What’s the Big Deal?: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Yeah, yeah, Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. If nothing else, it stands as the answer to that particular trivia question. But is there anything else? Why is the story of a dimwitted Texan man-whore still mentioned all these years later? Let’s put on our cowboy jacket with the hilarious fringes and investigate.

The praise: Midnight Cowboy won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were both nominated for Best Actor but lost to John Wayne for True Grit. There were additional nominations for Sylvia Miles for supporting actress and for the film’s editor, Hugh A. Robertson. (Trivia: Robertson was the first African-American nominee in this category.) Midnight Cowboy came in at No. 36 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the best movies of all time, falling only slightly to No. 43 on the 2007 revised list. It had also appeared on the New York Times’ list of the 10 best movies of 1969.

The context: When Midnight Cowboy premiered in May 1969, its two biggest stars were Dustin Hoffman and the X rating. Jon Voight was an unknown who’d never headlined a movie before. The director, John Schlesinger (1926-2003), had made a few films in his native England, including a hit called Darling (1965), but this was his first American project.

Hoffman, on the other hand, was hot. His previous film, The Graduate (1967), had been an instant classic, and people were eager to see what he would follow it with. (That’s probably why he got top billing in Midnight Cowboy, even though Voight’s character is the protagonist and has more screen time.) The X rating was new and exciting, too. The Motion Picture Association of America had only introduced the rating system a few months earlier, in November 1968, and Midnight Cowboy was among the first pictures to get its most restrictive label.

But “X-rated” didn’t have any particular stigma associated with it yet. All it meant was that the movie wasn’t suitable for children, not necessarily that it was chock-full of sex and nudity. A lot of movies (particularly European ones) got X ratings those first few years without much fanfare; it’s not at all analogous to the brouhaha that arises when something is rated NC-17 today. It wasn’t until pornographers started slapping the letter on their movies as a selling point that “rated X” came to signify “dirty movie” in the average filmgoer’s mind, thus ruining it for the legitimate unsuitable-for-children-but-not-pornographic movies. Many of the early X-rated films — including Midnight Cowboy — were reclassified as R when they were re-released later, as the MPAA acknowledged that the connotation of the X had changed.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Midnight Cowboy is now famous for being the only X-rated Best Picture winner in history, its rating wasn’t particularly noteworthy at the time. The system was new; each classification was bound to be represented at the Oscars sooner or later.

What was notable about the film was its frank depiction of casual sex — including allusions to homosexual liaisons — and the grimy, realistic way it portrayed New York City. Mainstream American films at this time were becoming more open about sexuality, addressing subjects that had been unthinkable 10 years earlier. They were also turning more frequently to themes of youthful disillusionment and disappointment, catering to a growing audience of disaffected Baby Boomers eager to see characters who represented them. Most young adults were not contemplating careers in the sex industry, but plenty of them could relate to Joe Buck’s frustration over his failed dreams and misunderstandings about adult life.

The movie: Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naive pretty-boy from rural Texas, takes the bus to New York City, where he plans to make a living as a “hustler,” which is what he calls a “gigolo,” which is what the rest of us call a “male prostitute.” He doesn’t know how to accomplish this, though, because he’s kind of stupid. I mean, he knows how to have sex, he just doesn’t have any business sense. Along comes Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly, verminous con man who becomes Joe’s only friend and sort of his pimp.

What it influenced: In his liner notes for the Criterion Laserdisc edition of the film, Michael Dare says Midnight Cowboy was the first movie to show New York City in the kind of realistic detail that locals would recognize:

“Look at the scene where Ratso and Joe are almost hit by a cab while crossing the street, and it’s almost impossible to imagine why the original audiences went bonkers just because Hoffman hits the hood of the cab and blurts ’I’m walking here!’ By now we’re used to street realism, and the incident seems ordinary, but then it was a revelation, a minuscule detail of city life that no one before had ever captured on film. And it’s just one of thousands of similar very specific occurrences that add up to one of the most painfully realistic and humorous portraits of a city every conceived.”

I don’t know if it’s literally true that no previous film had captured that kind of Big Apple authenticity (and I guess “authenticity” is subjective), but Dare makes a good point. Prior to this, people’s idea of New York City came from its romanticized depictions in the movies, which actual New Yorkers scoffed at. It was that Hollywood version of New York that attracted Joe Buck, and he was in for a rude awakening. Now that the seedier side of the city has been portrayed so often in films, that brief altercation with the cab driver strikes everyone as a quintessential New York detail (and “I’m walkin’ here!” has become a catchphrase). But in 1969, it would have only looked familiar to New Yorkers.

In a similar vein, the image of Joe Buck walking down a busy Manhattan sidewalk, barely visible in the crowd except for his cowboy hat, has become iconic, and often duplicated or parodied. (See, for example, similar moments in Elf and Borat.) Not only is it a striking image, it also introduces us to the movie’s central theme of New York (and thus real life) not being what Joe expected it to be. He thought he would stand out; in truth, no one notices him.

What to look for: If you’re watching Midnight Cowboy because you heard it used to be rated X and want to see how dirty it is, you’re in for a disappointment. It may have deserved that rating at the time, when “X” simply meant that it was unsuitable for kids, but the R rating it has now is more appropriate. It has a fair amount of nudity and some brief scenes of sexual activity. Scandal-seekers should lower their expectations.

Viewers familiar with other ’60s counterculture milestones like Easy Rider (which came out the same year), Jules and Jim (1962), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) will notice that Midnight Cowboy fits comfortably into that mold. It has a downbeat ending. It uses jarring snippets of flashbacks, plus scenes from Joe’s and Ratso’s imaginations as they consider what might happen in the future. Sex and drugs are portrayed as cool, everyday things for young people, while old-fashioned subjects like religion are denigrated. Never mind the X rating: it was the movie’s ideas that were bold for their time.

What’s the big deal: Just as the new rating system was a product of its time, needed to accommodate the movies’ increasingly graphic portrayal of mature themes, Midnight Cowboy was a reflection of the era’s counterculture movement. Young people had not seen characters they could relate to very often before — people as dissatisfied and disillusioned as they were — and so films like Midnight Cowboy were revelatory. The genre of movies about man-whores who befriend sweaty street criminals has never been the same.

Related columns:

Could Shame Be the First NC-17 Best Picture Nominee?
What’s the Big Deal?: Jules and Jim (1962).
What’s the Big Deal?: Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
What’s the Big Deal?: Cool Hand Luke (1967).
What’s the Big Deal?: Easy Rider (1969).