Though you might think Midnight Cowboy’s main claim to fame is one of the most famous improvised lines in screen history (“I’m walkin’ here!”), Nancy Buirski’s fascinating and really quite hypnotic documentary will introduce more thoughts and perspectives on a truly underrated Hollywood milestone. Directed by John Schlesinger in 1969, Buirski’s subject film has the rare distinction of being the only X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, although that claim is put to the test here, opening up a whole other can of worms in the process.
Desperate Souls, Dark City And The Legend Of Midnight Cowboy, world premiering in the Venice Film Festival’s Classics section, is more of a mosaic or essay film than a forensic dissection, but here that phrase does a disservice, since it gets into ideas and themes in ways traditional docs can’t (notably an especially brilliant musical sequence that simply shows New York at the time in surprisingly bleak archive footage cut to The Guess Who’s roughly contemporaneous psychedelic love song “These Eyes”).
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Time and place is very important to Buirski, who sketches in every element of the film’s backstory, starting with the fact that Schlesinger was British, Jewish and gay, and that he was coming to the U.S. after a very public humiliation with his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Schlesinger went from hot to cold overnight, adding another level to his outsider status, a quality that might actually be the bedrock of Midnight Cowboy with its layers of misfit communities.
Surprisingly, not much is made of the source novel by gay writer James Leo Herlihy, who later died by suicide in 1993. One can perhaps see why, though, since Desperate Souls has plenty enough to unpack as it is, having at least some good fortune in that the main players are mostly willing and available to reflect on the film over half a century later. Dustin Hoffman (Ratso Rizzo, utterer of the aforementioned classic line) appears only in archive material, but Jon Voight, taking a welcome sabbatical from his MAGA duties, is on great form, offering insights into the character of Joe Buck, the Texas dishwasher turned Manhattan gigolo. Voight’s screen test is a sight to behold, dripping with a not-so-subtle sexuality than still startles today.
Supporting actress Brenda Vaccaro has interesting reminiscences to add, as does Bob Balaban, whose subsequent career often overshadows the fact that he appears as one of Buck’s tricks in the film’s only truly controversial moment (an aborted blowjob). The best value, however, comes from Jennifer Salt, Voight’s co-star and daughter of the late screenwriter Waldo Salt, whose testimony leads to a wild story involving Voight and activist/LSD evangelist Abbie Hoffmann — an odd couple even back then. Bubbling away at the back of Buirski’s film is the specter of the raging Vietnam war, which, as she proves by illustration, was crippling America’s conscience at the time, in stark contrast to the country’s much-vaunted commitment to the pursuit of happiness.
The net result is that Midnight Cowboy, seen this way, emerges as an eruption of subtexts, being that rare mainstream film that had a foot in the counterculture (a brief appearance in a flamboyantly decadent nightclub scene by Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd was no accident, we are assured).
That, perhaps, is the film’s thesis: that Midnight Cowboy can lay claim to being the most subversive Hollywood movie all time, a celebration of queerness and all kinds of otherness that nevertheless rose to the heightened platform of Oscar night.
The win came as a surprise to all concerned — not least Schlesinger, who, Voight says, broke down just after shooting. To calm him, Voight spun him a line: “We will live the rest of our artistic lives in the shadow of this great movie.” Voight didn’t believe that then but he sure does now, and the fact that a just a few bars of Harry Nilsson’s theme song “Everybody’s Talkin” still gives goosebumps is a testament to Midnight Cowboy’s enduring under-the-skin appeal.
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