Perhaps the most explicit and emotionally intense film of the New Hollywood era — and yet in its “Odd Couple” theme and wistful sensibility a profoundly Old Hollywood film, too — “Midnight Cowboy” remains littered with contradictions. Gay and tender, its representation of sex is vile. It’s nostalgic and hopeless; a celebration of the counter-culture and, seemingly, an indictment of its decadence. All that makes Nancy Buirski’s new documentary about its production and legacy more interesting.
Not that “Midnight Cowboy” isn’t already fruitful subject matter. James Leo Herlihy’s radical 1965 novel was picked up by British kitchen sink filmmaker John Schlesinger, who related to its themes of repressed homosexuality, loneliness, victimhood and how our identities are, in truth, whatever we want them to be. Casting Jon Voight as the title gigolo Leo Buck, despite his previous work having been so-so, is the real masterstroke. One of those eager young actors who knew exactly what sort of movies he would succeed in, not just the type he wanted to make, Voight was a step ahead of Dustin Hoffman, who accepted “The Graduate” reluctantly, and became a movie star.
But Voight’s evident nous offscreen is entirely concealed in his performance as Buck, who plays peek-a-boo with a little girl on the bus into New York City, and never really looks happier after that. Watching him waltz down Madison Avenue in a sea of people, cowboy hat worn proudly, is still quite the image. That he genuinely sticks up above all of them is even better, and was such an asset to Schlesinger. That’s Leo Buck in a nutshell: a little too long to fit the box society wants to put him in.
He’s the only one who considers a corpse in the middle of the street, one of many tokens of New York’s legendary urban decline in the late-1960s. Two years beforehand, Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystok had one solution to the city’s rut, and its surplus of rich old white ladies willing to pay for sex. Buck’s is even bolder.
Himself a gay Jew who described his posh British boarding school experience as a “pogrom,” director Schlesinger knew what it was like not to fit in. (He adds in an archival interview: “The British were nothing if not antisemitic.”) Yet having just made “Far From the Madding Crowd” to mild establishment fanfare and lukewarm reactions from the people who mattered, Schlesinger probably felt more like Buck than ever before. A true outsider, he was willing to go against Hollywood’s historic reverence toward Old World New York. Schlesinger’s streets are decidedly mean, a good few years before anyone else depicted them that way.
That was hardly intentional either, author and scuzzy New York scholar Lucy Sante explains. She tells Buirski that “Midnight Cowboy” brought “a carnival of debauchery to the American public” — but that Schlesinger’s on-the-money vision of a city entirely new to him came “by accident.” “It expressed its time by being of its time,” she adds. “No one knows their time.”
“Midnight Cowboy” fooled me. Hoffman’s Ratso is a famously well-observed illustration of his dirt-ridden city and the enduring spirit of New Yorkers trying to make their lives a touch better. (Hoffman isn’t interviewed for Buirski’s documentary for reasons that aren’t clear, but which may have something to do with a smattering of sexual harassment allegations since 2017.)
And if Schlesinger didn’t know his time till later, there were certainly a few factors in his favor. Postwar acting techniques first tested by Marlon Brando and James Dean had been perfected by Voight and Hoffman et al. New York City had recently opened the floodgates to filming on-location. The use of color had been mastered, too, by Polish cinematographer Adam Holender and his contemporaries. Screenwriter Waldo Salt didn’t have to worry about the blacklist anymore, either, after more than a decade in the dark.
And the censors were, well, less censorious. (Buirski never gets to the bottom of why “Midnight Cowboy” gets an X-rating. Seemingly no one knows, though Schlesinger’s nephew-cum-occasional narrator, Ian Buruma, suspects it was under pressure from studio heads who wanted to steer clear of any trouble resulting from teenagers seeing the movie.)
All this serves as a pretty good explanation for why “Midnight Cowboy” became such a phenomenon, and why we’re still so fixated by it. That point is evidenced by Buirski’s prompt to make her film: last year’s “Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic” by Glenn Frankel.
Still, “Desperate Souls” retreads a good deal of Vietnam and cultural revolution context which have become accepted norms. It also treats Martin Scorsese’s 1970s films as proof of the legacy of “Midnight Cowboy”, as if it doesn’t stand up in its own right. Letting the movie do the talking often works best. As one of Buirski’s talking heads points out when asked what makes “Midnight Cowboy” endure: “It’s not all that’s going on in the culture. Part of it is that it’s good.”
The Best Cowboy Movies of All Time
With shows like The Lone Ranger, Cattlemen to Cattlemen, and more, RFD-TV and the Cowboy Channel love to salute these gun-slinging, saddle-riding American heroes as a classic representation of the American spirit. So unfasten your belt buckle and pull out the popcorn… Here’s our list of the best cowboy movies of all time.
10. The Wild Bunch (1969)
In 1913, with the Old West largely tamed and their existences seemingly destined for oblivion, an aging outlaw gang resolves to go out in a final blaze of vicious glory. The film was controversial at the time for its seemingly nihilistic portrayal of violence, and it marked a watershed in the genre, its release coinciding with a subsequent steep drop-off in the production of major Western films.
9. True Grit (2010)
Despite the Coen brothers’ formidable reputation, many initially scoffed at their intent to re-make the classic 1969 film, starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell, as a hubristic fool’s errand. But typically ingenious direction by the Coens and a truly epic performance by Jeff Bridges in the lead role won almost everyone over – even though the film was ultimately awarded not a single one of the ten Academy Awards for which it was nominated.
8. Unforgiven (1992)
Winner of several awards, including Best Picture and three additional Oscars, “Unforgiven” marks the pinnacle of Clint Eastwood’s career as both actor and director. In a star-studded cast, Eastwood portrays an outlaw-turned-farmer whose violent past overtakes him – and pretty much everyone around him – with a vengeance when he is hired to deal out retribution on a ruffian who slashed a prostitute’s face and on the ornery sheriff (Gene Hackman) who had repaid the savage crime with a slap on the wrist.
7. Shane (1953)
Based on the 1949 novel of the same name by Jack Shaefer, “Shane” features Alan Ladd in the title role as a gunfighter who tries in vain to leave his past behind in favor of settling down as a homesteader in an idyllic Wyoming valley. Jack Palance also turns in a memorable performance as the villainous hired gun, Jack Wilson, whom Shane must face down in the climactic confrontation.
6. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Perhaps the most well-known and best-regarded of the “Spaghetti Westerns,” this production, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, follows a group of scoundrels searching for Confederate gold in the midst of the New Mexico Campaign of 1862. The film can uniquely boast of an iconic score – in particular the whistling motif of its main theme, which has insinuated itself into innumerable pop-cultural references to the Western genre – as well as a title which has entered the English vernacular as an idiomatic expression.
5. Stagecoach (1939)
This film, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, not only established John Wayne as a bona fide movie star but also set the standard for the Western film genre as a whole. Shot on location in Utah’s Monument Valley, the plot involves a group of motley characters as much in conflict with themselves and their own pasts as with the Apache Indians who threaten their journey through the Arizona Territory.
4. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
With a star-studded cast featuring (among other notables) Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, this iconic tale of seven gunslingers hired by Mexican peasants to defend their village against savage bandits is an adaptation of the 1954 film “Seven Samurai,” by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The instantly recognizable score (by Elmer Bernstein) is also used as the theme music for RFD-TV’s “Ride Smart with Craig Cameron.”
3. High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper (who won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the role) portrays marshall Will Kane, who stubbornly refuses to abandon his principles and resolves to stand alone against his old nemesis, Frank Miller, though all the townsfolk – including his newlywed bride (played by Grace Kelly) – refuse to support him. The film was a thinly-veiled allegorical protestation against McCarthyism; screenwriter Carl Foreman had in fact been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, while he was working on the screenplay.
2. Lonesome Dove (1989)
Though technically a made-for-TV miniseries and not a feature film, “Lonesome Dove” ranks nonetheless among the very best depictions of cowboy life to be viewed on the screen. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, the production features Tommy Lee Jones as Captain Woodrow F. Call and Robert Duvall in the role of Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae, two former Texas Rangers who decide to bid farewell to their sleepy Rio Grande village, driving their herd all the way to Montana to establish a new ranch there. Their fateful misadventures are based, in part, on the real-life escapades of trailblazing cowboys Charles Goodnight (a distant relative of RFD-TV’s own Julie Goodnight) and Oliver Loving.
1. The Searchers (1956)
Widely regarded as the masterpiece of both John Ford’s career as a director and John Wayne’s career as an actor, “The Searchers” features Wayne in the role of Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards, who spends years obsessively and vengefully tracking down a Comanche chief who massacred his brother and family on their Texas ranch, taking the youngest daughter as a captive. Like its predecessor, “Stagecoach,” the film features breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley, Utah – in color this time, and never mind that the story is set in Texas.