Ahhh…New York City. I once had dreams of living there, dreams of acting on a Broadway stage. When I heard Sinatra sing, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” I would get chills. I still do…Sometimes.
This inconsistency is by no means due to me out growing Sinatra’s bodacious song stylings–hardly, he’s only gotten better to me– rather, it’s because I’ve out grown my youthful bravado…Finally. And that’s a good thing, since I’ve gotten a lot older and, yes, a little wiser. Plus I finally made it there–for the weekend. And it was awesome. And intimidating as all git-out.
Hot. Crowded. Relentlessly noisy…Fast.
Too fast for this woman who has lived the last thirty years in Nashville. Way too fast for the twenty-year-old who left Odessa, Texas to live in Nashville because her husband said, “No way am I moving to New York City.” (Thank you honey. We would have lasted about two weeks, if that.)
In John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking 1969 grunge drama, Midnight Cowboy, huckster Joe Buck (Jon Voight) has dreams of New York City too. That’s because he lives in Podunk Texas and washes dishes in a diner. (In fact, the opening scenes of Midnight Cowboy were filmed in Big Spring which is just seventy-miles from Odessa. If you lived there you’d probably dream of being someplace else too.)
When Joe Buck preens and flexes in his dresser mirror–shirtless and shiftless–he doesn’t see what we do. He sees Paul Newman in Hud. We see a goofy man-child with a decent physique who talks to himself. Tellingly, when he brags to a fellow dishwasher that he’s about to blow the sad-sack joint for NYC where he has plans to be a hustler, i.e., a male prostitute for wealthy women, the guy–not exactly demonstrative to begin with–goes witheringly blank. “I don’t know nothin’ about that,” the guy says.
“I’ll send ya’ a postcard,” Joe Buck gloats. With that he hops on a bus.
Even in West Texas, among a western wear sporting citizenry, Joe Buck stands out. Like a sour thumb. While those so inclined might look like a Sears and Roebuck LBJ (keep in mind this is late sixties, hence the references) or a real deal kicker with fraying boot cut Wranglers and sweat stained straw Stetson, Joe Buck favors aqua blue shirts trimmed with roses and black bandannas knotted Roy Rodgers style around his neck.
On the bus he is all wide-eyed wonder with about another thousand miles to go. He’s got one of those portable AM radios from the time–a little bigger than the transistor–that’s his prized possession. When, finally, they are some two to three hundred miles out, he picks up a local radio station, “You hear that?” he enthuses to anyone who will listen–and, cringingly, to those who don’t want to–“that’s New York talkin’.”
At first it’s fun to experience the city with Joe Buck. Once there he heads straight for what he’s seen on TV–Midtown Manhattan. He checks into a not too unreasonably seedy hotel that overlooks Times Square and spends his days walking the streets. We walk with him.
Joe Buck is broad-chested and rangy. When he walks down his hometown streets to the lilting guitar strumming of Nilsson’s gorgeous Everybody’s Talking he has a ridiculous flailing swagger. He chews his gum obnoxiously with a lascivious grin plastered on his face. Think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever without the rhythm or the sex appeal. But when he walks the Manhattan streets–again to the same lilting strumming–he is boxed in. With shoulder to shoulder crowds there’s no room to get his groove on. And though he’s head and shoulders taller than everybody else he doesn’t emit power, or even his previous doofus charm, here it’s strictly awkwardness.
Still he is happy and awe struck. That is until his money starts to run low and that doesn’t take long because he spends it like water (at one point giving it away to a slutty sixty-something kept woman who was supposed to be his client). Then he becomes bewildered and scared. Even then he’s too “proud” to take a job as a dishwasher.
Big city life is hard on the disenfranchised. Joe Buck has never seen a homeless person before and now he’s inundated with them. Upon running onto a drunk-sick bum sprawled out on the sidewalk he is overwhelmed with helplessness; under the sheer veneer of bluster lies a gentle soul. So gentle that when he is driven by desperation to turn a gay trick in a movie theater, he can not bring himself to beat the bookish young man who can’t come up with the money after the deed is done. He can’t even take the kid’s watch.
Joe Buck is not gay as some critics opined back in the day. He is, however, impotent when he is with women of his own age, although he has no problem performing with the raunchy older woman (Sylvia Miles) who becomes offended when he asks her to pay. This is not just a kinky predilection. He was sexually groomed and abused as a child. He has also been cloistered and fawned over. This is what drives his inappropriate naivete and inability to take care of himself. When he gets kicked out of his hotel room for not paying the bill, he’s surprised. We knew it was going to happen before he even checked in.
This is where Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) comes in. Ratso is a native New Yorker. He is also a disgusting specimen of human flesh. He doesn’t bathe even on the rare opportunity that he gets the chance; like Joe Buck, he’s homeless.
Ratso walks with a limp–probably from getting hit by a car in an insurance scam–and is noticeably sick. He coughs a lot. He survives anyway he can besides violence (he hasn’t got the strength or the acumen) or turning tricks (he’s not interested and he doesn’t want to starve).
At first he rips Joe Buck off, taking his last twenty bucks. Later when he sees the wannabe hustler, pale and skinny, he has a crisis of conscience and fear; Joe Buck’s some kind of pissed off and the streets have made him meaner than he was with the kid.
Joe Buck’s also sick and starving. Ratso takes him to an abandoned building where he’s been squatting and nurses him back to health. Then he shows him the ropes of surviving the streets of NYC homeless style.
Together they form a seemingly ridiculous partnership–Joe Buck as the talent, Ratso as the pimp–that, incredibly, takes them all the way to an upscale artist’s loft (an obvious reference to Andy Warhol) and one of his wealthy, well connected lady friends who’s amused, curious and willing to pay Joe Buck for his services. (She also has friends who are interested too.)
Now, just as Joe Buck teeters on the brink of his dream, Ratso nearly succumbs to his illness; he has tuberculosis. Rather than go to the hospital Ratso is convinced that the Florida sunshine is his cure. If only they could wait a week or so Joe Buck could amass the funds for the trip with proceeds from his new found client and her friends. But Ratso can’t wait–he has to go NOW. This means Joe Buck has to do what he is loath to: go back to the movie theater area where he picked up the bookish young man and ply his wares as a midnight cowboy.
If all of this sounds a bit too bleak and a lot too unsavory think of how it played forty-eight years ago. Then ponder this: Midnight Cowboy has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and it ranks #36 on the American Film Institute Greatest Films of All Time list. It won the Academy Award of 1969 for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screen Play. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were nominated for Best Actor. Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
But perhaps even more significant is this curious (and whether or not it is that depends on your point of view) tidbit: Midnight Cowboy is one of Jimmy Carter’s favorite films. He would often screen it in the White House. He appreciated its humanity.