John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) is one of those movies that can never be talked about enough. Having the chance to see it again today reminds me that some movies have the power to exceed every expectation and improve with every viewing.
For me the most important part of the movie is the beginning, the first two shots that establish everything we need to know about Joe Buck (Jon Voight). Shot one: the big, empty canvas of the white movie screen at the long-deserted Big Tex Drive-In, where we hear the ghosts of Westerns past along with the sight and sound of Joe singing “Git Along, Little Dogies.” The optimistic tune carries over to shot number two: the camera traveling up the length of Joe’s body as he warbles his Texas tune in the shower. Joe is as blank a slate as the movie screen, and what’s more his ideas about how to present himself in the real world have been shaped by the images of masculinity presented in Westerns like Hud and the films of John Wayne. The mythic persona of the cowboy as seen in Hollywood productions combined with Joe’s complicated understanding of sexuality and sexual interactions (referenced in flashbacks throughout the film) makes this second shot all the more crucial; the viewer is introduced to Joe with the sight of his naked body because the value that other characters place on him throughout the narrative – as well as how he values himself – is formulated based on the commodification of his body. His physique, and therefore his self-worth, is measured in terms of monetary transaction. If the shower scene were really just a shower scene, all we would have seen was Jon Voight’s face, and you can see that for the next two hours anyway.
As easy as it would be to wax poetic about Joe Buck as an ideally-proportioned Hellenic statue brought to life, the aesthetics of Jon Voight’s physicality are secondary to the most complex aspect of his performance, namely the emotional bond formed between the Joe and Rico “Ratso” Rizzo characters. I can’t imagine how many essays written in the last forty-five years have been inspired by Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso and the questions of how many different layers exist in his friendship with Joe. (“Confronting the Conflict” and something including “American Masculinity” would probably be part of my own title for such a piece.) Ratso never openly addresses how he feels about Joe, remaining repressed to an exponential degree, so it is up to the viewer to determine the subtext of subtle actions. The scene in the stairway before Joe and Ratso go up to the Warhol Factory-filled party is the most absolutely heartbreaking moment in the whole film. Joe’s mind goes as far as the surface of how he helps Ratso – using his own shirt to wipe his friend’s fevered brow – but those brief seconds when Joe takes the time to care for Ratso, who in turn wears an indescribable (yet undeniable) facial expression as he holds onto Joe’s body for support, show the audience an entirely different story. Simultaneous narratives: Joe eager and happy to administer platonic care vs. Ratso’s feelings that he could never put into words. When so much meaning can be gained from a single scene or even a single frame, that’s when you know you are watching more than mere entertainment (not that that’s a bad thing!). But Midnight Cowboy has an impact far stronger than just being a “good movie”: every time I see it I know I’m going to see something new that I never noticed or thought about before. That is the definition of what makes a film a classic after decades.