‘Midnight Cowboy’ - An Unlikely Classic

Richard Brownell
May 25, 2018 · 5 min read
Big Texas Longhorn Bull Jon Voight and would-be pimp Dustin Hoffman hit the mean streets of NYC. Image: United Artists.

The late 1960s was a hard time for America. There was a common perception that society was coming apart at the seams, becoming more violent and challenging with each passing year. There was Vietnam, street protests, social unrest, and groups openly dedicated to not merely upsetting the established order but tearing it right down to its foundations.

What an exciting time for American cinema.

The unfolding drama and chaos on American streets provided buckets of inspiration for filmmakers dedicated to upsetting the Hollywood studio system and tearing it right down to its foundations. Art wanted to imitate life.

Sure, traditional Hollywood films still had loyal audiences, but those audiences were dying out or drifting away. The big-budget, bright-color musicals of old weren’t cutting it with younger audiences who never knew a world without rock and roll. Audiences were likewise rejecting the two-dimensional heroes and villains of macho westerns and cop dramas, turning instead toward stories in which the good guys weren’t always good and the bad guys were made of more than just a sneer and a love of wearing black.

Moviegoers wanted new films that reflected the world they were living in, not the world as the aging studio heads appeared to be stuck in or were hoping to return to. They wanted movies that were intimate, that explored human relationships, and that reflected the times they were living in.

Midnight Cowboy fit that bill, and then some.

Released on May 25, 1969, Midnight Cowboy wasn’t destined to find a broad audience. The story followed the adventures, or more appropriately misadventures, of a naïve Texan who moves to New York City with big dreams of becoming a male prostitute for lonely rich ladies. He falls in a with streetwise con man and the two form an unlikely friendship.

It almost sounds like the premise of a raunchy sex comedy, and if it were pitched to today’s studio executives, that’s what it might have become. But Midnight Cowboy was an unflinching drama about the harsh, gritty life of New York City hustlers. It approached its subject with an uncompromising realism that hadn’t really been seen in movies up to that time.

One of the most fascinating things about Midnight Cowboy was that it ever got made at all.

In the mid-Sixties, film director John Schlesinger had already made a name for himself when he decided he wanted James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel about New York City street hustlers to be his next project. The book was not a big seller, but Schlesinger, a gay man who was closeted at the time, was attracted to its dramatic potential and its treatment of homosexuality, which for the time was considered brave to some, shocking to others.

Schlesinger got producer Jerome Hellman to option the rights to the book, and together they took the project to United Artists. Herlihy’s first novel, All Fall Down, had been adapted into a 1962 film that was not well received. But United Artists, probably the most daring and flexible of the Hollywood studios at the time, decided to take a chance.

Adapting Herlihy’s work proved a difficult task. Gore Vidal was approached to write the screenplay, but the well-known author, who suffered no shortage of self-love, said the book was crap and tried to convince Schlesinger and Hellman to adapt one of his stories instead.

The filmmakers finally settled on Waldo Salt, an accomplished writer whose career and life went into a tailspin after he was blacklisted in the 1950s for his communist affiliations. Salt had been working in television under a pseudonym and was looking for a project to improve his fortunes.

In casting the two main characters, Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, filmmakers chose Michael Sarrazin and Dustin Hoffman. When Sarrazin tried to renegotiate for more money to play the wanna-be Texas stud, Schlesinger dumped him and went with his second choice, small time theater actor Jon Voight.

A man’s gotta make a living. Joe Buck hits 42nd Street. Image: United Artists.

Many involved with the making of the film didn’t have high hopes for success. Hoffman was among them. Coming off the hit The Graduate, he was a respected commodity. But his career was in that awkward stage where his follow-up picture could either propel him to the next level or sink him right where he stood. Mike Nichols urged him not to take the Ratso Rizzo role because he would be subordinate to Voight on screen and the character would sabotage his potential star status. Hoffman wasn’t interested in being a star, but he was worried that Midnight Cowboy’s subject matter and rating would drive away audiences.

The studio was already annoyed that the film was over budget, but any hopes they had of recouping that money at the box office dimmed when Midnight Cowboy received an X rating from the MPAA.

An X rating in 1969 meant that a film was strictly for mature audiences with no one under 16 admitted. Being branded with an X could stigmatize a film and isolate it from a good chunk of its potential audience sight unseen. Today we may look at Midnight Cowboy and say, “what’s the big deal?” But in 1969, the general public was more sensitive and in an altogether different place. Just two years later Midnight Cowboy was re-rated R.

Schlesinger got more support from the studio than he could have antipated. Image: United Artists.

Despite the dreaded X rating, United Artists stood behind the final product and did not force Schlesinger to recut the picture. They opted to release it as-is and hope for the best.

Midnight Cowboy was a hit. It became one of the top box office draws of 1969. It made stars of Voight and Hoffman, who were both nominated for Oscars for their performances. Schlesinger won Best Director. Salt won Best Screenplay for Material Adapted from Another Medium. And, shock of shocks, the movie won Best Picture over critical and conventional audience favorite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Midnight Cowboy’s success assured that more thought provoking and countercultural films would be on their way. In the months following its release, a string of pictures came out that signified a new Hollywood order; an era when directors, not studio chiefs, would run the show: Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, Alice’s Restaurant, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

In the years that followed, Midnight Cowboy would achieve classic status, becoming a milestone moment in cinema that launched and resurrected careers, emboldened a new generation of filmmakers, and entertained a new generation of film lovers.

I’d like to hear your comments. Send them along. And please be sure to check out my other articles on Medium and at my website. Cheers!

Richard Brownell

Written by

Writer. Historian. Sucker for a Good Story. Blogging at https://www.MrRicksHistory.com among other places.