In a way, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the perfect conclusion to this round of sixties movies. Schlesinger had previously directed three British films, but this was his first American film. It’s meticulously edited and stitched together for maximum effect and exceeds beyond just an average film. The Academy gave it many nominations and it swept at the Oscars in 1970: winning Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel).
It took home many accolades from different film guilds, and it had a similar run at that year’s BAFTA awards. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that Midnight Cowboy marked the end of the Hays Code. It was shot on-location in New York and in Texas, using hidden cameras to capture an authentic New York without and filters. New York is a character itself in the film, from the city skyline and neon lights, to the New York crowd, who don’t often welcome people with open arms and a bright smile.
Schlesinger came out some time after the initial release of Midnight Cowboy but the themes of being “othered” run through the very fabric of the film, even if critics and audiences couldn’t pick that theme apart initially. Even the summaries of the film list it as a “buddy film” but the love that Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) have for each other is more than just that. After Ratso becomes gravely ill and him and Buck attend the underground party, there’s a scene on the stairwell where Joe is going to take a girl home.
While Joe isn’t paying much attention to Ratso, he embraces Joe with a very sentimental hug because he knows that he is dying and there is nothing he can do about it except for try to make it to Florida. Moving to Florida won’t fix their problems, though. One of the many themes in Midnight Cowboy is of identity and the attachment of identity to names and places. Joe Buck moves to New York from Texas to escape his past and pave the way for a fresh start, similar to what Ratso wishes to accomplish in Florida. However, this won’t be possible, and he even acknowledges it after spending some time in New York.
The most crucial scene for this heavy-handed, poignant theme is during the same stairwell scene where Ratso holds onto Joe. The woman who he is seducing, Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), asks for Joe’s name. When he tells her, she exclaims: “Joe? You could be anyone, Joe.” Referencing the common trope of the “average joe.” His name is something that he is proud of, though, even down to his flashy cowboy look which is purposeful. Once he arrives in Florida, he abandons this notion of the old Joe Buck’s look, opting for another.
He throws his clothes, and boots, in the trash can and leaves; accepting that he can be anyone he wants, and recognizing his sexual fluidity. The same occurs with Hoffman’s Ratso, who tells Joe on the bus to Florida that he wants to be called Rico when they arrive at their destination. Even in a movie from the sixties, the idea of separating one’s name from identity was a discourse that filmmakers and the general public were willing to have. Of course, the X rating from the MPAA limited the number of eyes on the film, but the fact that it has held up well speaks to the importance of the discourse for the LGBT+ community, and to the gut-retching performances from Hoffman and Voight.