I was intrigued. I anticipated extensive nudity and perhaps explicit sex scenes. But the story was very different from what I expected. After watching the movie, my partner and discussed its history. I wondered whether the drug use depicted was what earned it an X rating. But after a bit of online research, we learned that it was given its rating “due to the ‘homosexual frame of reference’ and its ‘possible influence upon youngsters.’”* Homosexual frame of reference? We laughed a bit at the antiquated phrasing. But the sobering fact is that in 1969, depictions of homosexuality were not warmly received. Yet director John Schlesinger was determined to showcase the lead characters’ humanity—in the words of Dustin Hoffman, “telling a story about two degenerate losers, but what he was saying was, ‘Don’t look at what they are, look at who they are.’ He was determined that we should feel what they had in their souls.”**
The story follows Joe Buck (John Voight), a young, attractive hustler who seeks riches and fame in New York. While most well-known for its sexual content, Midnight Cowboy is ultimately a story about trying to find affirmation and community in a new city, being loyal to a person in spite of a troubled relationship, and the harsh realizations that must be faced when dreams don’t pan out. Hoffman and Voight give masterful performances as two men in a codependent friendship, trying to scrape by in a cold and cruel city.
When viewed in the year 2015, this film also serves as a striking examination of white male privilege. When Joe has trouble coasting on his good looks and charm in New York City, he is utterly baffled. In his small hometown, he’d had no problem wooing women and making money; the thought that his talents and allure wouldn’t be instantly recognized and rewarded never crossed his mind.
Midnight Cowboy is essential viewing, both for its compelling story and its historical significance. The iconic line “I’m walkin’ here!” originated from this movie, when Hoffman is nearly run over by a taxicab while crossing the street—an unscripted moment that prompted Hoffman’s outburst. The movie soundtrack includes the Grammy-winning “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson.
Both the film version of Midnight Cowboy and the novel on which it was based can be borrowed from the GLBT Library.
Written by Jamie, Office Supervisor at GLBTSSS