Midnight Cowboy: The best film that should never have been made
Successful films often acquire an aura of inevitability down to their last detail, as if will and skill have transubstantiated imaginings into fully formed artifact, whereas moviemaking generally amounts, like planning for battle, to answering disruptive reality with desperate improvisation. The latter phenomenon dominates the discussion as Glenn Frankel, who has dissected the origin stories of The Searchers and High Noon, again dons his contextualizing hat, this time for the epochal Midnight Cowboy, a film that had no business being made but was, and triumphantly.
In this unlikeliest among Academy Award-winning blockbusters, platonic bromance blooms between a Texas-born dishwasher with dreams of prostituting himself in perfidious Gotham and an outer-borough scumbag who becomes his pimp. These grotesques meet very uncute in bad old Times Square and as their fortunes spiral down forge a friendship as beautiful and as fraught as the one Rick and Louis appear to be starting at the close of Casablanca—except that Cowboy ends with Hoffman’s character, Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, soiling himself as he dies on a Greyhound bus outside Miami, Florida, in the arms of Voight’s Joe Buck, he of the title. Cowboy, the only X-rated film ever accorded a Best Picture statuette, shattered shibboleths left, right, and center and made a pile of dough.
With grace and assurance, Frankel draws a long bowstring before letting the frames fly. He thumbnails novelist James Leo Herlihy, who wrote the book that begat the film, then director John Schlesinger, producer Jerry Hellman, scriptwriter Waldo Salt, casting director Marion Dougherty, actors Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight—neither of whom Schlesinger wanted to cast at first—and other occupants of the storm-tossed lifeboat—including the disintegrating city of New York, which pervades both novel and film, a character unto itself—that the production became. Other supporting players: Hollywood, at the time seized in a paroxysm of corporate and stylistic change, and the United States of America, shuddering amid tumult threaded through with radical sexual politics.
Frankel’s deft, insightful profiling and scene-setting makes his title an overstatement. His vivid, revelatory chronicle of the actual shoot—in New York, sometimes without official permission—doesn’t start until page 200 and is done before page 250, with another 100 to go. But no matter. His tale, delivered with compassionate thoroughness, is entirely satisfying. —Michael Dolan is editor of American History.