Fifty Years of Midnight Cowboy

‘Ahead of its time’ is a phrase often associated with Midnight Cowboy; its depictions of homosexual sex, drugs and poverty made it become the first X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but really, it was a frustrated appeal for Hollywood to pay attention to the things really taking place in 1969 urban life.  

The films release date was a mere few weeks prior to the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, a setting also used in Midnight Cowboy. While this proves the pertinence of LGTB endangerment to the time of release, with the film ironically receiving its temporary X-rating due to the “possible influence upon youngster’s sex lives”, to focus on male prostitute and lead character Joe Buck’s clientele is completely misreading the films message on identity and sex work. 

Partners-in-defeat Joe (Jon Voight) and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) are so inextricably linked by their powerlessness, with the films running time essentially being a slow decline into resignation in the wake of failure. Rather than judging Joe for his profession, it is merely a vehicle to convey one man’s hopelessness and the contrast between his idealised vision of city life. The irony comes through in Joe’s financial losses through his chosen profession, through acts of blind naivety and innocence such as lending cab money, getting coaxed or not being paid for his service

Midnight Cowboy is well and truly an artefact of its era, yet its themes and grittiness are components still lacking from much of modern cinema. Rarely is a film depicting poverty and loneliness not subjected to a Hollywood ending where one is ‘rescued’, let alone containing a spiral into further isolation and deprivation. The film forces you to step inside the world and sympathise on a human level without external judgement or preconceptions at the world it presents.

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August 2022
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