Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the only X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. Now considered an American classic, its release was fraught with controversy, inducing an anti-gay backlash. Seen half a century later, it’s a brilliant snapshot of a city on the verge of decay. Pulitzer-winning author Glenn Frankel has just published a book about the making of the film, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman (‘Hey, I’m walkin’ here!’). David Stewart spoke with Frankel and describes the backdrop to Midnight Cowboy for PKM.
In March 2019, one year before the COVID-pandemic affected the city that never sleeps, luxury apartments were being built in New York’s Lower East Side with prices ranging from $1.7 million to $7.3 million. Fifty years earlier, however, Boone and Suffolk streets might just as well have been on the corner of Bedlam and Squalor as the urine-smelling, rat-infested rubble with X-marks on the evicted buildings became the site where a gimpy, chain-smoking waif from the Bronx and his tall, naïve friend in tattered cowboy clothes complete with Texan drawl stared down a cameraman.
In reality, this pair was Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, who could easily have been mistaken for the denizens of 42nd Street, as they were immortalized in the promotional stills for United Artists’ controversial new film, Midnight Cowboy.
Based on James Leo Herlihy’s iconic 1965 novel, Midnight Cowboy is the enduring tale of Joe Buck (Jon Voight in his first movie), a Texas dishwasher who packs his cowhide suitcase and boards a Greyhound bus to New York City seeking out his destiny working as a male prostitute for bored, undersexed housewives. The naïve Joe believes his cowboy persona would make women shed their purses and panties only to find that he is swindled of all his money on his first day in the Big Apple by a Park Avenue working girl (Sylvia Miles in an unforgettable six-minutes of screen time) and by the shifty Enrico Salvatore ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman fresh off the success of The Graduate). After being kicked out of his cheap hotel room with nothing but the clothes on his back and a transistor radio, Joe plies his trade to men in Times Square with little or no luck until Ratso invites him to stay at his Lower East Side hovel.
Frankel was a student at Columbia University when Midnight Cowboy was being filmed, yet his fascination with the film was compounded by his own extracurricular activities on 42nd Street. “I never went to a porno movie, no one ever propositioned me (laughs), but I’d go to double features,” Frankel recalls from his home in Arlington, Virginia. “I remember seeing The Wild Bunch there for the first time. On 42nd Street, you could go to the movies for fifty cents along with first-run stuff that was playing at the overpriced theaters around New York City. For a kid with no money and a deep hunger for the movies, it was a great experience! The movies were the center of our lives and our culture, much more so than going to school.”
Frankel has covered the Hollywood Western and its place in American history in his previous books on High Noon and The Searchers. His latest book is about a Western that goes far beyond the terrain John Wayne crossed as Jon Voight roams around the city’s neon haze to the sounds of Toots Thielemans crying harmonica.
“You could be in the middle of a canyon in Wyoming and have sagebrush blowing by,” says Frankel. “It has a certain resonance of the West of a man alone up against the elements whatever they may be. That feels very familiar when you’re talking about the mythic American Frontier that we all imagine from the movies. The expansion out West was one direction, coming back East again to find yourself and to establish some kind of identity or some kind of way of living in the world, that sort of becomes the new frontier. Especially in the late Sixties when New York is kind of wild and wooly again.”
Viva and the other superstars gave Schlesinger the authenticity of this crazy scene that adds a little more color and richness to the movie, but Andy was disappointed.
The day after Midnight Cowboy started its production, New York’s Tactical Police Force took up “hats and bats” as they stormed Columbia University arresting 700 people protesting the university’s participation in U.S.-government-funded defense research along with Columbia’s plans to build a private gymnasium in Harlem. Apart from the throngs of screaming teenage girls being held back by police officers after word got out that Dustin Hoffman was shooting a new movie, you would hardly notice that a Hollywood studio picture was being shot around the city. This is epitomized on the corner of 6th Avenue and West 48th Street when a cigarette-chomping Ratso schools Joe on the need of proper management for being a proper stud until a city cab nearly hits Hoffman leading him to break out of his Bugs Bunny timbre, cigarette falling out of his mouth as he shouts the film’s immortal lines “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here! Up yours, you son of a bitch! You don’t talk to me that way!”
Beyond the late-nights at the Automat and the sticky seats of the 42nd Street movie theaters, director John Schlesinger and his assistant/lover Michael Childers wanted to show Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory parties from his 47th Street apartment. After Warhol turned down the offer to appear in Midnight Cowboy, he gave Schlesinger access to Viva, Ultra Violet, and Paul Morrissey, who co-directed with Childers the 8mm films projected during the film’s iconic party scene. On June 3rd, after Viva was getting her hair done for the next day’s shoot, she called Andy from his apartment only to hear gunshots on the other end of the phone: Warhol was shot twice by Valerie Solanas.
Midnight Cowboy-Party sequence modeled on Warhol’s Factory:
Nevertheless, Warhol’s Superstars filled Filmways Studio in East Harlem where Schlesinger replicated the Factory soirees with Warhol’s paintings, incense, and marijuana as Joe Buck finally scores with a sexy socialite played by Brenda Vaccaro. Even a tape recorder went around the set as Warhol’s friends wished him a speedy recovery from the assassination attempt. Despite the critical acclaim, Andy was not pleased with Midnight Cowboy. As Frankel explains, “Viva and the other superstars gave Schlesinger the authenticity of this crazy scene that adds a little more color and richness to the movie, but Andy was disappointed. He complained that with all the money United Artists spent, they could have given it to him and his superstars to make a more authentic look at New York and Times Square. Andy of all people should’ve understood that they were never out for authenticity.”
After filming wrapped on Midnight Cowboy, there was the coup-de-grace solidifying the film’s lasting appeal: the soundtrack. Before Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” became the film’s theme song, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell were eager to contribute their music to the film. Jerome Hellman, the film’s producer, got a surprise one night in his apartment when Bob Dylan stopped by with his guitar and played “Lay Lady Lay” before Hellman told him that Nilsson already recorded his song at Studio 1A. Dylan picked up his guitar and left Hellman’s apartment; Hellman never saw Dylan again.
The controversial decision to give Midnight Cowboy an X-rating has gone down in the annals of Hollywood history as an act made manifest by the prudish MPAA (Motion Pictures Association of America) until the film’s popularity and Best Picture Oscar from the Academy Awards led the film to be given an R-rating. However, it was United Artists chairman Arthur Krim who ordered the X-rating after consulting some psychoanalysts from Columbia University.
As Frankel explains, “Arthur Krim comes along and after consulting with his psychoanalytic friends decides that this is a movie that shouldn’t be seen by 17-year-olds; he rates it X himself, reflecting the attitudes of the times. Meanwhile, UA markets the film as a film on the edge with the ad slogan, ‘Everything you’ve heard about Midnight Cowboy is true’, appealing to people like me. After the film wins Best Picture at the Oscars, Krim goes back to the ratings board and asks the ratings board to knock the film back down to an R-rating. The legend is that the prudish, craven ratings board gave it an X and after it wins the Academy Award begs Schlesinger to take one frame out of it to claim that it’s been edited for an R-Rating, which isn’t true.”
One month after Midnight Cowboy’s release, the homophobia and dated Freudian concepts of same-sex partnerships carried in psychoanalysis and in the New York Times with headlines like “Growth of Overt Homosexuality In City Provokes Wide Concern” reached its apex on June 28, 1969, with the Stonewall Riots signaling the rise of the Gay Rights Movement. Today, at least before the COVID pandemic, Times Square has become a family-friendly tourist trap; a far cry from the hustlers and speed-freaks eking out a living in Midnight Cowboy.
However, the film remains a visual time capsule to the wild and wooly New York City when walking on the wild side was as common as midtown traffic.