1969 produced some fantastic American films including Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and – my personal favourite – John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. The latter tells the story of Joe Buck (John Voight), a poor young Texan, who travels to New York in an effort to make it as a gigolo. There he runs into Enrico Salvatore ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street conman who cheats Joe out of $20. As his financial situation worsens, Joe is thrown out of his apartment and reluctantly moves in with Ratso where the pair become ‘business partners’ and an unlikely friendship is formed.
This is not a film to watch if you are having a bad day. It is bleak. Joe is a man born in the wrong time who travels to the wrong place; he dresses as a traditional cowboy much to the amusement and ridicule of the hard-nosed New Yorkers and his idealistic, old-world sensibilities are no match for the filth of the city. Ratso seems to embody this filth – he is sly, malnourished and limping. His father was an Italian immigrant shoe-shiner who ‘coughed his lungs out from breathin’ in that wax all day’ but Ratso won’t stoop to a job so low. His dream is to go to Miami and finally see the ocean. Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ is played at multiple points throughout the film and perfectly captures Joe and Ratso’s alienation from the masses and the wistful yet ultimately fruitless desire for something better.
Despite Joe’s appropriation of the cowboy – the quintessential figure of the American West – there is no redeeming ride into the sunset for our protagonist; the city won’t allow it. Forgive me for bringing in the cliché of New York as a character in its own right but in Midnight Cowboy it is unavoidably apt. Here, the city is no hero – no Aladdin’s Cave of Prada shoes and orgasms in which Carrie and the girls can revel – but a villain, a Siren promising opportunity and success for anyone willing to work hard enough yet, as Joe learns, it takes and takes but gives nothing back. The only thing of worth Joe finds is Ratso, a similar lost soul in desperate need of basic human connection.
So. Next step. Wait for a beautiful summer’s day when the sun is actually warm and your friends invite you for a picnic by a lake … then tell your friends ‘Fuck you and your happiness’, close the curtains, grab the duvet and watch Midnight Cowboy. You’ll feel perverse and self-indulgent but I guarantee this will enhance the film.
‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying –
Only the echoes of my mind’
‘Everybody’s Talking’, Harry Nilsson