Midnight Cowboy: The Fractured American Identity
One of the most prevalent and obvious motifs in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy is protagonist Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) identity as a “real cowboy.” Throughout the film, each character Joe meets on his quest questions whether or not he is a real cowboy because of the cowboy outfit he wears. He usually answers “no,” he’s not a real cowboy.
The plot of Midnight Cowboy is as follows: Joe Buck, a handsome Texan dishwasher, packs up and moves to the Big Apple, hoping to make easy money as a prostitute for what he perceives as a rich, middle-aged class of bored women. New York City is a lot tougher than he thought, and his hustling is ultimately unsuccessful. He meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, or Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled street con man who eventually seems to have a heart of gold, and the two bond over surviving with little money. The two struggle as Ratso’s health diminishes and Joe’s series of clients offers little in the way of cash. They end up at a Warhol-type psychedelic party (possibly the weakest moment of the film), where Joe actually leaves with a female socialite who promises to pay for his services.
Everything seems positive, as the woman promises Joe’s services to her friends, meaning Joe’s got work, but when he returns to Ratso’s rundown apartment, his friend’s health has worsened. What follows is a heartfelt and possibly, ultimately, soap operatic attempt to get Ratso to Miami, a place he’s always dreamed of going, before he dies.
Joe Buck’s story is an old one, with its roots in American tenacity, the American Dream. Theodore Dreiser tells approximately the same tale in Sister Carrie (1900), where a young country girl moves to the big city (Chicago) and ends up being a “mistress” to wealthy men before realizing her dream of becoming an actress. This follows in the vein of the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” narrative, the same narrative that Henry Miller wished to “wipe out of the North American consciousness.” In the post-World War world, it was widespread knowledge that these notions were bunk, with much of the avant-garde out for the American Dream’s blood.
Midnight Cowboy is one of those anti-American Dream narratives that seeks to show America’s underbelly, greasy, dark, and starving. But unlike expatriate Miller, Joe Buck is entirely American, a bright-eyed, handsome youth with dreams of making it big in the city, all while refusing to remove his American costume, his cowboy outfit.
American media has always had a romantic fascination with cowboy life, and Joe’s fascination is no different. Despite western genre films rarely depicting what actual cowboy life is like, these films have become a symbol of an ideal American ambition, with actors such as John Wayne embodying this ideal.
Thus it is appropriate when Ratso tells Joe to lose the cowboy clothes or risk being perceived as a homosexual prostitute by clients on the street. Joe refuses to believe that a cowboy getup is a sign of homosexuality in New York City, his ideal image of the American man, and challenges Ratso. “John Wayne, you’re gonna tell me he’s a fag?” he cries, almost in tears.
Although the depiction of homosexuality in the film may seem dated (or even offensive), it must be read at face value: homosexuality here, to Joe, is seen as tarnishing the American cowboy image, which, in reality, was merely a fictitious, romantic (and naive) version of the truth. In westerns, cowboys are shown to be tough, hardworking, and above all, a symbol of justice and the American way. Most cowboys fight Native Americans, which is purely a Hollywood trope more than a historical fact. The hero cowboy is a Hollywood lie, and Joe Buck never realized this.
When riding the bus to New York, Joe listens to his radio, and when the radio picks up a New York City station, he knows he is there. The station is polling women about the types of men they like, and many of them answer in ways that follow the “tall, dark, and handsome” ideal, which, like the cowboy, is just not real. However, this excites Joe, who instantly believes himself to be what women are looking for.
It is the radio that leads Joe Buck, gives him comfort when the electric Jesus scare him away, when he doesn’t have a friend in the world. Joe’s obsession with his radio embodies America’s own fascination with media, be it a moral or immoral one. That being said, the electric Jesus that Joe’s first pimp makes him pray at is just as phony, if not more, than the radio’s divine guidance. Joe learns that everything is phony, and eventually must pawn his prized possession, the only thing he owns, for some small amount of cash.
The film revolves around Joe’s need of money, and another of its motifs is the Mutual of New York building, which flashes the letters M, O, N, and Y in the night sky. Commercialism and bright lights line the streets of New York, and each street seems to be hiding gold, but New York City is not the city Joe thought it would be. His romantic notions of being a hustler for wealthy women are quickly dashed as he staggers through parks and alleyways.
In one poignant scene, Joe sleeps with a woman in a penthouse in the hopes that she will pay him (she doesn’t), and while they’re in bed, the tv flips through channels at a schizophrenic pace, showing an absurd number of advertisements and other inane programming. This scene mixes together commercials with sex, money and lust, mixes them into an unreadable, unreal situation that is nauseating, confusing, and, for Joe, unrewarding. While the scene may seem a bit on the nose for contemporary viewers, it holds the film’s thesis, that Joe’s naive ambitions and his ideal America are just that, naive, and that he will not earn money, no matter how many bus trips he takes.
Midnight Cowboy is a film that begins on a bus, and ends on a bus. The American cannot sit still, must constantly travel, devouring experience, in order to “make it big.” The film embodies the notion of leaving the country for the big city, and is an education against it, a wary tale for starry-eyed kids. In another Dustin Hoffman film, The Graduate (1967), the film ends as Hoffman’s character escapes on a bus with the girl he is in love with. Throughout that film, Hoffman’s character wanders aimlessly through his old town after graduating college. That film too dispels an American myth, and Midnight Cowboy can be read as a sort of sequel, about what happens when Hoffman’s character gets off that bus and back into the gritty world.
Midnight Cowboy‘s title evokes the essential American narrative, the western, but it is no such thing. The film’s script and its actors attempt to portray the truth, in as honest a way as they can, of life on the streets of Times Square.
Its message and thesis may not be as striking today as it when when the film was released, and it sometimes feels particularly dated. Joe Buck’s flashbacks, which seem to reveal the traumatic experiences of his youth, usually harm the film rather than enhance it. The Warhol-type party was dated even in 1969.
If nothing else, the film succeeds in its portrayal of the friendship of Joe and Ratso, two outcasts trying to make a buck. While initially rocky, their friendship blooms into an almost married couple-esque relationship, and in the end, each truly cares about the other. Against the sex and ads and the MONY sign and the Warhol party, Joe and Ratso’s relationship is the only real thing in the whole film.
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