At one point, a pimp tells Joe Buck: “You seem different from the other guys who come to me. They’re troubled; you seem to know what you want.” Born in Texas, Joe is a naive young stud who still has childish enthusiasm, and when he becomes a male prostitute in New York, it ain’t because he’s desperate: it’s actually his ambition! But instead of making big money boning beautiful ladies, Bucks faces the harshest realities of the big city. As you can see, this ain’t a common subject for a Hollywood movie, but this was the 60s, and cinema was much different. “Midnight Cowboy” is a sometimes disturbing movie that plays with themes like homosexuality, poverty and abuse.
Director John Schlesinger did a brilliant job on the film. It reminds you of how filmmakers were so much more daring in the 60s and 70s. Yeas, we still see a bunch of unusual indies nowadays, but the difference is that back then, even the big studio movies were gritty and original. Schlesinger’s films is packed with painfully real moments, but also fantasy sequences. I like how we’re never told what might have driven Joe to want to become a male whore. Instead, some of Buck’s traumatizing memories are chaotically mixed together in nightmarish sequences, so we get an idea, but not through unnecessary exposition dialogue. Because in a way, the real subject of the film is the friendship between two drifters, Buck and streetwise hustler Ratso, a lonely, crippled and sick little man who dreams of living in Florida, far from the cold streets of the Big Apple.
This could have been one hell of a depressive movie, but it benefits from an amazing performance from a young Jon Voight, in his first lead role. Voight remains hopeful and optimistic, even in the roughest moments. It’s a challenging acting job, and Voight pulls it magnificently. I think the defining moment is when Ratso tells him that the cowboy look is only appealing to “faggots”. It’s the only moment when Buck’s shell seems to crack; you see that he’s still just a big kid who wants to be a cowboy, and Ratso’s blunt remark really hits home. You gotta see Voight, all upset and confused, all like, “And John Wayne?!? He ain’t no faggot…” The film’s other great performance is by Dustin Hoffman, who’s also just beginning in Hollywood but had already dazzled everyone with his turn in “The Graduate”. Here, he ain’t as funny, but Ratso is a more demanding role. Shivering and barely able to walk, Ratso seems about to break. His relationship with Joe is strange, but somehow sweet, and so is the movie. Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talking and the harmonica-fueled score also help to lighten the film. This is quite a unique film, and even though it’s about male prostitution, something most people don’t want to acknowledge, it’s still an unforgettable experience. It’s the first and the last X-rated picture to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. Definitely a film to see.