Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969) at its time of release was met with both critical acclaim and negative criticism. The arrival of John Schlesinger’s film seemed to coincide with changes in America’s film censorship laws and an increasingly radicalized and more distinguishable urban gay male culture, making it possible for Midnight Cowboy to be perceived as a turning point in America’s cultural representation of cinema. However, where there was nonconformist social acceptance, there was also traditional cynicism. Many critics and audiences found Midnight Cowboy’s portrayal of a disintegrating urban American lifestyle and themes of homosexual solicitation too hard to swallow. Through discussions concerning the superseded Motion Picture Production Code Guidelines of 1966, homosexual themes, unpretentious depictions of American society, and a changing American identity, this essay is concerned with exploring the various circumstances which aided in generating the critical success and prevailing cultural appeal of Midnight Cowboy. This essay also acknowledges and examines the fluctuating debates concerning the film’s association with anti-Americanism, arising at the time of its release through to its contemporary recognition.
The X-rated Midnight Cowboy signified a shift in how motion pictures were to be received in the late 1960s by winning an Academy Award for best picture. In 1966, after thirty-six years in operation, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) revised Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code and conclusively abandoned a long list of content rules. This revision, spearheaded by MPAA President Jack Valenti, allowed filmmakers an expanse of creative freedom which enabled their films to correspond with ‘the mores, the culture, the moral sense, and the expectations of […] society’ (Prince 1998 :13). Schlesinger took full advantage of liberalized censorship and directed a film that transformed the iconic American image of the cowboy and used it as a vehicle to contextualize progressive homosexual awareness in an urban environment. In this sense, Midnight Cowboy remodels the ‘traditionally heterosexual image of the cowboy to offer […] a deterritorialization and subsequent homosexualization of the cowboy figure [deconstructing] the western myth’ (Grant 2008 :237). The character Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight, exemplifies this theory through his reluctant realization that in New York at back-end of the 1960’s his cowboy image predominantly attracts gay men.
Though criticism towards Midnight Cowboy determined an apparent defiling of masculine icons, Schlesinger’s film also suffered negative judgment for perpetuating homophobia by stereo-typifying and denigrating homosexual identity. Evidence of this notion could be derived from the scene in which Joe leaves one of his homosexual customers badly beaten, with a telephone forced into his bloody mouth. Joe suffers no penance for his violent actions towards his ‘john’ and the fact that Joe retains an indifference towards his cruel behaviour could suggest that ‘Schlesinger set out […] unequivocally to bash gays’ (Bapis 2008:110). Though the fact that Schlesinger had explained that he himself had only recently come out as a gay man and he was more interested in ‘reshaping conventional narratives than collapsing personal experience into yet another commodified identity’ (Bapis 2008:110). Concordant with this notion, in the film’s conclusion an audience may accept that through Joe’s selfless effort to help Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ratso Rizzo, Midnight Cowboy is a story more concerned with conveying a meaningful platonic relationship between two men.
Due to its intelligent, competent and original approach to depicting the reconstruction of masculinity and social identity in cinema, Midnight Cowboy recognizes and respects the value of the identities within the film that are shown to be denigrated or mistreated. This concept can be identified by way of examining the socio-cultural evolution of Joe Buck. As Joe sheds his Western costume of cowboy shirt, over-sized belt buckle and tall leather boots his character renounces the implied masculine image that an outdated society had influenced upon him. It was not masculinity by way of sexual endeavour or a macho appearance that saved the two protagonists from a life of squalor, but rather Joe’s discovery of personal identity through experience and the emotional exchange between the two men. Joe’s physical and emotional transition represents one of the ‘many ways Midnight Cowboy was the clarion call of a new Hollywood that rejected the prejudices and predilections of the past’ (Mann 2004:336) and signified a shift in how Hollywood was characterizing masculine identity and expanding upon a previously conventional representation of American culture.
Midnight Cowboy’s appeal to a youth audience announced changes in how a younger society perceived their masculine role models. Branded with an X-rating, producers of Midnight Cowboy had affirmed the opinions of censorship officials such as Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Stern who ‘feared the adverse effect of the homosexual frame of reference on youngsters’ (Balio 2009:291). Though Schlesinger’s film contained no pornography the general public perceived otherwise because their knowledge of the relatively new X-rated classification had been limited to Hollywood radio and Television Societies claims that ‘X-rated pictures were trash and garbage, made by people out to exploit’ (Balio 2009:291). Despite the views of select general public and bourgeois critics, Midnight Cowboy received nominations for Best Actor(s), Editing, Director, Picture, and Adapted Screenplay in the 42nd Annual Academy Awards. Schlesinger’s film also won Oscars for the latter three categories. These Oscar wins and subsequent nominations tell two separate stories concerning Hollywood’s stubborn attachment to a familiar standard, and a shifting climate in the conventions of cinema. Midnight Cowboy’s Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay wins demonstrate a hunger for thematic and narrative diversity and a keen attraction toward the more daring commercial films that were emerging from both British and American Directors in the late 1960s. Films such as The Graduate (Nichols 1967), Easy Rider (Hopper 1969) and Midnight Cowboy emphasized a cultural evolution in the ways American cinema translated themes such as national identity, sexuality and politics. In the aforesaid films, performance played an integral part in communicating the controversial subject matter and in particular, Hoffman and Voight’s performances were essential to defining the transformation of the American masculine identity. The fact that John Wayne’s performance in True Grit won him the 1969 Academy Award for Best Actor signifies that though American audiences and critics may be ready to embrace visually and thematically liberated commercial cinema, they still had reservations about abandoning a anachronistic icon for a ‘new American humanistic realism’ (Wojcik 2012:56).
Midnight Cowboy initiated a more realistic perception of the American dream at a time when images of a leather and dust clad John Wayne still represented the public’s notion of manliness, independence and humanity.
More recently, the debate about Midnight Cowboy’s induction of characters and themes that disillusioned America’s naïve notions of American ideals is a more candid discussion about how sex and sexuality is represented in past and present cinema. In 2003 during an interview on CNN news service Elvis Mitchell, a critic for The New York Times mentioned Schlesinger’s film as being a film that ‘didn’t shy away from the fact that sex was messy, complicated […] adults ruined their lives by it [and this] was the year of True Grit, a year of staid, quiet, boring, all-square Hollywood movies’ (Bapis 2008:112). After nearly eighty years of shoot-outs and showdowns, the early 1970s heralded the death of the cowboy as America knew him and a ‘New Hollywood’ embraced a more ‘realistic’ depiction of national identity. The political violence of Vietnam and Watergate had made the ‘heroic utopian mythology of the American West impossible to sustain’ (Nystrom 2009:55) so 1970s cinema made a transition from the ‘Wild’ West to the ‘Working-class’ South. Films such as The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich 1971) and Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson 1970) exemplified Hollywood’s new focus on themes that arose from class struggle and class-consciousness in America after the departure of the American dream. A more recent film that shares Midnight Cowboy’s sexual candour is 2005’s Brokeback Mountain (Lee 2005) which demonstrated a reversal of Western generic elements with a narrative centred around two sexually ambiguous modern cowboys. Considering the thirty-six year gap between Lee and Schlesinger’s respective films it’s easy to appreciate how Midnight Cowboy can be considered a thematically and influentially ultra-modern film for its time.
The look of Midnight Cowboy is almost as affecting as its controversial themes and identities. To a contemporary audience, Midnight Cowboy provides an historical window to a New York City of bygone years. Schlesinger’s film exposes 42nd Street as a place of vice and sexual transgressiveness, where the avant-garde pop culture fashioned by Warhol act as a surreal connection between the natures of compliance and sabotage. Through their use of grainy blue hues and contrasting bright yellows and oranges, Schlesinger and cinematographer Adam Holender, capture both the cold, grimy atmosphere of 42nd street and the supposed utopian refuge of Florida, creating a contrast between the American reality and an American dream. Indeed, the setting became one of the film’s dominant characteristics because through attention to detail with the grungy street corners, crumbling apartment buildings and greasy diners and especially the meticulously constructed sets replicating Warhol’s studio, the Factory, both a co-temporary and contemporary audience are given an insight into New York City’s underworld of sex, prostitution and homosexuality during the late 1960s.
Through its progression from negative criticism to critical acclaim Midnight Cowboy is a film that stands out as a premier example of how cinema mirrors social conditioning and vice versa. When considering the initial response from critics and audiences alike, who perceived Midnight Cowboy as an insult to a celebrated, yet fictitious national identity as opposed to a contemporary view of the film, as an authentic representation of American sub-cultural identity, it is clear that Schlesinger’s film was thematically and cinematically revolutionary. Released to an audience, who up until then had been conditioned to a censored brand of cinema and a sentimental attachment to the American dream, Midnight Cowboy by-passed an ignorant domestic audience and proved its worth to an industry audience, who had been waiting patiently for a time when American cinema would see the constrictive censorship veil lifted to allow filmmakers to practice a more artistic and creative approach to filmmaking.
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