Almost 50 years before Moonlight shocked Hollywood with its Best Picture Oscar win, another gay-themed film shook Tinseltown by winning the 1969 Best Picture. The big surprise that year was the Oscar was bestowed upon Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated film, a rating usually consigned to porn films.
But Midnight Cowboy winning Best Picture was no fluke. It’s not only the first gay-themed Best Picture winner, it’s consistently listed as one of the greatest American films ever, securing inclusion in the National Film Registry and on AFI lists. It also helped usher in the golden age of Seventies cinema that is still being celebrated today. And now it is getting the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment, with lots of extras, including a new video essay from cinematographer Adam Holender, photo gallery by Schlesinger’s partner, photographer Michael Childers, a documentary about screenwriter Waldo Salt, as well as Jon Voight’s original screen test. The deluxe release will be available May 29 on Blu-ray and DVD.
Based on a novel by gay writer James Leo Herlihy (All Fall Down), the story concerns dim-witted Texas stud Joe Buck (Jon Voight), who makes his way by bus to New York City, convinced that frustrated Manhattan ladies will pay top dollar for his services as a stud-for-hire. Once there, he strikes out with wealthy women and is reduced to being felt up by “fairies” in seedy Times Squares theaters and hotel rooms. He decides to team up with an even more pitiful con man, Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, one of the slimiest street hustlers to ever limp across the silver screen (“I’m walkin’ here!”). Another Odd Couple was born.
The fact that Dustin Hoffman took the part was a real head scratcher to fans of The Graduate, but Hoffman never saw himself as a leading man, and had committed to the project before his breakout role. The assured direction by openly gay filmmaker John Schlesinger and screenplay by formerly blacklisted legend Salt (both Oscar winners) took Joe and Ratso’s Of Mice and Men relationship into a tough/vulnerable depiction of manhood, a master acting class by Hoffman and Voight that still moves viewers today.
A big hit with audiences and critics, the image of the fringe jacket-wearing cowboy stuck, making its way into the vernacular as the ultimate male hustler, spawned a sexploitation parody called Midnight Plowboy. The film catapulted Jon Voight to stardom, and helped the careers of two female co-stars: Brenda Vaccaro (Golden Globe nominee) and Sylvia Miles (Oscar nominee). Miles turns in a brief but hilarious performance as an aging prostitute who hustles Joe. When asked by film critic Rex Reed if she minded losing the Oscar, the over-the-top Miles responded she didn’t mind losing, she just minded losing to Goldie Hawn (for Cactus Flower).
There’s still some debate about whether the two lead characters are gay. Film critic Andrew Sarris joked that they are both aspects of the classic heroine Camille: Joe Buck as the beauty and Ratso as her cough. One scene has Ratso admonishing Joe that women don’t go for his cowboy act, which is strictly for “fags.” Joe defends himself, using John Wayne as an example of manhood. (Ironically, John Wayne beat them both for Best Actor that year for playing a real cowboy in True Grit.)
In flashback, we witness Joe’s sexual past: his harsh relationship with his Texas girlfriend, and the bizarre ties to his grandmother. Later, with the Brenda Vaccaro character, Joe can’t get it up and she suggests he might be gay.
Dustin Hoffman spoke to Vanity Fair about the gay content and subtext in a 2010 profile. “Both Voight and I are actors, and it hit us. ‘Hey, these guys are queer,’” observes Hoffman. “I think it came out of the fact that we were in the abandoned tenement [where the characters share a flat]. We were looking around the set, and I said, ‘So? Where do I sleep? Why do I sleep here and he sleeps there? Why does he have the really nice bed? Why aren’t I—yeah, why aren’t we sleeping together? C’mon.’
The Midnight Cowboy soundtrack features an aching harmonica, just one component of John Barry’s timeless, heartbreaking score. Harry Nilsson’s opening credits cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” was a smash hit, ultimately winning a Grammy.
The film’s X rating was soon removed. As with Moonlight, its acceptance by the Academy was an acknowledgement that this was a work by highly-skilled artists. And another Best Picture that deserved to win.