Review: Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Jon Voigt, Dustin Hoffman. Written by Waldo Salt (based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy). Directed by John Schlesinger.

Before this week, these are the things I knew about Midnight Cowboy:

  • midcow1
    Hey! They’re walking here!

    Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt are in it, although I wouldn’t recognize Jon Voigt because I only know what he looks like today.

  • ”Hey! I’m walking here!”
  • ”Everybody’s Talkin’,” a song performed by Nilsson, is in it. And before two weeks ago, I knew the song but didn’t know it had anything to do with this film. Tony Kornheiser featured it on his podcast during the Old Guy Radio segment.
  • At the end of the Seinfeld episode with the mom-and-pop store, Kramer and Jerry get on a bus for New Jersey. Kramer’s nose starts to bleed, and he says, “Look at me; I’m falling apart here.” Jerry puts his arms around Kramer while “Everybody’s Talkin’” plays and the closing credits roll. I hadn’t made the connection between the song and this scene until last week, but I had a vague idea that this was a parody of Midnight Cowboy.
  • It was the only film rated X by the MPAA to win a Best Picture Oscar.
  • On the original (1998) AFI 100 Films list, it was ranked 36; on the updated list in 2007, it was ranked 43.
  • It’s been in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die books; I don’t know if it’s in the most recent (2016) book.

midcow2That’s a lot more than I thought I knew about it, but for such a decorated, celebrated film, it still feels almost like nothing. I had no idea who the actors played and I didn’t know the first thing about the story. So I went in about as cold as I ever do.

I can see why it’s something that sticks in people’s brains. The performances by Hoffman and Voigt are strong. The cinematography is gritty, grimy, dark, bright, and warm, a look I associate with the great films of the 1970s. It looks like a film that should be on the AFI list.

midcow3But man, the material just isn’t good enough. It’s clear that we have a film about how two guys become friends, but there are a couple of leaps in the development of their relationship that don’t make any sense. I’d be (mostly) okay with this if there was more story, but the way the story plays out doesn’t warrant fast-forwarding through our sense of what each man means to the other. Flashbacks and fantasy shots give us an inside look at backstory and characters’ thoughts, but they don’t do anything meaningful. I’m not totally sure why the film was rated X (the rating has since been changed to R), but I suspect there are dark, sinister things going on in those flashbacks, only I can’t say what, because I don’t understand much of what I saw.

Anyway, who would have guessed that young Jon Voigt was kind of a poor man’s Robert Redford? This is my biggest takeaway: that Voigt is an actor whose early work may be worth a look. Hoffman is solid in a Hoffman-like way, but that’s no surprise, and honestly, I don’t know that I would put this in my top five Hoffman roles.

While I don’t see this as essential viewing, it’s worth checking out, if only for some cultural literacy.


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