Released in 1969 Midnight Cowboy was the first gay-related Best Picture winner and the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture. It was based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy and was written by Waldo Salt and directed by John Schlesinger.
It has become one of the archetypal New Hollywood films, bucking the hyper-masculinity of contemporary Westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
British director, John Schlesinger, was in the process of “coming out” as gay but claimed he did not want to make a “gay movie.” It stars Jon Voight as the eponymous “cowboy”, Joe Buck, who moves from his rural Texas town to New York City in search of success as a prostitute and meets Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, a street con man with a limp, played by Dustin Hoffman. Schlesinger presents in Midnight Cowboy a critique of the marginalisation of oppressed groups in a capitalist neo-liberal society through Joe Buck’s repressed homosexuality and Rico Rizzo’s disability.
From the opening scene, Schlesinger presents Joe Buck’s internalised homophobia conveyed through Jon Voight’s excellent performance. Joe Buck gets dressed in stereotypical cowboy fashion, cowboy hat, high heeled leather boots and the rest of his costume resembling stereotypical images of cowboys in films. Through Jon Voight’s costume and performance, he portrays the performativity of Joe Buck who has made the archetype of a cowboy into his own identity. Living in rural Texas in the late 60s, the image of a powerful cowboy is long gone but exists in the imagination of Joe Buck who has consumed it from television and films.
Joe Buck enters the diner where he works, the image of a cowboy he presents does not reflect the reality that he simply works in a diner as a dishwasher. Dishwashing undercuts the hyper-masculine image Joe Buck presents. He goes to say his goodbye to the Black dishwasher, Ralph, saying he’s heading up east. Like Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo, who represent gay and disabled people respectively, Ralph as a Black person represents a member of a marginalised group. When Ralph asks what he’s going to do back east Joe Buck answers “there’s a lot of rich women back there, Ralph. Begging for it, paying for it too […] and the men are mostly tutti-fruities.”
He says he’s going to New York City to make it big as a prostitute and will succeed because there are a lot of rich women who are begging for sex implying he will be irresistible to them. He also uses the euphemistic homophobic slur “tutti-fruities” implying that because most of the men he imagines are homosexual he will have less competition. However, this assertion becomes ironic as the film progresses and Schlesinger conveys the repressed homosexuality of Joe Buck.
Joe Buck leaves the diner and looks into the window of a hair salon and the film cuts to the first of many flashbacks which appear throughout the film. What makes Midnight Cowboy the quintessential New Hollywood film is the way it subverts traditional genre conventions and experiments with its form. Schlesinger turns the hyper-masculine image of a cowboy on its head, instead of having Joe Buck be a macho heterosexual gigolo on a sexual conquest he is instead a repressed homosexual suffering from trauma and has a homosocial relationship with a disabled Italian-American con-man.
The flashback shows a woman being massaged by a young Joe Buck, she reacts pleasurably and kisses him on the cheek. The incestuous sexual nature of this flashback hints at the repressed trauma and confused sexuality of Joe Buck. Joe Buck’s past continually haunts him throughout the film revealing the reasons he has repressed his homosexuality and the trauma behind his internalised homophobia.
Upon entering the bus which will take him from his quiet Texas hometown to the New York City the delusion of Joe Buck’s dreams become more apparent. As he walks to his seat two women laugh at him, Joe Buck either naïve or completely oblivious to their mockery smiles tuning his radio to the sounds of cowboy gunshots. The film’s constant use of flashback and editing to overlap the sounds and images of the past with the present are used to allow the spectator to draw parallels between Joe Buck’s traumatic past and his present self.
Joe Buck leaves his Texas town as a way of escaping his traumatic past and his repression of a shifting sexual identity. He wants to succeed as a prostitute because it allows him to be the hyper-masculine cowboy he wants to be rather than the reality of his complicated sexuality and traumatic past.
Midnight Cowboy is also metatextual using iconography and images of cinema and film figures of the 1960s. Joe Buck’s façade of hyper-masculinity is reinforced by what he decorates his hotel room with; a Playboy-style pinup and a poster of Paul Newman from Hud. Joe Buck not only models themselves after hyper-masculine cinematic figures but also performs that hyper-masculinity. Hud (1963) was released just a few years before Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967), the first three films in the New Hollywood movement of filmmaking.
Whereas Hud was released in 1963 when the counterculture movement of the 60s was just beginning Midnight Cowboy was released just six years later during its peak. Richard Nixon had just been elected president, The Vietnam War was still ongoing, and most importantly for this film the ongoing fight for LGBT rights which would lead to the Stonewall riots a month after its release.
The homosocial relationship between Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo is at the centre of the film. After sleeping with a rich woman who refuses to pay him he meets Rico Rizzo in a bar. We get another glimpse into the repressed homosexuality of Joe Buck in his internalised homophobia. When Rico compliments him on his cowboy shirt he is immediately hostile feeling that Rico is flirting with him. A flamboyantly dressed effeminate gay man then comes to Joe Buck asking “Hi cowboy, got a cigarette?” to which Joe Buck responds “Hey sweetheart” but Rico responds “Goddamn faggots in this town.” Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo immediately get along with each other and he offers to buy Rico a drink.
While having drinks, Joe Buck begins to talk to Rico about his experience with the rich woman he had sex with. This is a clear example of overcompensation to prove that he is not only not homosexual but a “hustler.” Rico Rizzo, a street con man with a limp, represents another marginalised identity in society, disabled. His struggles in an ableist world are much more apparent that Joe Buck’s latent homosexuality. While Joe Buck can repress his homosexuality, Rico is unable to hide his disability and he is othered.
Rico takes $20 from Joe by offering to introduce him to a known pimp (John McGiver). Joe Buck goes to the man’s apartment and the man, clearly mentally unstable, tells Joe Buck “say, why don’t you and me get right down on our knees.” The film cuts to Joe Buck’s face, wide-eyed with a look of fear at the implication of being asked to perform oral sex. As it turns out the man is simply a religious fanatic asking him to pray. The film then experiments completely with formal elements in this scene. We get a flashback to Joe Buck being baptised intercut with Joe Buck fleeing the apartment.
The dialogue of the man overlaps with Joe Buck running through the streets and the film cuts to Joe Buck in an underground train station filmed in black-and-white. The film cuts back and forth between Joe Buck still running on the streets to now running after Rico in the underground. Joe Buck enters an empty train looking for Rico and the film intercuts a flashback of Crazy Anne and Joe Buck being gang raped by a group of men with Joe Buck strangling Rico. Joe Buck’s gang rape is revealed to be the source of his trauma and his repression of his homosexuality.
More than simply a friendship Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo mutually depend on and care for each other; two marginalised people in an unforgiving neo-liberal capitalist society. The film ends with Joe Buck on another journey, this time with Rico who is in a frail physical condition. Both unable to realise their dreams in a neo-liberal capitalist city which marginalises them they move to Miami to escape. Joe Buck finally gets rid of his cowboy outfit perhaps beginning to shed his performance of hyper-masculinity. However, as they near Miami, Joe talks of getting a regular job, only to realize Rico has died.