"John Wayne! He's a cowboy! You calling John Wayne a fag?"
Holy crap this is a depressing movie. I remember seeing it when I was in high school, but this is not a movie for high schoolers, even sophisticated ones such as myself at the time ;-) I distinctly remember not liking it, but there are a lot of films I didn't like as a teenager that I now love and cherish: The Graduate, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, and now, most certainly, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a naive young man who leaves a small town in Texas to travel to New York City with aspirations of becoming a hustler. He's heard stories of how there are thousands of rich old ladies in New York just itching to pay young studs such as himself for sex. Upon arriving in New York, he moves into a hotel and sets out to make his fortune. Things don't necessarily go as planned, especially after his first encounter with a woman named Cass (Andy Warhol fixture Sylvia Miles) who is appalled that he would ask her for money.
Broke and desperate, Joe encouters Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman in one of the greatest screen performances of all time), a crippled degenerate who offers to hook him up with a pimp. Needless to say, he ends up conning Joe, dumping him off with a religious fanatic, and now Joe is officially destitute. He's kicked out of his hotel room, and decides to hang around the area where men are looking to pick up prostitutes. In a heartbreaking scene, he's picked up by a young man played by Bob Balaban, whom Joe discovers, after the fact, doesn't have any money. In yet another example of Joe's naivete and genuineness, he is unable to follow through on his threat to beat the crap out of the man.
He hooks up again with Ratso who offers to let him squat in his abandoned flat with him, and offers to be his pimp. Like seemingly everything else that these two lost souls attempt, this proposition falls flat on its face. Joe & Ratso struggle to survive, Joe on his endless optimism and Ratso on his dream of moving to Florida and living the high life. Joe, however is haunted by memories of his past in Texas. From what I was able to glean, he was in love with a girl in town who had a history of sleeping with a lot of men, all of whom didn't like the idea of her not sleeping with them anymore, so one night, they dragged the lovers out of their car and raped them both. When the police arrived, the girl fingered Joe as the lone assailant. He also had a rough childhood, rife with abuse and abandonment.
Voight's performance is so incredibly good and filled with nuance. You can feel his broken heart and his endless desire to make something of himself and your heart breaks for him with every dead end he hits. If he's the beating heart of the film, Ratso is the film's soul. Ratso sees a lot of himself in Joe, which is why I think he takes him in. He sees a man much like himself who doesn't give up and lets the sheer determination to achieve his dream sustain him. The film is a love story in the truest sense of the word. It's about finding a soul mate in this world and helping that person achieve their dreams.
The film was revolutionary in 1969 when it was released, and it explores taboos that still exist in today's United States. Our country's puritanical roots are still the foundation that drives people's attitudes towards sexual mores and this film flies boldly in the face of that. Waldo Salt's screenplay is brilliantly attuned to the language of the street. There's so much stylization in the film's style, much of it clearly indebted to the films of Andy Warhol, but the dialogue is rich with deep, real characterization. It's a delicate balance, but the film strikes it perfectly. All three Oscars won by the film and these men were thoroughly deserved.
The fateful bus trips that bookend the film strike a metaphorical chord that films have been aping in the years following the film's release. I'd point to the door knocks that bookend Sideways as a recent example of this. I know this film didn't invent the technique, but it's almost certainly the gold standard for this trope.
This is a film for dreamers and lovers and there is so much hope in its ending, in spite of the fact that it's incredibly sad. The hope that Joe Buck brought with him to New York City has not been crushed by his never ending failures. It's alive and well, and a new life awaits him. Our heart continues to break for him and for Ratso, but our hope that he will make it in this life will never die. It's a beautiful film in its ugliness. It doesn't pull any punches, it doesn't gloss things over, but its heart beats with a sense that anyone and everyone can achieve their dreams in the end. That's a lesson we all should take to heart.