A sad and – on its release date – a shocking film, John Schlesinger’s 1969 Midnight Cowboy, tells the poignant tale of two outcasts, adrift in the urban ocean of isolation, alienation and disenfranchisement of the ultimate great metropolis, who can’t help but dig their own graves.
Can the outsider succeed in the great cities of the world? There’s a paradox in the movement of people towards the bright lights – the most suited of places to receive them are also the least welcoming ones. New York City, with its myriad of opportunities, is where dreamers start over, and yet, by its very nature and sheer size, it also alienates newcomers. The Big Apple of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo seems like a private party, in which they have not been invited.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his small Texan town for New York City with the intention of finding work as a male prostitute. His naïvety creates the conviction that rich women would be queueing up to pay for his virile services. His deluded dreams come crashing down almost as soon as he arrives in town. Disillusioned and destitute, Joe meets Enrico Salvatore ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who cons him out of the little cash he had left. Few days later, Joe bumps into Ratso by chance and despite wanting to beat him up, they hang out. Rizzo invites Joe to share his rundown squat and when Rizzo’s heathy deteriorates, they both leave for sunny Florida.
The cowboy is such an important element within American folklore – according to the mythology, he is the quintessence of the good guy; a man of simple tastes, and yet determined to get what he wants. The cowboy is brave and ready for a fight, but always avoids violence for violence’s sake. He lives a rough existence, but is nevertheless a noble soul. The cowboy is America personified on its own image – or rather, on its own idea of itself. Such powerful myth, in the minds of many Americans, represents what it should be rather than what it is. The cowboy has a lot to do with prescribing instead of describing. He’s supposed to act out our dreams.
..Everybody’s Talkin’ about Joe Buck.
And dreams are what propels Joe to the big city. This hero however is a flawed one – he is naïve about his own sexual prowess and clueless about how life operates in the big city. He nonetheless does exactly what every single American is supposed to do: look for opportunities; act out on ambition; effect the possibility of change. In such terms, he is indeed an archetypal hero. That he is not a real cowboy does not detract from the idea that he might be seen as the American dream in action. In fact, it adds further layers of irony into the mythical and the actual. Here, there is a film that places the protagonist in jeopardy, and instead of resolving the crisis in hero-worshiping mode, decides to push the cowboy further down the gutter.
The naïveté of the character is fascinating… Joe Buck looks and acts as a simple-minded guy but gradually reveals further ambiguous layers of humanity. He is determined to become a professional prostitute, who sells his body but nevertheless enjoys sex with women, and yet he is a romantic by heart – he even pays a supposed client for her taxi ride. He mentions how there are plenty of rich women in NYC ready to pay for sex and that most men there are ‘tutti-fruits’ and yet his behaviour suggests some underlying homosexual tendencies. It is hard to digest a childhood where your grandmother’s lovers share a bed with you. Joe poses as a tough cowboy but he is never ruthless enough to really succeed in his pursuits.
He instead follows Ratso Rizzo’s lead, because deep down he is afraid and this con man seems to know what he is doing. But Rizzo’s streetwise attitude is misleading. With as many sides to his personality as Joe, this Ratso also lacks ruthlessness. The enigma behind Hoffman’s character comes from the lack of information the movie provides about him. Even though his physical appearance indicates past sufferings through sickness and deprivation, there is little family background to fully determine if love was ever-present in his life. That’s probably the reason they band together.
When the boarded-up building in which they are squatting is about to be demolished, they go to the cemetery to visit Rizzo’s father’s tomb. As they walk past a billboard ad for an airline operator offering flights to Florida that says ‘Steak for everybody – every lunch and dinner’ we understand how low they have sunk. The ‘sham cowboy’ and the ‘bogus foreigner,’ who have migrated to the great metropolis, where the streets are supposedly paved with gold – and there’s steak for everybody! – are now forced to look for sunnier shores. Obviously the ad is referring to the plane meal, but it can also allude to the abundance of Florida.
And Miami, there they go! With nothing else to lose (except Rizzo’s health) they board a bus towards a new land of opportunity. At this moment their friendship is stronger than ever. They finally have found their true buddy. That’s why when Rizzo dies in the bus we feel for Joe. It is hard to deal with the irony that now that Joe Buck have discarded his cowboy clothes and his hustler ambition and seems more mature, his only human connection is now gone. Midnight Cowboy is where the bleak meets the mythical…