“Midnight Cowboy”, the sometimes amusing but essentially sordid saga of a male prostitute in Manhattan, should do business on shock, sensation, sex, curiosity, dispute and the popularity of Dustin Hoffman appearing in his first film since “The Graduate.” Hoffman is here cast as gimp-legged, always unshaven, a cough-wracked petty chiseler who at first exploits and then befriends the stupid boy hustler from Texas. The title role is played by newcomer Jon Voight. He ought to make it big with this one release. Whether fringed leather coats of the kind he wears on screen will hereafter come into, or go out of fashion around town is one of the provocative questions the film poses.
Just possibly the picture’s title might pass into the popular idiom as synononym for a trampoline tramp. If so, that would further help the word-of-mouth of which “Midnight Cowboy” will, in general, expectedly reap a lot, along with display reviews. It will presumably also help that the film excites a love-hate reaction. It’s going to be both hailed and denounced, precisely as some will call Hoffman’s performance a tour de force while others dismiss it as a mere stunt, an Italian played with a Yiddish accent.
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The film is full of unnice people from bad environments. It is obsessed with mechanistic and mercenary sex, haunted by memories of cruel group ravishments and forced colonic irrigation. Indignity is endemic. The boy is presumably son and grandson of female hookers. All conveyed by flashback interpolations. He travels north by bus through an America that is mocked in every sign along the road the camera picks out and every idiot passenger given close-up.
At the outset the story, screenplayed by Waldo Salt out of James Leo Herlihy’s novel, develops perceptive social satire. There is a de-licious bit when the Texan on a first stroll up Fifth Avenue chances upon a man lying, dead or unconscious, upon the sidewalk, ignored by all.
The boy hustler’s initial adventure in the big city is with a penthouse-quartered, hard-as-nails floozie. They go after each other with all the subtlety of two hogs among the corn husks. Far from his being paid for services he is touched for cab fare as the gal throws on her clothes, late for her next date. All good unclean slapstick. It gets over the point. This lad is going to find that hustling is hell.
Other questions soon intrude upon the viewer. Can depravity be offered as farce? The friendship with the cripple is the note of com-passion and concern for another human being played against the coarse grain of a gallery of far-out oddballs and psychopaths. The emerging effect is of “The Lower Depths” with Happy Holligan. The wages of sin is a furtive, humiliating, fool’s existense. The two chums hide in a tenement marked for demolition, living on canned soup cooked over, canned heat.
It is never easy to work up a liking for either of the two main bums in this pantheon of lost souls. The story begins by suggesting that male prostitutes offer themselves to women but the facts of the city soon establish that this is a homosexual market primarily. The boy hustler “consents” in a movie theatre (42d Street is the inferno of this Dante) and then is deadbeat out of the agreed price. Later, desperate for money to take his dying crony to Florida, the Texan brutalizes a pathetic, middle-aged, whimpering homo in a hotel room.
In this latter enactment director Schlesinger seems almost to gloat over the sadism. No mercy on the errand of mercy. When the guy tries to protect his money the phone is jammed down his mouth, and he is left a bloody, pitiable mess. Nor is this the only detail in the film which shouts misanthropy, beyond the story necessities, or so it could be argued.
“The Party” sequence will be much discussed. It is openly a burlesque Andy Warhol who, of course, is burlesque to start with. Here the production becomes “busy” with weirdo characters criss-crossed with psychedelic fades, jumps, jumbles and sound effects mixed with John Barry-supervised music. All of which seems typical of present-day cinematic preoccupation with orgy. Schlesinger has borrowed some of Warhol’s “stock company” players. But the orgy is grafted onto the story, principally as the obligatory scene for the slummimg franchise.
Also borrowed are some frolic-some channel-skipping to spoof American television. Just in passing.
The whole film is well photographed in DeLuxe Color by Adam Holender and the professionalism in all technical areas is obvious. There is electronic, harmonica and a lot of country and western type music.
“Midnight Cowboy” is of the modern moment moderne. It has a hot topical theme; a popular actor from last year’s greatest film comedy; a miscellany of competent bit players, a good deal of both sly and broad humor. If the women object, and some will, that it accords their sex scant courtesy, the story hardly presents males as admirable. Indeed in this film the scenery is lovely and only the human race is vile.