With the loud declaration “I’m walkin’ here,” a gritty, explicit film about a male prostitute (Jon Voight) and a consumptive con man (Dustin Hoffman) made Hollywood history a half-century ago by claiming Oscar’s top prize.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Midnight Cowboy’s Best Picture win, we look back with Hoffman at the film’s path to the silver screen and its unlikely Academy Awards success.
On winning Best Picture
A hard sell, Midnight Cowboy struggled to get financing and upset preview audiences. “When we started having screenings, people would get up and leave. They were so offended,” Hoffman recalls. The actor tells EW that audiences and financiers alike bristled at the explicit sexual content, as well as the film’s gay overtones.
A dreaded X rating seemed like a kiss of death, one it was hit with thanks to censors’ concerns about the movie’s “homosexual frame of reference.” But the film earned seven Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture and Best Actor for Hoffman and Voight.
Yet Hoffman was overseas during the ceremony, certain that an ailing John Wayne would win Best Actor (he did, for True Grit). Not that he places much stock in awards. “There’s good work and there’s great work and there’s work that’s less than good — it’s more of a symbolic award,” Hoffman says.
The actor was also unhappy with the final cut of his performance. “There were certain things I wished had been in the film,” he says. “As an actor, you’re just a color on a palette; you’re not deciding what the character is completely. I left [the U.S.] because I was in a state of upset. I have my own disappointment, even though it’s a terrific movie.”
Still, he wasn’t shocked when Midnight Cowboy beat the odds to win Best Picture. “It’s a love story, and maybe a love story we hadn’t seen before,” Hoffman says. “People just sat there [crying] when it was over. It worked on a narrative level, on the cinematography level, and it had music that was [its] soul. It’s a surprise when something hits you that strongly.”
The film also won Best Director (John Schlesinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt).
On landing the part of “Ratso” Rizzo
Though he was Oscar-nominated for his performance, Hoffman was nowhere near the first choice for the role of ailing con artist “Ratso” Rizzo. After his immense breakout success in The Graduate, he had retreated to New York City and his love for theater, unsure whether he wanted to continue working in film.
Midnight Cowboy came his way a year later, but Schlesinger didn’t even want to meet Hoffman at first. Basing his opinion solely on The Graduate, the director didn’t believe the pretty-boy college student of that film could believably embody a streetwise grifter. So Hoffman cooked up a plan to convince him otherwise.
He persuaded Schlesinger to meet him at the automat Horn & Hardart, on 42nd Street, late at night. “A lot of actors [ate there], but late at night the clientele changed because it was 42nd Street in those days. That was hookers and hustlers and drugs — that was 42nd Street. Very disreputable,” Hoffman remembers. “I wanted him to see that I [could] mix in with those people. He was talked into it, and he met me there. He looked around the room, and he looked at me, and he says, ‘Oh, you’ll do quite well.’ He felt I did fit right in.”
To seal the deal, Hoffman took Schlesinger to one of his favorite Italian restaurants on the Upper West Side. In the film, Rizzo is miserable washing dishes at a restaurant and dreams of rising up the ranks. “There [was] a waiter that after I read the book, I went back there because I remembered him. I said, ‘I think he’s Ratso as a success. This is what Ratso would have liked to have been,’” Hoffman explains. “We had dinner there, and [Schlesinger] completely agreed. We were on the same page, so he agreed I could play the part.”
On the infamous “I’m walkin’ here” moment
It’s a well-known bit of Hollywood lore that Hoffman improvised one of the most iconic lines in movie history, “I’m walkin’ here,” as a taxi nearly runs his Rizzo and Voight’s Joe Buck over as they walk down a New York City street.
The point has since been disputed, with some of the production team claiming it was scripted, but Hoffman says that’s simply not true. “The ‘I’m walkin’ here’ came out — it was not written. It was not scripted,” he insists.
The confusion may stem from the fact that they shot multiple takes of the moment. Originally, the scene was scripted as being standing or seated, but Schlesinger decided to make it on-the-move. However, the film had a tiny production budget and they couldn’t afford to get the requisite permits to shut down Sixth Avenue for a day of filming and pay extras to populate the scene. “We had to steal the shot, which is what we did,” Hoffman says. “There was a van on the other side of the street, and Schlesinger was inside [with] the camera people. You couldn’t see from outside, but they could see from inside — they shot that scene [with a] long lens.”
Schlesinger wanted it to be a one-take tracking shot, which required Hoffman and Voight to time it perfectly to avoid having to stop at the corner and wait for the light to turn green. “We did about eight, nine takes, I think, before we got it where it turns green and we could keep walking,” he says. “That taxi almost hit us because it jumped the signal. That aspect of almost being hit was nowhere written in the scene.”
“Probably what I was really saying was, ‘Hey, we’re making a movie here!’ But it just came out the way it came out,” Hoffman muses. Schlesinger loved the accidental outburst, so subsequent versions of it were staged to make sure they captured it on film. But to this day, Hoffman doesn’t know if it was the original improvised take they used or one of the later staged versions.
Five decades later, Midnight Cowboy has been downgraded to an R rating, but it remains the only X-rated film to ever snag Best Picture gold — and an enduring part of Hollywood history.