‘JOE BUCK RIDES AGAIN’
Looking Back At:
(1969) with Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and Sylvia Miles.
DVD Twentieth Century Fox (2000)
Movies, in cahoots with the related art-forms of novels, poetry, painting and music had been defining and taking the pulse of the times by pushing at, testing and extending the limits of what’s possible, gradually breaking free from the repressive constraints of the 1950s, one increment at a time. As social change accelerated towards decade’s end, it was articulating the contentious ongoing dialogue over gender politics, racial equality, censorship, and the spreading recreational use of narcotics. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ coming in 1969, is very much part of that process, advancing what it was permissible to portray onscreen, but doing so with a strong human storyline, and two unforgettably beat-up characters.
The opening movie sequence, from the ‘Big Tex Drive-In’, tracks the novel’s first chapter in closely-observed detail. Impatient voices call ‘Where’s Joe Buck?’ Then he’s telling the nameless ‘coloured man’ – Ralph in the movie, who facially resembles John Lee Hooker, ‘a lot of rich women back there, Ralph, begging for it, paying for it too.’ New York men are all tootie-frooties, aren’t they? They’re all ‘faggots’ in the novel. But fiction is different to celluloid. The novel then diverges into back-story, documenting how loner Joe was raised by ‘various blondes’ and detailing his sexual initiation with promiscuous Anastasia ‘Annie’ Pratt (Jennifer Salt). All abbreviated to spliced-in flashbacks on the movie-coach, a blur of travel-dreams, as passengers come and go, a girl with the ‘Wonder Woman no.178’ comicbook, an Old Timer chewing tobacco, an awkward Old Lady in Dame Edna spectacles, a Nun. The landscape and radio-bursts of ads and evangelists fade into and out of focus. ‘Crazy Anne Loves Joe Buck’ is graffiti’d on the spindly-tall Martian war-machine of a glimpsed Water Tower. A presage to the later gothic black-and-white nightmare of violent gang-rape which tore Joe and Annie apart.
The previously untested Jon Voight completely inhabits the person of Joe Buck. Born 29 December 1938 in New York’s Yonkers, he’d done TV bit parts in cult crime series ‘Naked City’ (“Alive And Still A Second Lieutenant”, 6 March 1963), ‘The Defenders’ (“The Brother Killers” with Peter Fonda, 25 May 1963) and ‘NYPD’ (“The Bombers” 12 December 1967) as well as three different character roles in popular TV Western ‘Gunsmoke’ with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon. But director John Schlesinger was supernaturally right to take a chance and cast him on what was essentially a gritty character-driven narrative of low-life deviancy.
Joe was ‘wondering what to do about his predicament and not quite certain just what the predicament was.’ Like many of us were doing. The novel’s early detours chart the long build-up – all unexpressed pauses and aching waits, until Joe finally hooks up with smooth-talking Perry, who takes him to Juanita and Tombaby Barefoot’s cat-house. The dialogue is richly comic and cruelly barbed. Joe has interrupted sex with Dolores that is brought to an abrupt end when he realizes they’re being observed. Yet it’s Juanita who ‘put this entire goddam New York notion in his head in the first place,’ when she says ‘its all fags there, fags and money and hungry women. Young stud like this in the stable, I’d clean up good.’ Joe is naive, an innocent, as Perry says, despite having ‘fucked aplenty’, he’s a virgin. Everyone around him has agendas, scams, traumas, hang-ups, paranoias, he simply drifts, a pinball bounced from one situation to the next. He’s confused by the strange drifts of conversations, and never quite sure what is expected of him, despite being always eager to please. ‘Now at the age of twenty-five, with his head full of grief and worry, Joe felt the need to do some thinking. But he was unused to having any wide variety of thoughts in his head, and there seemed to be severe limits as well to his imagination. There was nothing wrong with these faculties in him, but they were untrained and did not serve him well in emergencies.’
He lucks-out by blundering his pick-up line at a blonde exercising her white French poodle – so small ‘it looked like a windup toy,’ on Lexington Avenue in the Thirties. The movie dialogue is book-lifted word-for word – he asks directions to the Statue of Liberty? ‘It’s up in Central Park taking a leak, if you hurry up you’ll catch the Supper Show’ she smart-asses. But she nevertheless leads him up to her One-Fourteen penthouse. She – Cass Trehune (Sylvia Miles), talks to a guy called Morey on the phone – a husband, but maybe not hers, lining up a date, as Joe licks her ear, then she un-pops the studs down his shirt and unbuckles his pants, murmuring ‘beautiful Baby’ at what she discovers there.
Cinephile John Schlesinger drip-feeds movie references. From the skewed lettering for John Wayne’s ‘The Alamo’ (1960) on the Rio movie theatre marquee Joe passes on his way to the coach, to the Paul Newman (‘Hud’, 1963) poster on Joe’s NY wall, as he investigates the pay-TV slot. Now, as Cass and Joe roll naked on the bed they repeatedly hit the remote, strobing a rapid-fire of TV-channels, a Game Show, Humphrey Bogart, a fire-breathing Monster Movie, ‘Jolly Green Giant’, Bette Davis, a ‘Super Bleach’-ad, Al Jolson, fleeting flickers so fast you need freeze-frame and rewind to track them… until a One-Arm Bandit clicks into a Jackpot line-up of three Cowgirls, and gushes pay-out. A playful play on coy cinematographic shorthand for orgasm.
As they walk – ‘dragging my bum leg around’, Ratso routinely checks the Central Park phone-booths for lost change. As a result of childhood illness, his walk ‘had a kind of rolling motion to it like the progress of a lopsided wheel’, a ‘kind of crazy-wheel rhythm that rolled him towards his objective.’ They pass a protest demonstration – waving placards that proclaim generic ‘Liberate Freedom’ and ‘End Madness Now’. ‘Go to woik’ protests Ratso back at them. Crossing the road – step-drag, step-drag, step-drag, Ratso aggressively bangs the bonnet of an intrusive yellow cab, ‘I’m walkin’ here’ he complains in an apparently improvised incident filmed live on the street, that enters movie history. ‘Up yours’ yells the cabbie. The streetwise Ratso confides to Joe ‘that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance,’ anticipating the Claims-Lawyer industry. In his ‘gravelly whisper’ of ‘a voice like rocks being dragged across an unpaved road.’
Getting $20 ‘expenses’ in advance, Ratso sets a trusting Joe up with a fake introduction to a supposed pimp-connection called Mr O’Daniel (John McGiver) in Room 901 along a corridor haunted by jazz trumpet rehearsals. In the novel it’s Room 3-17 of the Times Square Palace Hotel. ‘I ain’t a for-real Cowboy’ admits an amiably baffled Joe, ‘but I am one hell of a stud.’ Their disjointed interview circles, is Joe troubled and confused?, led astray by boy’s comics?, until O’Daniel – revealed as an unhinged religious fanatic, exhorts him onto his knees and opens up a flashing Jesus in his own toilet shrine, and Joe gets the hell out.
There is some disjunction with the novel. Joe joins the rent-boys on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Forty-Second Street in order to raise cash to redeem his black-and-white horsehair suitcase, telling himself ‘you know what you gotta do, Cowboy.’ The fat bespectacled frightened college student (Bob Balaban) gives him oral sex on a Hell’s Kitchen tenement roof – not, as in the film, in the movie theatre as George Pal’s black-and-white cheap-SFX ‘Conquest Of Space’ (1955) plays, ‘Spacecraft to Earth Control, we have a malfunction of our instruments,’ in a whirl of memory and orbital separation. Outer space as shorthand for desperate isolation and loss. At the time, before the Stonewall fightback and the hazy aspirations of Gay Liberation, such sex was considered shameful and frequently illegal, so it was self-suppressed, to become a source of inner guilt, hidden and denied, or a snatched luring desire that was at once repellant and disgusting. As with Joe’s later hook-up with ‘Towny’ P Locke, who whimpers ‘I loathe life, I loathe every moment of it.’ We are wiser now.
Once there, as Ratso picks pockets and steals food, Joe swallow a brown ‘Bomber’ capsule – not Dexedrine, so that he’s numb to the smart swinger morality being discussed around him – ‘what’s an affair but marriage sans mumbo-jumbo?’ in the novel, ‘death is like heroin, it’s nothing, it’s like nothing, it’s like death’ onscreen. A woman referred to only as ‘the woman in the orange dress’ is amused and titillated by the idea of her buying sex from Joe, as a kind of feminist gesture of total freedom. In the movie she is Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), and instead of the bomber, Joe smokes a joint assuming it to be a cigarette, not understanding the pass-around convention. Again, the movie dialogue is lifted direct when Joe is unable to sexually perform and she teases him with images of ‘a bugler without a horn or a policeman without a stick, etc etc etc,’ which incenses him, provokes him into a furious raw ‘alley-cat’ animal sex response, with Scribbage cubes stuck into his bare back as they writhe together.
During the trip, Ratso’s health deteriorates further, Joe ‘looked at Ratso’s damp, wasted, bone-coloured face, and the eyes sitting too deep in their sockets’ as he becomes sweat-drenched and incontinent – ‘my leg hurts, my butt hurts, my chest hurts, my face hurts, and like that’s not enough, so I piss all over myself’ he confesses. ‘You just had you a little rest-stop wasn’t on the schedule’ jokes Joe. At a stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, Joe buys new clothing for Ratso and himself, symbolically discarding his cowboy outfit into a trashcan outside the Great Southern Hotel. On the bus, Joe tells Ratso that once in Florida he plans to ‘get some sort of job, you know, ‘cos hell, I ain’t no kind-of hustler.’ When Ratso fails to respond, Joe realizes that he’s dead. The driver tells Joe to close Ratso’s eyelids, saying there’s nothing more to do but continue to Miami. Joe, with tears welling in his eyes, sits dazed and confused with – for the first time, his comforting arm around Ratso – no, Rico, as other passengers gawp. It’s a movie moment of intense tear-jerking pathos and compassion. There are certain films with such raw emotional power that they have the ability to touch your inner sensitivity and make you choke up. This is one such moment.
Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo are two lost souls equally adrift, two inadequates in uneasy alliance, who seem to embody some kind of fugitive truth about human nature. They’re still out there, haunting the unforgiving New York sidewalks. They remain one of the great pairings of movie history. In one of my all-time favourite films.
‘WHATEVER YOU HEAR ABOUT
‘MIDNIGHT COWBOY’ IS TRUE’
‘MIDNIGHT COWBOY’ (25 September 1969 (UK), United Artists entertainment from Transamerica Corp) Producer: Jerome Hellman and Kenneth Utt. Director: John Schlesinger. Adapted from his novel ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1965, Dell Publishing) by James Leo Herlihy, with Waldo Salt. With Dustin Hoffman (as Ratso Rizzo), Jon Voight (as Joe Buck), Sylvia Miles (as Cass), John McGiver (as Mr O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (as Shirley), Ruth White (as Sally Buck), Barnard Hughes (as Towny), Jennifer Salt (as Annie). Music by Harry Nilsson (Fred Neil’s song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’), The Groop (‘A Famous Myth’ and ‘Tears And Joys’ written by Jeffrey Comanor), Elephant’s Memory (‘Jungle Jim At The Zoo’ and ‘Old Man Willow’), Lesley Miller (Warren Zevon’s ‘He Quit Me’, recorded as ‘She Quit Me’ on Zevon’s debut LP ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’), Jon Voight (‘The Last Round-Up’) and John Barry. 113-minutes DVD Twentieth Century Fox (February 2000) ‘Midnight Cowboy’ reissued as tie-in paperback by Dell, July 1969