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Like The Graduate, Easy Rider and to some extent Bonnie & Clyde, it seems to me that MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) has received an exaggerated standing in modern movie history, in comparison to its intrinsic qualities as a film. These four works all contained elements not previously seen on the silver screen, and for that reason and their timely arrival, they are often perceived as vital stepping stones towards the golden era of New Hollywood. Each one of them deserves thorough scrutiny from the vantage point of today.
Seeing Midnight Cowboy for the first time in many years, I find its position as a bridge between eras one of the more interesting aspects. The urban naturalism, the eccentric personalities, the psychological sub-texts and the focus on character and moments instead of plot and pacing, are all things typical of the auteur-driven 1970s cinema. But what is less commonly observed in the movie is the substantial residuals from early-mid '60s aesthetics, which inform it as much as the gritty realism.
This is not a smooth blend, as the more creative Anglo-American '60s movies stood in almost complete stylistic contrast to what would follow in the next decade; they were flashy, pretentious, experimental for their own sake, star-struck with divas and VIP's, obsessed with themselves and with their own time. It is, to my mind, not a creative period that has aged very gracefully, as a revisit to Antonioni's Blow-Up might demonstrate. Director John Schlesinger had his briefcase full of Swinging London aesthetics when he arrived to take the reins on Midnight Cowboy, the content and themes of which MGM doubted any American studio veteran could handle.
The end result is a stylistic pendulum that swings from the down-and-out reality of 'Ratso' Rizzo's (Dustin Hoffman) roach-infested apartment to the unexpected insertions of dreams, memories and fantasy montages, creating a badly jumbled artistic presence that offers us everything and nothing. Some of these segments border on the laughable with their unimpressive look and poorly motivated presence. Curiously, the one scene in which a 'fantasy' excursion might have been justified, the obligatory '60s drug hallucination of protagonist Joe Buck (Jon Voight), is restrained and brief. Other such scenes are longer and sometimes repeated, and hint of some dark events in Joe Buck's past, but the psychological link to the present-day 'hustler' is so vague that it's basically left dangling. I wouldn't want to spend too many words on this aspect of Midnight Cowboy, but the fact is that the vision sequences are both highly dated, poorly directed, and in conflict with the other main tone of the movie.
I am not sure why Midnight Cowboy has remained so relatively immune to criticism. It's not a great movie; there are flaws easy to spot and difficult to defend, unless one chooses to laud it for its 'historical' vitality. Like The Graduate I believe that its treatment of previously untouched themes, along with a good match for the zeitgeist, caused people to mistake thematic boldness for cinematic quality. Movies like these, and there are many, tend to age badly.
Another parallel to The Graduate is the presence of Dustin Hoffman, and again I suspect that his naturalistic performance, which pushes method acting into near-parody, was seen as a revelation at the time, since it was so completely different from his earlier role in Mike Nichols' film. During the '70s these thespian reinventions became commonplace, but in the late '60s Hoffman was ahead of the pack. Method or not, his performance doesn't cover very much range, and the make-up and endlessly ailing body removes any chance for this unattractive street survivor to evoke sympathy with the viewer, who may feel as if watching less a person than a persona, in the theatrical fixed-expression sense.
Not that it's much easier to come to terms with the main character, a half-stupid Texan who arrives to New York City with plans to become a male prostitute, a situation most people will find hard to identify with. Jon Voight, who would become a very good actor later on (see Coming Home review below) probably portrays the character as intended, but much like Hoffman there is a sense of watching a distinct set of prepared faces and gestures, rather than truly immersive acting. The rest of the cast is forgettable, though it's nice to see an early role for Brenda Vaccaro, who in her 10 minutes on the screen delivers what passes for a female lead part in this very male-centric work.
More could be said about Midnight Cowboy, but as it doesn't belong to the creative wave of New Hollywood in either style nor quality, I'm cutting the reel here. A final thought: both Schlesinger and Mike Nichols got very lucky by making the right movie at the right time. This single instance of timing and theme helped them build long A-list careers that more gifted directors only could dream of. 6/10