After a decade of musicals and period dramas, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was a very different film. When the winner was announced in the first months of 1970 it was clear that a new decade had been entered with a completely new style of winner.
Young Texan Joe Buck (John Voight) moves to New York in the hope of making some money. Dressed as a cowboy he prostitutes himself to wealthy woman, but ends up being constantly degraded. He invents himself as a hustler character, but it is not long that due to his naïve nature that others are taking advantage of him. He meets the street savvy Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who initial cons the young Texan, but they soon form a bond and become friends.
It is a wonderful character study. The film really does get to the bottom of these two complex characters, especially in its handling of Voight’s character. He is a happy-go-lucky, trusting yet naïve man, completely out of his depth. But, we also witness flashbacks, which suggest sexual abuse and dark secrets. We know less about Rizzo’s history, but over the course of the film learn to pity him, and even like him, even though as a character he is fairly unpleasant.
The actual story is not what is important here: the film does not follow a series of events in the strictest sense. Instead we witness moments from their friendship, all of which add something to the film. The film is very much of its time. Set in the late 1960s, it shows the drug culture, the art scene and the ideas of hope and disappointment associated with this period of history.
Technically the film is like no other that I have scene from that era. In fact, of the all the Best Picture winners, this feels like a foreign film more than any other. The scene in which the characters are at a drug-fuelled party is perhaps the most obvious example of this. This scene is extremely uncomfortable to watch: the camera work and editing is extremely claustrophobic as if there is no escape from the events unfolding on scene. The cartoon heads in the death scene add another element of surreal, yet captivating moments.
With all its impressive technical attributes it is perhaps easy to forget to mention Voight and Hoffman. These two leads are both so impressive. Voight is perfect as the perky partner in this odd relationship: both likable and tragic. Every look, every expression seems to reveal something new and it is a performance that should be watched. I have mentioned Dustin Hoffman before. He really can play any part and play any part well. Throughout the history of films there have been actors great at playing a particular part. I really like Clint Eastwood, but his acting range is limited. What he does he is good at, and that’s fine, but very few people: Brando, Spacey, Clift, have the ability to tackle any part and succeed as Hoffman. This is another example of a wonderful performance, found in a difficult and depressing, but powerful film.