Joe Buck is a cowboy in New York city trying to make ends meet by selling his body uptown. When he teams up with ailing hustler/manager Ratso Rizzo they hope to strike it rich... but the streets of New York city aren't kind or generous...
It took a gutsy producer, in this case Jerome Hellman, to listen to the pitch for Midnight Cowboy without losing his lunch. “So lemme get this straight — it’s about this hick from the sticks who moves to New York intending to be a gigolo, but ends up hanging around with a tubercular tramp and being blown by dudes in toilet stalls. Oh, and I shouldn’t put much money on the tramp making it?”
But this was the late ’60s, after the collapse of the studio system and the Hays Code, and for a brief, glorious moment Hollywood began to take incredible risks, among them giving the directing reins of this risky screenplay to a diffident Brit who’d never made an American film before. In the end it was probably a good thing that John Schlesinger was an Englishman, as this great New York movie is the Big Apple from an outsider’s point of view: dazzling, terrifying, squalid, hectic and weird.
But city aside, at the human heart of the movie are Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman’s groundbreaking performances. Hoffman, just off The Graduate and eager to frustrate the ‘International Film Star’ label that was already coalescing around him, delivers the first in a series of radical characters and physical transformations that characterised his work in the ’70s and ’80s, while Voight shines as the bewildered bumpkin whose big-city wet-dreams come to less than nothing.
And in the end, it turned out Jerome Hellman had been right not to throw Schlesinger out of his office. Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Everybody, it turned out, really was talking about it.
Superb performances and a compelling script have made this film a strange mix of Oscar-winner and Cult Classic.