Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Director: John Schlesinger
Screenwriter: Waldo Salt
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Ruth White
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R (previously X)
Release Dates: 5/25/69 (Wide Theatrical); 1/1/00 (Disc/Streaming)
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy — Amazon, Vudu, etc.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

At the beginning of the pandemic, in addition to watching newly-released films, I started catching up on Oscar winners/nominees of years bast. And, I decided to go back over 50 years, to the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy. I honestly knew very little about the film, aside from its history-making win and the controversy surrounding its rating. And, now that I’ve seen it, I can’t comprehend the reasoning behind the X-rating, seeing as it is no more graphic than anything else I’ve ever seen. Although, I can understand how some scenes would have been considered controversial and too intense for the average moviegoer at the time.

Midnight Cowboy is not a perfect film, but it is certainly a fascinating one, with two terrific performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, who were at the top of their games in this movie. Both were nominated that year in the lead category, although Voight is clearly the main character — yet, you can’t deny Hoffman’s powerful, impactful, scene-stealing work in a role that was so far removed from anything else he had done or would ever do. It is almost like a buddy dramedy, as the film is at its best when Voight and Hoffman are together — sometimes laughing and engaging in ridiculous behavior, and sometimes dealing with difficult things (the end of the movie is a gut punch, and that last shot is heartbreaking). Voight is clearly having fun playing a conceited, studly cowboy out of his element in NYC, and his near-constant gum-chewing only added to my fascination with the character.

The movie has some surprisingly funny and entertaining scenes, which I was not expecting, although this blended well with the heavy material that is present in the last third of the film. Also, there are some interesting flashbacks that Voight’s character experiences, which sheds some light (or rather, darkness) on his current behavior and personality. And yet, I wanted to learn more about his past, which seemed filled with trauma that was never explained. In addition, there’s no real plot in the film, although that doesn’t bother me as much as it should (or normally does).

What this movie all comes down to is a [from what I’ve heard] authentic look at life in NYC in this time period, and the friendship — or something more? — between the two male leads that is indescribable.


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