All hail Netflix, Amazon Prime, video on demand is entertainment king! In this new rather exciting age we live in, there is such an abundance of options both unparalleled and mind boggling to pre-millennials, that all you silver screen searching, Oscar worthy film fanatics could find yourselves scratching your collective heads. The concept of a double click and all your cinematic dreams coming true, at least on a small screen, is hard to get used to. Luckily we still have the BFI – the cinema, the last paradigm of popular culture. On Tuesday 20th June and Friday 30th, a rare experience will present itself on London’s Southbank with two special screenings of Midnight Cowboy.
Ok so this is what happened. In 1969, Midnight Cowboy became the first X rated (NC17) film to win an Oscar. No major big deal you might think, but in reality it was. Especially with the film boasting one of the darkest screenplays ever to draw a mainstream audience. It also saw the birth of a star in the slight and unassuming figure of Dustin Hoffman. Add to that a musical accompaniment that still resonates today with ‘Everybody’s Talking at Me’ by Harry Nilsson and the haunting harmonica theme of, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ by John Barry.
As the old saying goes ‘timing is everything’. The story itself came during a period that saw a shift in the cinematic landscape. Easy Rider was causing a storm, and the old guard were reaching the end of a prosperous journey. A-list stars like Burt Lancaster and John Wayne were still around and making pretty good films, but the tide had turned.
Midnight Cowboy came about at what can best be described as a turbulent time, Hollywood was just about taking notice of the late 60’s counter-culture, the end of the revolution. Juxtaposed to this The Rolling Stones were getting arrested for drug induced antics, Jimi Hendrix was setting his guitar on fire and Jim Morrison provoking uproar for encouraging riots. Future legends had staked their claim, Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman with his turn in ‘Hud’ were all phenomenal, but it was a young, struggling kid who had been sharing a flat with another unknown actor Gene Hackman that grasped an opportunity.
Indeed Dustin Hoffman had confounded critics by pulling off an incredible performance in ‘The Graduate’. It was a huge success and Anne Bancroft was of course the perfect seductress. Challenges abound and Hoffman knew his limitations in a world where the classic Hollywood film system still held strong, and at 5’6”, with a self-proclaimed large nose and one film behind him, he grabbed his moment like a pitbull upon tasting first blood.
He created a character that got so under your skin, the mere mention of the words Ratzo Rizzo can to this day make you reach for a bar of soap. Added to the mix was the well respected British Director, John Schlesinger, who had created his own palette with cinematic gems, ‘Far From The Maddening Crowd’ and ‘Darling’. However suddenly thrust into the chaos and energy of New York City and working with a harrowing screenplay, he was seriously out of his comfort zone.
When Schlesinger couldn’t get permits to film on the busy New York streets, he instructed Voight and Hoffman to the sidewalk amongst the everyday New Yorkers going about their lives, while he hid in a van with his cameraman and secretly shot through the window on a long lens. When Hoffman and Voight crossed a road in the middle of a scene in character, a taxi swerved round the corner almost knocking the pair of them over. Such was Hoffman’s skill at improvisation that he angrily banged on the taxi’s bonnet with his hand and shouted the immortal line,
“I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”
The hippy ideals of California and Woodstock had passed New York by. Times Square was the gutter that no sewer ever wanted: sordid, filthy and rotten beyond redemption, and here came a Hollywood film that not only captured its pure essence, but also weaved a beautiful story right inside its rotten heart. A tale of humanity that brought a sort of sordid freshness to the big screen.
Centred around a wannebee Texan stud by the name of Joe Buck, played by a young Jon Voight, who arrives in the big lights of New York City to make a go of collecting some cold hard cash via relations with mature women.
Discovering a world nothing like he expected: it’s fast lane or no lane for the big dumb Texan. When an old Park Avenue lovely, twice his age invites him upstairs for a bit of ‘Afternoon Delight’ while walking her poodle, we’re introduced to an off Broadway, on Broadway, extremely experienced, unknown actress called Sylvia Miles. Such was this woman’s talent and ability that she got her role Oscar nominated for just nine minutes on screen, less than Brando’s ten minutes in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Meryl Streep’s fifteen minutes, in well, quite a few films!
To cut a long story short, Jon Voight’s Texan stud quickly comes a cropper. His pockets penniless, and with no older women are paying him for a sex as he had planned, he was out of options. With his chips well and truly down and with nowhere to turn he happens upon the greasy, limping, filthy pimp, Dustin Hoffman, in a ‘hookers-love-it café’. No one knows what level Hoffman went to in achieving the real look, feel and performance of the filth ridden, homeless lowlife Ratzo, but he carved a performance so great that he opened the doors for two unknown young actors plotting their burgeoning careers, a certain Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Hoffman filled his shoes with pebbles so he couldn’t walk properly, he didn’t wash his hair, and he snivelled, dribbled, his whiff permeated the screen. He was everything a leading actor wasn’t supposed to be. When he shuffled into the café to save the ‘idiot Joe Buck’, the audience recoiled as the new kid on the block seized his moment. What happens next had your parents running for the doors. The story unfolds in such a way that it would struggle to pass the censors today.
The friendship that develops between Joe Buck and Ratzo Rizzo is one of the most beautiful and endearing relationships, unfolding like a flower before your very eyes. Through their shared loneliness and alienation a bond is formed, a friendship, as these two unlikely lads morally and emotionally support each other through the toughest time in their lives. As their relationship grows, plans are made, they seek their fortune elsewhere, breaking for the border on a Greyhound bus and heading to Florida where the women are older but richer, such is their ideal. But by the time the two long lost dreamers make it that far, a twist in the narrative delivers one of the most heart breaking endings, leaving most viewers aghast and emotionally stranded, enhanced by the heartrending musical backdrop.
Midnight Cowboy is without doubt a must see classic and if you’re quick enough you can book tickets, to watch it on the big screen at the BFI Southbank in London on 20th and 30th June. We seriously recommend it.