Monday, May 25, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Midnight Cowboy" (1969)

Left to right: Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Midnight Cowboy
Release Date: May 25, 1969
Director: John Schlesinger
Written By: Waldo Salt (screenplay), James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 113 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Director (John Schlesinger)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 4 
-Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman)
-Best Actor (Jon Voight)
-Best Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles)
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Anne of the Thousand Days
-Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
-Hello, Dolly!
-Z

And the winner is...

There's a lot that doesn't necessarily hold up about Midnight Cowboy after 46 years. The most noteworthy is its status as an X-Rated film due to homosexual themes. Where most people would associate this rating with erotic films, this film hardly has that much kinkiness when compared to more traditional fare like Deep Throat despite being about a male prostitute (Jon Voight) and his pimp (Dustin Hoffman). Nowadays, the film is rather tame and the movie rating has changed to the slightly less terrifying NC-17. Even the film has earned itself an R rating over time with the changing vibes. However, the other thing that doesn't really hold up is the depiction of New York. In an era before it became romanticized by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, it was a rundown, miserable slum - at least at present in this film. If The Apartment started the 60's with a vague sense of optimism, Midnight Cowboy ushered in a grittier New Hollywood that would approach subjects more morosely and honestly.

The film itself seemed to draw a wide array of potentially interesting players. For those trying out for Voight's role as Joe Buck, there was Harrison Ford, Lee Majors, Stuart Cooper and Michael Sarrazin. Sarrazin was cast but dropped out over wage disputes. Warren Beatty expressed interest in the role, but Schlesinger thought that he was too famous. Voight would work for scale just to get the role. Robert Blake tried out for Hoffman's character Ratso. It was also M. Emmett Walsh and Bob Balaban's acting debuts. However, the strangest detail remains a famous singer who wished to play Buck. Elvis Presley was wanting to be taken seriously as an actor and tried out for the film. He ended up doing Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore: a move that ended his acting career entirely.Ruth Gordon also allegedly tried out for the role of Buck's trampy grandmother (played by Ruth White), but nobody can confirm. 

The production of the film was also filled with questionable moments. The famous scene in which Hoffman shouts "I'm walking here" has been rumored to be a scripted moment that was filmed multiple times to perfect the shot. However, Hoffman claims that he initially was going to say "We're filming a movie here" in retaliation for this rogue car. Also, due to his popularity following The Graduate, fans would be screaming at him despite him wearing his dirty, raggedy costume. Hoffman was so dedicated to his role that in one scene that required him to have a coughing fit, he almost vomited. The famous use of "Everybody's Talkin'" as sung by Harry Nilsson wasn't the original song. The artist had written the song "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" specifically for the film, of which it was never used. "Everybody's Talkin'" was used as a placeholder until his original song was completed. However, because they were so used to it, they kept it in. Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" and Randy Newman's "Cowboy" were also considered for the now iconic opening scene. Dylan's song was not finished in time.

There was a lot of stark difference between 1968 and 1969's Academy Awards ceremony. For starters, Oliver! remains the only Best Picture winner to be rated G for general audiences. Midnight Cowboy remains the only Best Picture winner to be rated X: the most restrictive grade at the time (the only other X-rated nominees were A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris). It was also the first telecast in the show's history. This was also the first year in which every major nominee was in color. Due to Schlesinger not being there, Voight accepted his Best Director statue for him. Sylvia Miles, whose screen time is approximately five minutes, holds the record for one of the shortest movie appearances to get an acting nomination. As of this year, it remains the only Best Picture winner to also feature central themes regarding homosexuality; specifically in a moment involving Voight and Balaban in which audiences were known to leave the theater. In the truest irony, the film features a joke about John Wayne being gay. Both actors would lose to Wayne for Best Actor (True Grit).

The film's legacy has been altered in the process. The film eventually got its R rating. Unlike the norm for most films, it managed to receive this without being edited in any significant way. It was rereleased in 1971 on a double bill with Women in Love. Because of its initial status however, it still managed to be the first X-Rated movie to hit certain watermarks. With $11 million made in rentals, it was a highly successful X-Rated film that also remains the only one to air on national TV.  Likewise, its place in pop culture has also been one of interesting differences. Beloved Muppet character Rizzo was named after Hoffman's character and shares similar mannerisms. Hoffman's character and famous line has been featured on many lists of the best roles in film history. Singer Beck paid homage to the movie in his video for the song "Devil's Haircut." Seinfeld also parodied a scene in the episode "The Mom & Pop Store."

Still, probably the most stark thing about Midnight Cowboy is how different New York looks. While the film effectively comments on economic statuses, it also paints a bleak side of a city that would become romanticized in the decades to follow. Its characters lived in rundown buildings and only dreamed of living the high life. This is a stark vision that Martin Scorsese would also tend to explore in the decade to come with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. For modern tourists, the New York of Midnight Cowboy is gone, likely for the best. Still, its bold take on poverty and hope is one that still feels relevant to modern audiences. That alone justifies its odd existence in the Best Picture cannon.

Midnight Cowboy is a film that has a reputation unlike any other, thanks to its former X-Rating. If anything, it reflects how ideals in film have changed since 1969. Where homosexuality was once a dangerous subject, it has been treated more openly with films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk. In a way, it is predecessor to these contemporary classics, even implying the relationship between Ratso and Buck. By the end, it is still just a great film that showed a man going to New York for opportunity and getting something else. It was antithetical to the already bleak The Apartment that started the decade. Not everything was going to work out in New York. Sometimes you had to move. However, it was worth a shot. In the process, it gave Hoffman one of his finest performances and also some of his best lines as well. It may sound like a touchy subject, but the final product is itself very moving.

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