Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy
Midnight Cowboy

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Schlesinger
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Screenplay by Waldo Salt
Based on Midnight Cowboy by
James Leo Herlihy
Starring Dustin Hoffman
Jon Voight
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Adam Holender
Editing by Hugh A. Robertson
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) May 25, 1969 (1969-05-25)
Running time 113 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.6 million
Box office $44,785,053

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 American drama film based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. It was written by Waldo Salt, directed by John Schlesinger, and stars Dustin Hoffman and newcomer Jon Voight in the title role. Notable smaller roles are filled by Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Salt and Barnard Hughes; M. Emmet Walsh is an uncredited, pre-fame extra.

The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is the only X rated film ever to win Best Picture.[1]



The film follows the story of a young Texan named Joe Buck (Jon Voight), who works as a dishwasher in a diner. As the film opens, Joe dresses himself like a rodeo cowboy, packs a suitcase, and quits his job. He heads to New York City in the hope of leading the life of a hustler.

Joe's naïveté becomes evident as quickly as his cash disappears upon his arrival in New York. He is unsuccessful in his attempts to be hired by wealthy women. When finally successful in bedding a middle-aged New Yorker (Sylvia Miles), Joe's attempt to "talk business" results in the woman breaking down in tears and Joe giving her $20 instead. Joe meets the crippled Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a third-rate con man who easily tricks Joe out of $20 by offering to introduce him to a well-known pimp, who instead turns out to be a religious fanatic (John McGiver). Joe flees the scene in pursuit of Rizzo, but he is long gone.

Once broke, Joe is locked out of his hotel room for failure to pay the bill. He finally attempts to make money by submitting to oral sex from a young man in the seats of a movie theatre, but even this plan goes awry when the teenager (Bob Balaban) reveals he has no money. The next day, Joe spots an unsuspecting Rizzo at a lunch counter. He angrily shakes Rizzo down for every penny he has — all sixty-four of them — but Rizzo surprisingly offers to help Joe, by sharing his place, an apartment in a condemned building. Joe reluctantly accepts the offer, and they begin a business relationship, helping each other pickpocket, steal and further attempt to get Joe hired as a stud. They are both completely alone without each other, and a genuine bond develops between the two men. Rizzo had a cough when the two first met during the summer and, as the story progresses into winter, his health steadily worsens.

The events of Joe's early life are told through fast-cutting flashbacks interspersed throughout the film. He had been to church and baptized as a boy but has only frightening memories of the experience. The two people Joe had loved were his grandmother, Sally Buck (Ruth White), and his onetime girlfriend, Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt). His grandmother raised Joe after his mother abandoned him but often left him alone to go off with boyfriends; one of them, a wrangler named Woodsy Niles (Gilman Rankin), was Joe's only father figure. Annie had been a promiscuous girl who changed her ways after meeting Joe, but this did not sit well with the men of their hometown: the two were caught and raped by a gang of males. Annie was later sent to a mental institution; Joe joined the army. Sally Buck died while Joe was away serving in the Army, and Annie remains a constant presence in Joe's mind.

Rizzo's backstory comes mostly through the things he tells Joe. His father was an illiterate shoe shiner who worked deep in a subway station, developed a bad back, and "coughed his lungs out from breathin' in that wax all day!" Rizzo learned shining from his father, but refuses to follow (such as he could, after polio crippled one leg) in the old man's footsteps.

At one point, an odd-looking couple approach Joe and Ratso in a diner and hand Joe a flyer inviting him to a party. They enter into a Warhol-esque party scene (with Warhol superstars Viva, Ultra Violet and others in cameo appearances). The naive Joe smokes most of a joint thinking it's a cigarette, then takes a pill offered to him and begins to hallucinate. He leaves the party with a socialite (Brenda Vaccaro), who agrees to pay him $20 for spending the night with her. Rizzo falls down a flight of stairs as they are leaving; he insists he is fine. Joe and the socialite attempt to have sex, but he suffers from temporary impotence. They play a game of scribbage together in which Joe reveals his limited academic prowess. She teasingly suggests that Joe may be a homosexual, and that does the trick: he is suddenly able to perform, and the two have lively, aggressive sex. In the morning, the socialite sets up a friend of hers to be Joe's next customer, and it appears his career is on its way.

When Joe returns home later, Rizzo is in bed, sweating and feverish, and admits to Joe that he is unable to walk. Joe wants to take Rizzo to a doctor, but Rizzo adamantly refuses. He wants to leave New York for Miami; this has been his goal the whole time. A frightened Joe is determined to take care of his friend and leaves the apartment to scrounge some money. He picks up an older male customer (Barnard Hughes), but the man tries to send him away at the last minute out of guilt. Joe's desperation boils over when the man gives him a religious medallion instead of cash. He beats and robs the man, stuffing the telephone receiver into his mouth when he thinks the man is calling the hotel front desk for help.

With the money, Joe buys two bus tickets to Florida. During the long journey, Rizzo's already serious physical condition deteriorates further. During a rest stop, Joe touchingly buys bright new clothing for Rizzo and himself. He throws away his cowboy outfit and admits "I ain't no kinda hustler." As they reach Florida and near Miami, Joe talks about plans to get a regular job, only to realize that Rizzo has died in the seat beside him. After Joe informs the bus driver, the driver tells him that there is nothing else to do but continue on to Miami.

The film ends with Joe seated with his arm around his dead friend, numbly staring out the bus window as row after row of palm trees go by.



The opening scenes were filmed in Big Spring, Texas. A roadside billboard stating "IF YOU DON'T HAVE AN OIL WELL...GET ONE!" was shown while the New York-bound bus carrying Joe Buck rolled through Texas.[2] Such advertisements, which were common in the Southwestern United States during the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s, promoted Eddie Chiles' Western Company of North America.[3]

Joe first realized that the bus was soon approaching New York when he heard a Ron Lundy broadcast on WABC while listening to his portable radio.[4] At the time the movie was being filmed in 1968, Lundy worked the midday shift (10 AM–1 PM) Monday through Saturday at the radio station.[5]

Joe stayed at the Hotel Claridge which was located at the southeast corner of Broadway and West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan. His room overlooked the northern half of Times Square.[6] The building, designed by D. H. Burnham & Company and opened in 1911, has since been demolished.[7]

A motif that was featured three times throughout the New York part of the movie was the sign at the top of the facade of the Mutual of New York (MONY) Building.[2] It was extended into the scribbage scene with Shirley the socialite when Joe's incorrect spelling of the word "money" matched that on the signage.[8]

Despite his portrayal of Joe Buck, a character hopelessly out of his element in New York, Jon Voight is a native New Yorker, hailing from Yonkers. Dustin Hoffman, who played a grizzled veteran of New York's streets, is actually from Los Angeles.

The line "I'm walkin' here!", which reached #27 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes, is often said to have been improvised, but producer Jerome Hellman disputes this account on the 2-disc DVD set of Midnight Cowboy. The cab was driven by a hired actor during a scripted take, and the production team filmed it to look like an ad-lib[cite this quote]. However, Hoffman told it differently on an installment of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. He stated that there were many takes to hit that traffic light just right so they didn't have to pause while walking. That take, the timing was perfect and the cab came out of nowhere and nearly hit them. Hoffman wanted to say "We're filming a movie here!", but he decided not to ruin the take[cite this quote].

Schlesinger chose the song "Everybody's Talkin'" (written by Fred Neil and performed by Harry Nilsson) as its theme, and the song underscores the entire first act of the film. (Other songs considered for the film included Nilsson's own "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City," and Randy Newman's "Cowboy.") The song "He Quit Me" was also on the soundtrack; it was written by Warren Zevon, who also included it (as "She Quit Me") on his debut album Wanted Dead or Alive. This film was Adam Holender's first cinematography assignment; he was recommended to Schlesinger by Holender's childhood friend, filmmaker Roman Polanski.[9]

Upon initial review by the Motion Picture Association of America, Midnight Cowboy received a "Restricted" ("R") rating (Persons under 16 not admitted unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian). However, after consulting with a psychologist, executives at United Artists were told to accept an "X" rating (Persons under 17 will not be admitted) due to the homosexual frame of reference and its "possible influence upon youngsters". The film was released with an X.[10]

Awards and honors

The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay; it is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar in any category, and one of two X-rated films to be nominated for an Oscar (the other being Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange). Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Best Actor awards and Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, in what is one of the shortest performances ever nominated (clocking in under four minutes of screen-time).

There was controversy from critics who felt the MPAA "X" rating for the film was too harsh. The film had also won major awards. The MPAA later broadened the requirements for the "R" rating to allow more content, and in addition raised the age restriction from sixteen to seventeen. The film was later rated "R" for a reissue in 1971 with no edits made. The R rating for the film remains to this day.[10][11]

The film won six BAFTA Awards. It was also entered into the 19th Berlin International Film Festival.[12][13]

John Barry, who supervised the music and composed the score for the film, won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme. Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin'" also won a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, for Harry Nilsson.

In 1994, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

American Film Institute recognition



External links

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  • Midnight Cowboy — [Midnight Cowboy] a US film (1969) that won an ↑Oscar as Best Picture. It was directed by the English director John Schlesinger, who also received an Oscar. The story is from a novel by James Leo Herlihy. It is about a young man from ↑Texas,… …   Useful english dictionary

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