81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Midnight Cowboy

September 30th, 2009 · No Comments · 1969, Adaptation, Color, Drama, Drug Use, Dustin Hoffman, John Schlesinger, Jon Voight, Mid-Point, Midnight Cowboy, Nudity, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, R-Rating, Screenplay Structure, Smoking, Swearing, United Artists

Midnight Cowboy The difference between Oliver! and Midnight Cowboy is the difference between day and night. Oliver!, the previous Best-Picture winner, is a G-rated movie that’s, as they say, suitable for the entire family. Midnight Cowboy is an X-rated movie (later reduced to R) that’s, as they say, suitable for the entire family – if it’s a seedy and seamy family.

Midnight Cowboy is about a Texan (Jon Voight) who leaves the Lonestar State to make his fortune in New York City as a “hustler,” which – in this case – means male prostitute. He meets up with a crippled down-and-outer named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).

THE CAST
Dustin Hoffman (1937- )………………………………..Ratso
Jon Voight (1938- )………………………………………..Joe Buck
Sylvia Miles (1932- )………………………………………Cass
John McGiver (1913-1975)……………………………..Mr. O’Daniel
Brenda Vaccaro (1939- ) ………………………………Shirley
Barnard Hughes (1915-2006)………………………….Towny
Ruth White (1914-1969)…………………………………Sally Buck – Texas
Jennifer Salt (1944- )……………………………………..Annie – Texas
Bob Balaban (1945- )…………………………………….The Young Student – New York

Directed By
John Schlesinger (1926-2003)
Writing Credits
Waldo Salt (1914-1987), screenplay
James Leo Herlihy (1927-1993), novel

Yes, Midnight Cowboy is another adaptation, the 32nd out of 42 films, which means a percentage of 76%. In other words, Hollywood chooses adaptations as Best Picture just over 3/4 of the time.

In many ways, Midnight Cowboy marks the turning point for Hollywood movies. Everything up to this point was relatively sanitary. Midnight Cowboy opened the doors – wide – introducing viewers to drugs, sex, nudity, profanity, rape, violence, and all the grit and grime they could stand. From this point forward, Hollywood movies – and viewers – would never be the same.

Because I had heard that the screenwriter (Waldo Salt) was good, I decided to examine the movie in detail to see where the turning points were. Here’s how Midnight Cowboy breaks down:

ACT I
Inciting Incident
Joe Buck quits his job (“What I got to stay around here for? I got places to go, right?”) and leaves town on a bus, heading to New York. This happens in the first five minutes.
Plot Point I
Joe Buck meets Ratso Rizzo in a bar. This happens 25 minutes into the movie.

ACT II
Mid Point
Joe moves in with Ratso. (“So I’m going to stay here a couple of days. I just thought you should know, that’s all.”) This happens 53 minutes into the movie. The two become friends from this point forward.
Plot Point II
This is set up in two parts. The first part is when Ratso falls down a flight of stairs as Joe, Ratso, and Shirley (Vacarro) leave an Andy Warhol-esque party. That happens 87 minutes into the movie. Then, at 96 minutes into the movie, after Joe returns home from a night of paid-for-sex with Shirley, Ratso tells Joe, “I don’t think I can walk any more. I’ve been falling down a lot…get me to Florida.” (Florida was were Ratso dreamed of going. It was, in effect, his version of heaven.)

ACT III
Joe and Ratso get on a bus heading to Florida. Just as they reach their destination, Ratso dies. The final shot is of Joe holding Ratso and staring out the window.

FADE TO BLACK

Midnight Cowboy is a powerful movie, as endearing as it is heartbreaking. At its most basic level, it is about loneliness and what people do to fill it. Joe Buck is fleeing a past that includes a promiscuous family member, the gang-rape of himself and his girlfriend (she was driven crazy by the experience and is shown being driven off in a padded truck), and a dead-end job in a nowhere town. Joe’s story is told exceptionally well through brief (from a few seconds to a minute) flashbacks. He is a likable but socially awkward guy who has trouble connecting with people. (“I’ll bet you’re lonesome,” a very strange guy – played by John McGiver – tells Joe.)

Ratso’s backstory is never really revealed. All we know about him is that he is crippled, his dad was a shoe-shiner, his health is precarious, he lives in a rat-hole of an apartment, and he’s a thief and street hustler. He, too, is lonely, unable to connect with people.

Everyone in the movie has trouble connecting and is, essentially, an outsider. An outcast. The friendship struck by Joe and Ratso is the movie’s only seemingly meaningful relationship.

Midnight Cowboy was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three: Best Director (John Schlesinger), Best Picture (Jerome Hellman), and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Waldo Salt).

If you want to know where Hollywood as we know it today started, watch Midnight Cowboy. It’s interesting, too. Midnight Cowboy is the 42nd movie out of 81, which means it is, ironically, the Mid Point of movie making. Everything after this is different from everything that happened before.

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