The Best Picture 1969 according to the Academy was “Midnight Cowboy”, the first, and probably only, X-rated movie to ever win that coveted award. I think it is safe to say that this movie is a bit outside the usual fare.
“Midnight Cowboy” is a movie by John Schlesinger about a young, and very naïve, Texan man who leaves his job as a dishwasher in Texas to become a hustler in New York. By this is meant male prostitute and Joe Buck (John Voight) is convinced that with his good looks and skills at lovin’, the New York ladies will be queuing up for him. However, with his cowboy attire and hopeless naivety, he is more a joke than anything else and he is soon broke. Helpful in relieving him of his money is a local small-time hustler named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), soon though the two of them strike up a friendship at the bottom of the slums of New York.
It sounds terrible in synopsis, but what makes this story not just bearable but actually interesting and charming is the bittersweet humor pervading it. Joe Buck makes a ridiculous figure in New York, but he is also sweet and gullible and therefore likeable. His attempt at working is so miserable that he ends up paying the lady rather than getting money from her. Ratso is a creep, but he is not without feelings and his desperate need of a friend is gripping. Ratso and Joe are lonely and out of their luck, but they find part of what they are lacking in each other and that is heartwarming and not a little comical given how different an appearance they make.
Hoffman and Voight were both are the very start of their careers here. Hoffman had just come off “The Graduate” and Voight had his breakthrough with “Midnight Cowboy” and there is an energy here belonging to a new generation in Hollywood. It is super interesting to see these actors who later became big stars in these, their early roles. Along same vein, the portrait of New York is a very contemporary 1969 picture with the energy and vitality, but also the trash and slums that was New York of the era. Near the end Buck and Ratso even visit a party that was arranged to appear exactly like Warhol’s Factory. This is no coincidence as Warhol and his group was in fact involved with this scene and many of the characters are Warhol regulars.
Harry Nilsson singing “Everybody’s Talkin’” may be the famous song out of the movie, but John Barry’s theme, discreet as it is, is one of those scores everybody knows even if they cannot put a finger on where it is from. It has been copied a thousand times in small variations, but this one is the real deal. I have been humming it constantly over the weekend and it is not only catchy, but also sets exactly the right tone to this melancholic drama of floundering lives.
This would definitely be one of the better movies of 1969 and I think a bold and surprising but also correct pick of the Academy. It managed to catch a lot of the zeitgeist and seem like the right movie at the right time, yet, surprisingly, it holds up perfectly today.
Oh, about the X-rated thing… an average episode of “Sex and the City” is way more raunchy than this movie ever got.