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Arts & Culture

The Dark, Enduring Beauty Of 'Midnight Cowboy' And 'A Partnership Forged Out Of Despair'

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Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
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Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) sells Joe Buck (Jon Voight) on contacting a would-be pimp in "Midnight Cowboy."

In 1969, an X-rated movie filmed in Texas and New York shocked the world when it became a sensation, capturing the number three spot at the year’s box office, and eventually winning an Oscar as Best Picture. “Midnight Cowboy” stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a naïve Texan who leaves his home in Big Spring to seek fortune in the Big Apple as a male hustler catering to affluent women. Things don’t go as planned. The hapless Joe strikes out time and again, winding up broke, turning small-time tricks on 42nd street. Along the way, he befriends a low-life named Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman, fresh off his successful debut in “The Graduate.” The two form an unlikely friendship that helps them survive the harsh reality of the big city.

In 2018, just as “Midnight Cowboy” was released on a deluxe Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection (which I highly recommend), author Glenn Frankel was awarded a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to chronicle the film’s history. Now Frankel’s book is here, and “Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic” is as much about the film as the context of the times in which it was made.

I recently interviewed Frankel by phone from his home in Virginia. To listen to the whole interview, use the audio player below. A transcript of the interview follows, edited for length and clarity.

Full-length interview with author Glenn Frankel about "Shooting Midnight Cowboy."

Nathan Cone: What age were you the first time you saw "Midnight Cowboy" and what did you make of the movie when you first saw it?

Glenn Frankel: Well, I'm sure I saw it when it came out in 1969, probably that summer, and I would have been 19. I was going to Columbia University in New York, finishing my sophomore year, and I had spent two years with very little money in my pocket, occasionally going to classes, a lot of time going to movies, sometimes going to Times Square to go to movies, because you could see a double feature in Times Square for about 75 cents or so. And so I kind of was familiar with the New York that "Midnight Cowboy" was showing me. I certainly was not a very sophisticated person, nor certainly going to Times Square for sexual purposes. But New York was a tough place. It was in the process of becoming more crime-ridden, more economically troubled, dirtier. On the other hand, it was the world's greatest city in many ways and a place that was very exciting. So I saw all that reflected in the movie.

I was entertained by the movie in some ways, and I was knocked out by Dustin Hoffman because he was a brand new movie star, thanks to "The Graduate," and here he was with about a week's worth of stubble on his cheek and, you know, and a limp and and a Bronx accent playing a whole different kind of character than he'd played in "The Graduate." And that was mesmerizing. So for all those very simple reasons, plus the song "Everybody's Talkin'." I was just taken by what an interesting, complicated, bleak, funny movie this was. And that's my memory of first time. And of course, I've seen it many times since.

I like how the book lays out the history and the production of the film with each chapter devoted to a different subject, you know, starting right at the beginning with the author James Leo Herlihy and John Schlesinger, the director and the screenwriter Waldo Salt, but also like you said, the place and time of New York in the late 1960s.

Well, the thing about my books is, these movie books aren't just about the making of a great movie, they're trying to show the historical era that the movies were made in, and that the movies reflect. If there's one thing I've kind of stumbled upon in my little subgenre is that I think movies are a great looking glass into the past. The film critic Molly Haskell once wrote this, and I've come to understand exactly what she meant. Whether they mean to or not, they tell you a lot about the era they were made and the place they were made. And in that sense, "Midnight Cowboy" is very rich terrain, if you want to understand New York in the ‘60s. Because of the way it's set, because of the things that go on sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground. So this was my goal, to use the movie to understand that era, and also to use the era, in a sense, to understand the movie. I mean, the movie is full of interesting little film techniques, efforts, some successful, some less successful, to give both a documentary feel, to give you these flash cuts that take you inside the mind of the character. [There are] lots of things going on in "Midnight Cowboy." Some of them date the movie a bit, but others feel very fresh. And certainly the view of New York feels very fresh and very almost documentary. Like if you want to understand New York in 1968, what it looked like, what it sounded like, you can't do any better than "Midnight Cowboy."

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Jon Voight as Joe Buck, on 42nd Street in 1968 during the filming of "Midnight Cowboy."

Well, you do also set up a lot of context in your book, specifically in the acceptance or not of homosexuality in society and on film. And I'm curious what you make of critic Mark Harris's observation that if "Midnight Cowboy" isn't specifically a gay movie, that it kind of paved the way for gay characters to be depicted on screen... I don't know what the right word is, more humanely, more fulfillingly, perhaps?

More realistically, I would say. Yeah, and that's what John Schlesinger was about, the director of the film. You know, he's a British filmmaker. He's a gay man himself. He's come to New York to kind of capture New York. It's his first American movie. He wanted... he's already had a gay character in "Darling," his wonderful movie about swinging London, but doesn't make a big deal out of the homosexuality. He's trying to capture real people in romantic situations and more transactional situations. And he's doing that in "Midnight Cowboy" as well. Some gay people, you know, really love the movie because there were gay characters in it. Others really despised it because they thought they got a whiff of homophobia in these, well, two specifically rather pathetic gay men who are customers of Joe Buck, our hero, our male hustler who thinks he's coming to New York to bed affluent middle-aged women who are frustrated with their husbands. But in fact, there aren't any affluent, middle-aged women walking 42nd Street looking for male hustlers. The only people looking for male hustlers on 42nd Street are gay men. And so Schlesinger's a realist, and he's not looking to depict people more, or less, sympathetically. I didn't know that that was territory I was really moving into in this book.

But because of Schlesinger and because there's a gay context both to the movie and to the novel by James Leo Herlihy, I ended up writing about gay people in Times Square and learning that even in very liberal New York, where you would expect there'd be a fair amount of sympathy for a besieged minority of people who were denied their human rights because of their sexuality, because of who it was they loved… in fact, in New York, there was a very high level of homophobia. And I found some of that was based on the sort of domination of the psychoanalytic community. You know, it's like a big Woody Allen movie in the 1960s in Manhattan. And anybody who's got enough money is going to see an analyst. The psychoanalysts are sort of the priesthood. And conventional Freudian psychiatry in those days viewed homosexuality is an illness as a mental illness, as one that could be passed on from person to person, as one you could be cured of if you went through conversion therapy. I mean, all these things, you know, that I didn't expect. And and therefore, if you didn't go to get cured, there was something wrong with you when you were a threat. You were someone who was potentially spreading a disease like Covid-19. And that level of homophobia, you know, permeated the liberal media in New York, permeated a lot of places, and so I inevitably ended up writing about that as part of the context for the movie itself.

And that continued on into the 1970s, this reliance upon the psychoanalysis that you're talking about.

Yeah, it continued on until 1973, finally, the American Psychoanalytic Association declared that homosexuality was not a disease, was not a mental illness. And that was a big moment. Also, gay liberation is moving in, you know, "Midnight Cowboy" comes out in May 1969 and one month later just happens to be the Stonewall riots. So you're getting changes in politics in New York. You're getting changes in the psychoanalytical community itself slowly, like waking up to the idea that these folks need equal rights. It seems crazy now to think about it. But at the time, people who were supporting the civil rights movement and equality for African-Americans were still not interested in championing gay rights, because these folks supposedly had an illness. And if we base, you know, a movement on an illness, you know, that's not doing a service for anybody. It was it was a crazy time. But, yes, the '70s was the time when it really started to change.

I think it's interesting that in Hollywood today, there's a renewed emphasis on folks telling the stories of their community, such as the authenticity brought to Black stories by Black directors or to Latino stories by Latino directors. But in 1969 that wasn't really the case. And even though this movie was made by a gay director, and as you said, from a book by a gay writer… looking back on the film's production in the documentaries that I've seen about the movie, or the previous writings, there really hadn't been a whole lot of emphasis on that, has there?

These are two of God's loneliest creatures. And they come to rely on each other.
Glenn Frankel

No, not really. Part of that, I think, is because both James Leo Herlihy, the novelist who wrote the novel, and John Schlesinger, although they were exuberant gay men in their private life, they were not out of the closet publicly till many years later. And that's for a very simple reason. Homosexuality was a crime in 49 out of 50 states. And while they might not have been sent to prison, it would have been the kiss of death in many ways to the work they were doing. And so, Herlihy steps out of the closet to the extent to which for the first time he's writing a novel that has clearly has gay characters in it. That's something new for him at that point. And John Schlesinger, based on "Darling," his previous movie, was not hesitant about depicting gay characters.

Nonetheless, they were not willing to declare that this is in any sense a gay movie. In fact, they denied it. Schlesinger denied it. “We're not making a gay movie” was one of his mantras. “We're making a movie about these two people and what happens to them in New York.” He refused to even own up to the possibility that there was some gay coding. And by that, I mean, when you see Joe Buck, [he] dresses in the cowboy outfit and walks around 42nd Street. And anyone who's studied gay customs and culture will tell you that's definitely gay coding. The cowboy is one of the great iconic dreams, I guess you could say. And there he is, Joe Buck, six foot three in his buckskins. And that is going to appeal, that is gay coding. But Schlesinger wouldn’t own up to any of that. He wanted you to see the movie for the people as people, you know, and their vulnerabilities and their anger and their plight. But he didn't necessarily want to play on your sympathy for gay characters. In fact, the gay characters are not terribly sympathetic in "Midnight Cowboy."

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Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
Brenda Vaccaro and Jon Voight in a scene from "Midnight Cowboy."

There's even that coding with Joe Buck too, where when Brenda Vaccaro is teasing him, you know, and he kind of hesitates a moment when she spells out "gay" on the Scrabble board.

She does! And if you remember a little earlier, when we're at this party and she meets him and she meets Ratso and she looks at the two of them and says, "You two aren't together, are you?" She doesn't know what to make of these guys. She's been around. She plays a sophisticated sort of young socialite, if you will. She's a Manhattanite, so she's seen plenty of gay men walking the streets, I'm sure. And she's trying to suss out who is this cowboy, because she's attracted to him, but she doesn't know what to do with this greasy little partner of his played by Hoffman. So, yeah, she's questioning his manhood and she questions it right up to the moment where they have their little moment.

Yeah, that same scene when she sees Hoffman and Voight together, though, is also one of the most affecting moments in the film, I think. When Ratso is just feeling really, really awful, he's very, very sick. And he leans his head on Joe, who kind of like brushes and combs his hair. That's a really emotional moment, I think, because ultimately the movie is about Joe learning to actually love somebody with a kind of a deep friendship.

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I think you're right about that. That moment speaks to so many things, because it really is Jon Voight who plays Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman, who have been, you know, they give a collaborative performance that I think is one of the best in movies. And this is a key moment, that little gesture. You're right, Ratso is very ill and he's really falling sicker and sicker at winter gets colder in New York. And Joe's trying to look after him at the same time, still wants to do the male hustling thing to make some money. And so he needs to get Ratso up the stairs, Ratso is sweating, and as he goes to help him first he lonesome comb the combs his hair for him and he uses his shirttail to wipe the sweat off his face. And while he's doing that, Ratso puts one hand on Joe’s naked torso, just where he's pulled the shirt up from. That's not in the script. It's not something they had talked about with the director, John Schlesinger. Schlesinger watched them do that and just was stunned and grateful that these two guys who were inhabiting their characters, and who without a word, without even the characters themselves, wouldn't have been able to tell you what they were doing. That moment suggests just both how vulnerable and how dependent they've become on each other and sort of how intimate that that friendship or that partnership has become without saying a word, without a word of dialogue, without pushing it too far. Again, it's not a sexual relationship, but the sense of mutual vulnerability and the need to have somebody to rely on is all summed up just in that hand going on the guy's torso for like three seconds.

Yeah, when I when I tell people why I love this movie so much, I tend to just say I love it so much because it's about two broken people coming together to care for one another.

Well, these are two broken people. What we see of Joe from his time in Texas before he comes to New York [is] he's been abandoned by his mother. He's neglected by his grandmother. His only knowledge of sex is from what we see in the movie, you know, a woman, a girl who he has a close, tender relationship with very briefly. But both of them are gang raped. He leaves Texas, you know, just desperate to find a place where he can find a way to survive and to express himself. And he comes to New York and he gets taken to the cleaners by various predators and lowlifes in New York, a very naive fellow, to say the least. So he is a lonely, solitary figure with a sexuality that is broken down in a fundamental way and Ratso is physically broken down. He has difficulty walking. He's clearly got some kind of lung disease and he's fading rapidly as winter comes on. They're both broke. They're both essentially homeless. I mean, these are two of God's loneliest creatures. And they come to rely on each other. But it's a very slow process. They don't trust each other. They don't like each other. They would prefer to rely on anybody else at first, but there is nobody else. And the slow sort of recognition of that and willingness to admit a certain vulnerability, I think that's the enduring quality of the movie. I think that's the reason more than anything else, why the movie's worth watching in 2021, because that kind of partnership forged out of despair really is, you know, is is a rare and handled beautifully without an ounce of sentimentality or romanticism. You know, it's not "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." It's not your bromance. It's two desperate people who have nothing, no place else to go. And they turn to each other as a very last resort.

Well, given all the context of the time that it was released back in 1969… and you mentioned, of course, this is why the movie still endures today, was that something that people were really latching onto and resonating [with] back in 1969? Because it still seems amazing to me that this story, this particular movie and the way it's told was the third highest grossing film grossing film of 1969. Of course, it's famous for having won the Best Picture Oscar, but I don't know how many people remember, it was number three in the country for the year!

It was amazing. Nobody involved in making it knew they were working on something good and special. Nobody thought I was going to make a dime's worth of profit. I mean, Schlesinger would wake up in the morning after looking at the rushes and he would come in and say, “How is anybody going to go see this movie about some guy from Texas who thinks he's going to come up to New York and hustle women? Nobody's going to watch this movie!” He was very pessimistic about that. And yet it struck a chord. I think there were a couple of reasons for that. The X rating, in a way, was a bit of a come on for people like me. You know, it's a time when the baby boomer generation, of which I was a member, was dominating the moviegoers. I mean, we were the new generation of moviegoers. We loved movies. We went to movies regularly. I saw every new movie that had any kind of special thing going on with movies, dominated the culture in the way they don't today, I would argue. And people were looking for new, more adult, more sexually honest, if you will, more complex characters. The old genres of romantic comedies and Westerns and other things weren't working for us. And finally, Dustin Hoffman was in the movie. And I mentioned earlier Dustin Hoffman had come out of nowhere to become a big star thanks to "The Graduate," which was very much a generation gap movie. And now he's in "Midnight Cowboy." So all those things kind of came together to drive this film.

I mean, by the first day, there are lines, you know, after the reviews of the opening night, there are lines going down to the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan. And it became an iconic movie for people. And part of that is the relationship between these two guys and the wonderful acting of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, part of it's the story and the and the music, I mean, you can't ever leave out Harry Nilsson and "Everybody's Talkin’" about something that drew audiences in there as well. It just sort of fit the times and it took off in a way that really surprised everybody.

I've also been curious about what the reaction was in Big Spring, Texas, to this film once it came out, because the early scenes were shot there.

Well, they didn't love it so much because they didn't know what it was! And some people [in Big Spring] had been very excited. They were told it was about a young man from Big Spring who goes to New York to find romance. That's, you know, well... duplicitous is not quite the right word, it's worse than that! [laughs] And these are religious folk. There's a scene of a baptism, you know, and John Schlesinger's people got about 40 town residents to come out and do that. They thought they were in a semi-cowboy movie!

I got to tell you, I lived in Austin for four years, and a close friend of mine grew up in Laredo. She said her parents went to see “Midnight Cowboy” because they thought it was a cowboy movie, some kind of Western. They lasted about 12 minutes until Sylvia Miles comes on and plays this scene with Jon Voight, [where] she plays an aging hooker and he thinks he's going to take 20 bucks off her for sex and in the end, she takes 20 bucks off him. My friend said that her parents walked out right about that moment.

Two of your other books have been about Westerns. You wrote about "High Noon" and "The Searchers." Do you see any common themes from, Westerns in general that that maybe find their way through this? Maybe it's just the male bonding… or anything like that?

You know, I didn't think of this is the third Western movie [book]. But I can see this has a Western theme to the extent that this young man from Texas going back to the east is a sort of reverse Western finding that the streets of New York are just as dangerous and lonely as any place else. And, you know, there's a point in the movie about a third of the way through where Joe Buck is out of money. He can't stay in his cheap hotel anymore. He's running out of food, and he's walking the streets and trying to figure out what to do. And the harmonica theme kicks in. It's called "Midnight Cowboy." It's a song written by the great John Barry who oversaw all the music for the movie, [who] got a harmonica sort of wailing away, and you almost feel like you're in some canyon in Wyoming and you could have sagebrush going down 42nd Street at that point. No dialogue at all. Just Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight, looking really vulnerable and desperate, and not knowing what's going to happen next, kind of knowing in the end he's going to have to engage with one of these male customers on the street, steeling himself to do it, trying to figure out how to survive. That caused him to question his masculinity. It calls into question his vulnerability, things that Westerns often sort of dealt with indirectly, they're dealt with very directly in "Midnight Cowboy." So if anything, I think that's the link.

The last thing I wanted to ask you is, of course, just recently I saw an interview with Jon Voight on CBS Sunday Morning. He repeats the oft-told tale about Dustin Hoffman improvising the famous "I'm walking here" line as the two of them are trying to avoid that cab while crossing the New York street in the movie. But your research in this book convincingly makes the case that the line may not have always been in the script, but the cab scene and them almost being hit was a part of that.

Yes, [the scene is] in the script. It starts being in the script about six months before they actually do the filming. But as you point out, Nathan, what isn't in it, is the line. Dustin Hoffman has always described the whole thing as improvised. And in fact when I interviewed him in his office, he stood up in front of the conference table and slammed his hand down on the conference table as if it were the taxi cab and did the scene for me. I think he's probably done it 100 times! And, you know, he's half right. The cab was in the scene, but in the script, there is no dialogue at all. So when Hoffman slams down his hand, rather than just flick the cab driver off as the script calls for, he had this line, "I'm walking here. I'm walking here." So I give him credit because that's a great line. And again, it speaks to the New York character of Ratso. There's a lot of great New York moments in this movie, and that one always got a lot of applause and it's probably the most memorable moment. So Voight wasn't wrong in the interview to say it was improvised, but he stretched it out a little bit or left the implication that the whole thing was improvised. And that's just not true.

Well, Glenn, thank you very much for writing the book and thanks for your time today talking to me about it. "Midnight Cowboy," one of my absolute favorite movies.

Well, Nathan, thanks for having me on. This was good.

Glenn Frankel is the author of "Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic," which was just optioned for a documentary feature to be directed by Nancy Buirski. You can read an excerpt of the book at this link. "Midnight Cowboy" is currently available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection in a special edition that includes an Oscar-nominated documentary about the film's screenwriter, Waldo Salt.