Sunday, January 4, 2015

Midnight Cowboy

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I'm a big Dustin Hoffman fan as you can tell by my previous selections. He chose to do this film because he wanted something very different from his star-making role in The Graduate. His acting versatility is demonstrated here. This movie, like literature and film before it, explores the themes of "east" versus "west," and the "frontier" versus the "city" in America. The wilderness was first seen as evil, a place where transgressions occurred outside of the law. Then the western frontier was idolized as "The New Eden," where human individuality flourished and freedom was king. It was the place for redemption, to start over. The city became the place of urban industrialization, where slums grew and people became oppressed and impoverished. Theodore Dreiser wrote novels which descried the city. The Great Gatsby talks about the loss of that western ideal, the loss of innocence. But then comes a novel and a film called Deliverance which explodes the bucolic myth, showing the brutality of living in the uncivilized wilderness, where man becomes an animal.

Best Picture Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy is more in the Gatsby camp. The traditional cowboy in films is seen riding in the great open spaces on his horse in the daytime, or into the sunset after heroic deeds are done. Here, we have a "midnight cowboy," a traveler of dark places. In this film, the cowboy has degenerated to the form of Jon Voight's Joe Buck, who, although na├»ve, has had his innocence corrupted even before he goes to New York. The town in Texas that he leaves has nothing of the grandeur of the Old West. It is a bleak, boring place, from which Joe wants to escape from his menial dish washing job at the local diner. In flashbacks, his girlfriend would say "you're the only one." But she and Joe are jumped by a local gang of boys, who rape both of them. In her shock she just keeps saying that Joe was "the only one," and it appears that he was blamed for the assault. The flashbacks also show how Joe was abandoned by his mother and dropped off to be raised by his grandmother. She is promiscuous, and is seen in bed with Joe and a gentleman caller. She shows inappropriate affection toward her grandson. She also has religious pictures all over the house and takes him to become baptized (supposedly cleaning him of the original sin of the knowledge of good and evil – the Bible equates "knowing" with sexuality). Joe cannot reconcile religion’s rules and individual sexual practices, and is shown as having disdain for evangelical preachers. 

Joe leaves his rural home with a suitcase that has markings like a branded cowhide. He comes to New York to ride women, not horses, and make money as a hustler (not a rustler). He is a different type of “Buck” -ing bronco. The city is a place of prostitutes, male and female, and of filth and apathy, as people ignore a collapsed man on the street (in front of Tiffany's to emphasize the disparity between the classes in America). Joe looks out of place with his tacky cowboy outfit. He is a fallen cowboy where the only shooting he does is at an arcade game. On the radio that Joe carries we hear a woman say that her idea of a man is Gary Cooper (the hero of High Noon), and the response to that is that he's dead – implying that the myth of the western hero is also dead. He strikes out trying to hustle women, and out of desperation lets a gay man (a young Bob Balaban) perform oral sex on him. However, the youth has no money. The film came out in 1969, and is not enlightened as to its attitude toward homosexuality, with slurs being used and gay self-loathing shown. But, then again, it shows an accurate view toward the topic of that time.

Joe meets Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman), who promises to hook him up with someone who will help him make money as a stud. He scams Joe, and sends him to a disturbed religious fanatic instead (played by John McGiver). There is no spiritual redemption to be found here. Joe catches up with Ratso, who invites him to live with him in his condemned building room with no heat. Rizzo pulls down a shredded shade over a filthy window in a scene that makes him look like a parody of a happy homemaker. Rizzo becomes Joe's urban sidekick, but he is no Ward Bond to John Wayne (who ironically won the Oscar that year for playing a cowboy in True Grit). Hoffman's Rizzo is a limping panhandler, who even looks like a rat, with pointed features accented by slicked back hair looking like wet fur. At one point it totally defies the straightening attempts of a comb.  Hoffman's Ratso is great with his rodent high-pitched voice, who instinctively reaches for leftover change from public phones. Ratso tries to become Joe's manager. He has a deadly respiratory illness. He fantasizes about living the American dream of retiring to warm Florida. But we hear the commercial slogan in the background for "orange juice on ice," implying that for him, in wintry New York, the closest he'll get to Florida is a cold fruit drink. 

Joe finally looks like he is going to make some money as a sexual hustler after meeting Brenda Vaccaro's character at an underground artist party, and being paid for sex by her.  She sets him up with a date with another woman. But, Ratso is very sick, and can't even walk anymore. These two, who have become unlikely friends, are now dependent on each other. Joe robs a gay man (played by Bernard Hughes) and takes Ratso on a bus to Florida. After they reach Florida, Joe stops at a rest stop and dresses them in colorful clothes. He sheds his cowboy outfit and says he's no hustler and should be able to get a regular job. He is seen as trying to move on and adapt to the real world so he can provide for Ratso.  But, his friend is too far gone, and dies on the bus.

In the end this film is about trying to connect with another human being. Joe comes from a dysfunctional world, warped by a twisted upbringing and violent events.  Ratso sees his dead shoe-shining father as a loser, and is an outcast hustling cripple. Yet these two social misfits find emotional sustenance from each other in a dehumanized world.

What are your favorite Hoffman and Voight performances?

Next week's film is The Verdict.

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