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Midnight Special: How Midnight Cowboy Changed Cinema Forever

Whatever you hear about Midnight Cowboy is true.

Official tagline for Midnight Cowboy

Writers’ Note:

This article does feature some language which some may find offensive, this language is taken from quotations from interviews with the director and should be placed within historical and social context. This is not language that I am comfortable using and I do not condone any of this language. However I feel it is necessary to have this within my piece, because the film in discussion features this langauge and deals with themes that we consider politically incorrect in this day and age.

It may be 2018 and as a society we have certainly changed since 1969, however it is  still impossible to imagine an X-rated film winning best picture. But that is exactly what Midnight Cowboy did on a spring night in 1970, earning as well Oscars for its director, John Schlesinger, and its writer, Waldo Salt. Midnight Cowboy is not afraid to show on-screen nudity, sex, and violence. The film opens with a naked Voight showering, and his flesh isn’t the only one on show.

However, it is the film’s subject matter which still shocks contemporary audiences. Jon Voight plays Joe Buck, a handsome naive Texan “cowboy” who decides to leave his home to set off to the big apple (New York city). Preening himself as a real “hustler”, he finds that he is the one getting “hustled” until he teams up with a down-and-out but resilient outcast named Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). They begin a “business relationship” as hustlers. As they develop a bond, Ratso’s health grows steadily worse. The film is bold in its depiction of the sexual revolution, nudity (both male and female) and homosexuality.


By Midnight Cowboy winning the Best Picture,  it represented the symbolic transfer of power from Old Hollywood to New. Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate, may have  paved the way two years earlier, but neither of these two films won best picture (although In the Heat of the Night did which was another revolutionary film of its moment). Audiences may have been flocking to New Hollywood pictures, but the Academy’s Old Guard, were not eager to give their blessing to a bunch of free-loving hippies. Yet despite a nod to old school tough guy John Wayne that year (he won best actor for True Grit), it was hard to deny the fact that times had changed and after April 7, 1970, Hollywood would never be the same.

Upon initial review by the Motion Picture Association of America, Midnight Cowboy received a “Restricted” (“R”) rating. However, after consulting with a psychologist, executives at United Artists were told to accept an “X” rating, due to the “homosexual frame of reference” and its “possible influence upon youngsters”. The film was released with an X. The MPAA later broadened the requirements for the “R” rating to allow more content and raised the age restriction from sixteen to seventeen. The film was later rated “R” for a reissue in 1971. The film retains its R rating and has an 18 certificate here in the UK.

MIDNIGHT COWBOY, Brenda Vaccaro, Jon Voight, 1969.

“You couldn’t make Midnight Cowboy now,” director Jon Schlesinger, (who died in 2003), said in an interview in 1994. “I was recently at dinner with a top studio executive, and I said, ‘If I brought you a story about this dishwasher from Texas who goes to New York dressed as a cowboy to fulfill his fantasy of living off rich women, doesn’t, is desperate, meets a crippled consumptive who later pisses his pants and dies on a bus, would you—’ and he said, ‘I’d show you the door.’”

In 1965, a friend had given the director an unsettling new novel that contained several scenes of homosexual sex. The novel was Midnight Cowboy and had been written by James Leo Herlihy. It told the story of Joe Buck, a sexually ambiguous, Texas-born stud-slash-dishwasher who travels east in hopes of preying on sex-starved New York matrons as a gigolo, but ends up in an ostensibly platonic but freighted relationship with a consumptive street hustler—Ratso Rizzo. Schlesinger liked the book enough to pass it along to his longtime producer, Joe Janni. But Janni hated it, dismissing it as “faggot stuff.” and declared that it would destroy the director’s career. Disappointed, Schlesinger moved on. But Midnight Cowboy had a hold on him and it wouldn’t let go, so he decided to make it.

The film is features some strong and very politically incorrect language, but it is one word which is used  that could not be used today, the word ”faggot” is used as an insult, and a way to mock Joe, as we can see from this exchange here:

Ratso Rizzo: I know enough to know that that great big, dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street. That’s faggot stuff! You wanna call it by its name? That’s strictly for fags!

Joe Buck: John Wayne! You wanna tell me he’s a fag?

This exchange makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing now in 2018, the use of the word made me wince but back in 1969 this word would have been revolutionary to be heard on the big screen, and the discussion of homosexuality was a taboo. The studio constraints  and the Hays code was something that was still recent in ’69, with homosexuality still being a crime and an underground scene. It is hard to say whether the characters of Buck and Rizzo do have a sexual relationship, Buck turns tricks with males but it’s clear that he prefers women, and Rizzo seems to be asexual, but towards the end of the film there seems to be implications that this is more than just a friendship. A film that features male oral sex and homosexual characters would have never got passed the studio’s executives let alone the censors just a few years prior to 1969, Midnight Cowboy marks how public tastes were changing and a willingness from society to discuss these ”taboo” subjects.


Not only did the film changed cinema forever, it also gave director Jon Schlesinger the courage to come out of the closet and announce his relationship with Michael Childers, who worked as his assistant on the movie. “We were one of Hollywood’s first out couples,” Childers told Vanity Fair. “He took me everywhere. I felt a little bit uncomfortable at times, but John never did. He said, ‘Fuck ‘em.’”

“John was totally torn up, because part of him wanted to just embrace this, and another part of him was in terror,” the film’s producer, Jerome Hellman, said during an interview. “He had these fantasies that if he were openly gay on a film set, that if he tried to give the crew an order, they would turn on him. I said to him, ‘John, look, you’re the director. It’s your movie. I’m the producer, but I’m your partner. There’s nobody who can challenge your authority. If someone speaks out of line to you, they’ll be fired the same minute.’”

With the success of Midnight Cowboy, mainstream American films turned more frequently to themes of youthful disillusionment and disappointment, catering to an audience of disaffected Baby Boomers eager to see characters who represented them and many could relate to Joe Buck’s frustration over his failed dreams and misunderstandings about adult life. Midnight Cowboy is a reflection of the era’s counterculture movement and despite its controversial use of language, it is still a masterpiece that helped changed cinema forever.


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