Saturday 20 June 2020

Movie and Novel: 'MIDNIGHT COWBOY'


Looking Back At: 
(1969) with Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and Sylvia Miles. 
DVD Twentieth Century Fox (2000)

Coming directly off the back of his overnight breakthrough success as Benjamin Braddock in ‘The Graduate’ (1967), Dustin Hoffman could take his pick of ego-flattering star roles. That he chose to become the decidedly downbeat Ratso Rizzo supporting the untried Jon Voight is evidence he valued the art of movies above mere celebrity. And it was a great role.

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.

From the opening shots of Joe Buck in the shower, there are near-pubic glimpses as he stoops to retrieve the white cake of soap. He’s singing ‘Get along little doggies, New York will be your new home,’ instantly setting the plot. In the original novel, James Leo Herlihy describes Joe as ‘a beautiful strange animal’ and a ‘sweet, dark, dangerous devil.’ He’s big and dumb, but also likeably vulnerable, arrogant to the point of narcissism, but also endearingly gullible. ‘No great shakes as a thinker’, he has no talent, other than his physique, and no future other than washing dishes at the small-town Texas ‘Sunshine Cafeteria’ (‘Miller’s Restaurant’ in the film). So he gets decked out in his finest new threads, ‘he developed a habit of hooking his thumbs into his back pockets as if his trousers were a low-slung gun belt,’ and hops the National Coach from the Houston bus depot – where the jukebox is playing Kay Starr’s “Wheel Of Fortune”, heading north for New York to start a new life as an in-demand gigolo. In green shirt, fringed buckskin jacket, cowboy boots, black-and-white horsehide suitcase, transistor radio, and chewing gum, ‘he was ready.’

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.

I first saw the movie at the ABC-Regal in Hull, having just turned twenty, and it seemed to touch every nexus of change going on around me. The seedy underbelly of the clamouring counter-culture where sky-shooting ambition collides with Desolation Row come-down, tantalizing tastes of narcotic and forbidden erotic worlds, sealed by an unlikely friendship between misfit outsiders. All motivated by that urgent need to escape the stultifying small-town boredom and break on through to the roaring energy of the greater world beyond the horizon, with its luring promises of agony or ecstasy.

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.’

Although John Barry’s plaintive instrumental with Toots Thielemans’ keening harmonica is the official theme tune, Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” – played over the first sequences, became the hit single most associated with the movie, the lyric ‘everybody’s talking at me, I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind. People stopping, staring, I can’t see their faces, only the shadows of their eyes’ catches the aimless footloose spirit of the screenplay. It became to ‘Midnight Cowboy’ what Simon And Garfunkel’s “Mrs Robinson” had been to ‘The Graduate’. As a songwriter himself it was to Harry Nilsson’s intense chagrin that his two biggest commercial hits were written by other people. Fred Neil wrote “Everybody’s Talking” which reached no.6 in the USA but peaked at a UK no.23 in October 1969, followed by “Without You” – a no.1 in March 1972, penned by Badfinger members Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Yet the ‘Midnight Cowboy’ soundtrack is vitally time-fixing. Elephants Memory were a Greenwich Village band best remembered for backing Yoko And John Lennon on their ‘Some Time In New York City’ (1972, Apple) double-album. The Groop were a LA-based soft-harmony psychedelic band, their “A Famous Myth” – which plays in the background when Joe first encounters Ratzo, opens their only album ‘The Groop’ (1969, Bell).

It’s only by page seventy-seven of the July 1969 Dell paperback edition of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ – with its ‘Now An Explosive Movie’ tie-in cover-art, that gum-chewing Joe even arrives in New York. In the movie he catches radio-burst identifications from Ron Lundy’s WABC show, which tells him so. And once there he sets up in the cheap Times Square Hotel where the bellhop patiently waits for a tip… just as I recall from my first time in Manhattan. And Joe begins to put his plan into action, finding a pick-up point where rich ladies can ‘place a bid on his wares’, although ‘his project was a delicate thing at best.’ He traipses aimlessly wide-eyed wondering through the sidewalk human mass gawping at sophisticated inaccessible women on Park Avenue and Thirty-Ninth Street, making clumsy approaches, and standing perplexed outside Tiffany And Co over an ignored man lying face-down on the paving.

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.

When Joe guilelessly raises the subject of payment – giving her the ‘full benefit of the sweet crooked smile,’ she’s affronted, protesting and crying. She has no money, so he ends up paying her $20 for her taxi. This isn’t working out the way he’d anticipated. Then he encounters Ratso – Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, in ‘Everetts’ on Broadway, near Fortieth Street. In the book he’s a ‘dirty, curly-hair little blond runt.’ Hoffman plays him slightly older, and dark-haired, although that’s in keeping with the Italian ethnicity. ‘Terrific shoit’ he compliments Joe on his cowboy get-up, spinning a fractured line, spotting a mark, a scam-target. What Joe needs is a manager he suggests, a middleman. ‘You really know the ropes’ agrees a suckered Joe.

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.

Broke busted disgusted Joe pursues Ratso through subway trains in a flashing black-and-white collage. He cruises nighttime Times Square as John Barry’s mournful theme plays, hunching his radio, night and day splicing in memory-sequences with insane TV-audience laughter from the ‘Midnite Show’, ‘Take it easy, but take it!’, and ‘Huberts Museum’, as glimpses of more trash film-references flick by in the background, Nick Adams ‘Frankenstein Conquers The World’ (1965, MGM/UA Toho), De Sade’s soft-core ‘Justine’ (1967) – proclaimed as ‘the erotic excess of evil’, and ‘Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold’ (1966), marking Mike Henry’s debut as the Jungle-swinging Ape-man (with a Fritz Leiber novelisation). The innovative camerawork dices and fractures strict continuity into collage, enlivened with voice-over radio-burst ads, commentary and jingles. There ain’t no heart in this city, no streets paved with gold. Just garish flash and squalor. As intoxicating as it is shallow.

After three weeks of drifting and sleeping rough Joe meets Ratso again at the Eight Street ‘Nedicks’ – ‘WORLD’S BEST COFFEE’, a Greenwich Village coffee house. With Ratso protesting ‘don’t hit me, I’m a cripple!’ Ratso lives in a series of ‘X-flats’, tenement buildings vacated due for demolition – ‘got my own private entrance here.’ They form a strange alliance, what Herlihy calls ‘a marriage of two shades of despair,’ in a place where ‘hustle’s the name of the game’, living on their wits – or rather, on Ratso’s Bronx street-wise cunning, scams and petty-theft from a Puerto Rican block in the West Twenties. Ratso has a poster of Florida on his wall, his dream destination. A ‘Real Florida Orange Juice’ radio jingle plays. And there’s a fantasy Florida sequence with a suntanned Ratso running around limp-free along the white beach where, as Paul Simon wrote, ‘the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me.’

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.

The dysfunctional duo move restlessly through ‘this topsy-turvy daylight of neon and electricity, a kind of light that penetrated the first layer of skin, even cosmetics, illuminating only the troubled colours under the surface: weary blue, sick green, narcotic gray, sleepless white, dead purple.’ Joe – open, guileless, damaged. Ratso – devious, furtive, hurt. Joe pawns his radio, eyes a ‘Dishwasher Wanted’ sign in an eaterie window, and gets thrown out of the ‘Hotel Berkley’ for soliciting after hijacking a ‘Perfect Gentleman Escort Agency’ appointment. He even sells to the ‘Blood Bank: Donors Paid’ to raise cash. Until Joe gets invited to Hansel and Gretel MacAlbertson’s Loft Party one flat up from the corner of Broadway and Harmony in snowfall. They initially select him at random simply as a visual curio to provide an amusing ingredient for their art-bohemian happening. The movie updates it into a more freak-out psychedelic be-in, with stoned fetishistic film, art wall-prints, a fluid light-show and trippy music. It’s a Warhol scene, with Factory Superstars Ultra Violet, Paul Jabara, International Velvet and Paul Morrissey glimpsed among the hedonists.

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.

His performance not only leads to a $20 payment, but she’s networking other potential assignations for him to follow. But, just at the point where it seems his Midnight Cowboy stud-dream is about to become a reality, Ratso is rapidly sickening in the freezing winter X-flat, bedridden and feverish. He’s ‘falling down a lot’, but refuses medical help – ‘don’t be so stoopid!’ Instead, in a desperate bid to raise the coach-fare in order to chase the sun down to idyllic Florida, Joe allows himself to be picked-up by a mother-fixated middle-aged man at a shooting gallery in an amusement arcade. Passing ‘Colony Records’ they arrive back in the dreary ‘Europa’ hotel-room, but the man – Townsend ‘Towny’ P Locke (Bernard Hughes), is torn and conflicted by the horrible squalid beauty of ‘his special appetites’. Haunted by a last-minute wave of guilt, he attempts to back out. ‘You’re a nice person, Joe. I should never have asked you up here. You’re a lovely person really.’ Each character is fully fleshed out, and allowed their own voice. Each character has a life. Yet, driven to desperation, Joe brutally beats and robs him. There are Gay Physique magazines in his drawer, his false teeth fall out of his bloodied mouth, ‘I deserve this. I brought this on myself, I know I did’ he sobs in wretched misery, as Joe forces the hotel telephone receiver into his open mouth. Does Joe kill him? It’s left deliberately vague. But it enables Joe to buy National bus tickets so he and Ratso can hop a southbound coach.

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.

Although born in working-class Detroit (27 February 1927), New York City was a familiar location for writer James Leo Herlihy. As was Florida’s Key West. A close association with Tennessee Williams encouraged his explorative ways of dealing with Gay subculture and taboo-busting subjects. Prior to ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1965) he’d written ‘All Fall Down’ (1960) – which was also filmed, and ‘The Season Of The Witch’ (1971). Although Beat Generation writing demands the autobiographical authenticity of experience, there’s a Jack Kerouac quality to ‘you will find in the eyes and demeanor of these persons a kind of restless sadness that is probably incurable; they seem to be suffering some nameless common loss, as if something of worth has been snatched from them with such shocking irrevocability that they have forgotten even what it was.’ Herlihy wrote plays and acted, published short fiction too, before taking his own life 21 October 1993. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ remains his most powerful statement.

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.


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


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raw poetry by donna snyder said...

This is a beautiful review of a pair of closely read and viewed conjoined masterpieces.