Wednesday, June 3, 2020

John Schlesinger | Midnight Cowboy

by Douglas Messerli

Waldo Salt (screenplay, based on the novel by James Leo Herily) John Schlesinger (director) Midnight Cowboy / 1969

Including its 1969 premiere, I have watched John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy numerous times over the years, but for several reasons never to chose to review it until now. Certainly I recognized upon first seeing it has being performed by two wonderful actors, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, along with some fascinating other minor figures Sylvia Miles (who I’ve since met several times at Sherry Bernstein’s New York apartment), Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balban (just a kind in those days), John McGiver, and Bernard Hughes. Its subtle gay narrative is generally quite powerful, and its major song “Everybody’s Talking at Me,” written by composer John Barry and sung by Harry Nilsson, is one of the best, winning several awards.
      Schlesinger, moreover—who also directed Darling and Sunday Bloody Sunday—is clearly a more than competent director. Moreover, I was living and working in New York City with film was first shown.
      Later I even met the gentle gay author, James Leo Herily, living in Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, who wrote the original novel upon which this film was based. What wasn’t there to like?
      For one, I did not like the black-and-white dreams scene which recounted gradually the naïve Texan dishwasher, Joe Buck’s past; nor the future dream sequences of Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo’s imaginary in Miami. Schlesinger’s somewhat expressionist use of certain images such as the constant MONY sign and the explosive tearing down of a building—presumably the Claridge Hotel where Joe stayed in his first days upon arriving in New York—rubbed me the wrong way.
     And then, the over-the-top performances by Miles (always rather tawdry in her acting), McGiver, Varraco, and other minor figures such as the drugged-mouse lady, dragging a plastic or perhaps even real mouse across daughters face all took away, it seemed to me, from the core of the story which concerned a growing (gay) love between the central heroes, Buck and Rizzo, even as they continue to insist they are straight, and it is Buck’s attention dressed up his “faggot” cowboy suit, to service the New York women for large sums of money.
      But this time seeing it, I forgave some of these “flaws,” noting instead just how subtly screenwriter Waldo Salt gradually built up the homosexuality and finally blossoms into full love with Rizzo’s death as the two travel together by bus to Miami.
     Some of these hints are double-edged, as when early in the film a transgender waiter queries Joe and Rizzo: “How is he going to get his hands into your pockets,” given the tightest of the cowboy’s pants. At one level, obviously, she is suggesting this dying con-man will somehow find a way to get money out of Joe (in fact, Joe has already given him $20), but it can also be read as  sexual desire.
      And it isn’t long after that Rizzo lures Joe to his derelict, empty building to share a bed next to him. Joe is shy about the deal, and is determined to leave before Rizzo admits that he wants him to stay. He even steals Joe’s boots so that he will not run off.
      When his relationships with women don’t pan out, Joe even picks us a young boy (Balaban) who sucks the cowboy off in a movie theater. But when it comes payment, the adolescent admits that he has no money.
       Now playing Joe’s pimp, Rizzo arranges for a encounter with a gay man (McGiver). Joe is ready for the sex, but when the loon opens up his bathroom door backed with a plastic Madonna and demands get down on his knees and pray, the cowboy angrily flees.
       When he does finally return to Rizzo’s “apartment,” discovering his friend in a feverish condition, and Rizzo insists “We got to get out of here,” Joes picks up his own male trick to obtain enough money for their trip.
      He gets his money this time, but there is a suggestion that he might have killed him to obtain it.
      After the sudden, if evitable, death of Rizzo en route to Florida, and is told by the driver that they still must travel forward to Miami, Joe consummates his love by carefully sliding his arm around his dead friend’s shoulder for the remainder of the trip.
      Everyone in Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy are losers, losing in love and slowly losing their minds.

Los Angeles, June 3, 2020
Reprinted from World Film Review (June 2020).

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