Travelers flying from Los Angeles to Miami or Los Angeles to New York or Los Angeles to Texas or Los Angeles to North Carolina know that our country may be united through patriotism and belief in basic freedoms (hopefully), but culturally, physically, each region is a different world. Since 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” has always taken a hard look at these differences, from blazing, cruel Texas sunshine to cold, cruel New York streets by the journey of pseudo-cowboy Joe Buck (Jon Voight), eager for the rich women that he believes he will service and earn lots of their money. “Those rich women are begging for it, paying for it too!” he exclaims to dishwasher Ralph (George Eppersen) who looks like what Joe could look like if he stayed in Texas for a few more decades, wrinkling, sweating, and growing old from it. The life for Joe Buck has to be, must be in New York!
Schlesinger’s take on life on the seedy New York streets through Joe’s naïve eyes and hustler Ratso Rizzo’s (Dustin Hoffman) years of exposure to those streets is reminiscent of director Alexander Mackendrick and screenwriter Clifford Odets who saw another grim New York in “Sweet Smell of Success” where there was an inseparable pair of low-down dirty shames, in columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) who commanded the power of the Broadway scene and Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), the lowly press agent who it would seem was attached to Hunsecker, if only for the valuable scraps that J.J. occasionally throws down for Sidney to feast on, where his clients occasionally get exposure in that all-powerful column. Hunsecker belittles, abuses, and chastises Falco and yet there they are together on those streets, and they can’t get away from each other. It’s just that kind of working relationship which requires that bitter, tough interaction.
Joe and Ratso, after they meet, become inseparable too, of course after Joe threatens to knock out every part of Ratso’s body, angry that he led him to O’Daniel (John McGiver), the balding, crazed evangelist in a two-room apartment who also happens to be the pimp for the male hustlers roaming the streets. Naturally, they’re both attracted to each other, lost souls drifting in an indifferent city, where the daytime is the right time to try to get some business going and night is the only time any number of mirrors appear for Joe to see what he has really become. At once confident with a wide smile, the down-to-business flashbacks of his life show where he might have realized that he could be of “great help” to older women, plus a girlfriend who instilled that confidence in him. It’s Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt’s ingenious way of showing us that Joe isn’t a stereotype of Texas. He absorbed the culture of the land through the many men of his grandmother’s life, but what he thinks he is, is only overconfidence.
Gradually, Schlesinger and Voight and Hoffman lead us to those moments where Joe and Ratso can’t exist in this New York without each other’s company. As Ratso becomes more sickly, and Joe becomes more desperate to keep his disappearing dream close to him, it becomes a mutual decision over Florida being a better option. Florida, where life becomes easier, as Ratso imagines as he waits for Joe to emerge from a hotel with money so desperately desired. Florida, where he can run free, be a successful chef for countless rich people, be admired by rich women and above all, not be as ill as he is now. On the streets and in the decayed apartment where he lives, it would take even more than any miracle from God to make that happen. Hoffman exudes stunning skill in showing that, from Ratso’s limp, to pure awe in how not many actors today would be willing to look as dirty, unkempt, unshaven, and unhealthy as Hoffman plays it here. “Midnight Cowboy” makes its immortality not only through Ratso, but through all the character of New York and all the characters populating these dingy areas, including Bob Balaban as a shy teenager who puts Joe to his use in a movie theater, the main reason for the film’s original “X” rating in 1969. Plus, this movie doesn’t age. It’s a product of a different era, and plays as such, showing us what it was all about back then, leading up to the wild party toward the end that finds Joe fascinated by all the nearly nutty eccentricity, and Ratso barely able to walk. You can watch this and see the 42nd Street of the 1960s, long before it was Disneyfied. Sometimes a time capsule never dates.
Because of the time it took for Sony to absorb MGM, what once was slated to be the 35th Anniversary Edition of the film is now a Collector’s Edition, but regardless of the decades that pass through “Midnight Cowboy”, the information remains the same. The indication of 35th anniversary recognition first happens in producer Jerome Hellman’s commentary who automatically causes desire for Schlesinger or Salt to contribute to the track if they were still alive. Hellman has enough memories to disseminate, such as the fond working relationship between Schlesinger and Salt, and Schlesinger’s fascination with New York, but as much as he stood on the set of the film, as much pains as he took to make sure the vision being made was the one to be shown on movie screens, he speaks from the outside. He can only see Schlesinger asking Salt to write new dialogue for a few of the scenes. He can only see some of the creative struggle. Because of this, there are many moments of empty space, perhaps moments where Hellman watched the film and thought about different memories of all this. That’s as good as it gets until the second disc, where three documentaries examine the history of “Midnight Cowboy”, as well as the controversy surrounding it in 1969, and fond words for Schlesinger which also includes Leonard Maltin, Kiefer Sutherland, William Devane, and some from Richard Gere which seem very much on-the-fly. One of those come-in-get-out-I’m-busy five minute interviews whittled into at least forty seconds. In the first and second documentaries, why there’s Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight! They’re speaking about their experiences, but I suppose it cost too much to have both of them join Hellman for the commentary, with Hoffman plenty busy in 2004 (as these featurettes are copyrighted) and Voight the same. Predictably, Hellman has a lot more to say on-camera than he does by voice, and there are genuinely good feelings toward what was accomplished. There was more freedom back then. There was more opportunity to really get into unpleasant characters without a studio chiming in with its objections. Salt and Schlesinger let these characters simply appear and live their lives. It’s apparent in the moment where the camera pans across a bar full of patrons and Ratso just happens to be sitting next to Joe, watching him fumble with his wallet.
In fact, this DVD set is just like the movie. The menus don’t contain outlandish fanfare. The postcards included with the set as well as the photo gallery on the second disc are simply there if you want them. If you don’t, it’s still there. The film’s history is that accessible too. But to watch “Midnight Cowboy” is to find one of the great rewards of the movies, two of the finest performances ever seen, and a city made new every time you watch it.