’d have won, but Jack Nicholson didn’t for Easy Rider, so go figure).

Of course, Midnight Cowboy lives in Oscar history for being the only Best Picture winner awarded the X rating… Except, the arbitrary application of the X was illustrated very clearly when, post-win, the movie was re-rated R. Which fits rather well with the immoderate veneration for the film that believes it’s profound and moving, yet is largely applied veneer, window dressing for an era.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.