Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 6, 2006)
Once again I ran into trouble as I attempted to separate the product from the aftermath. In the 35 plus years after the release of 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, many parts of the film have entered the popular vernacular. The movie's well known enough that even as innocuous a source as Disney's Hercules refers to it in one scene.
However, the one production inspired by Cowboy that stuck with me the most appeared in the early Eighties via an episode of SCTV. I adored that show, but boy has it affected my view of many classic films. Ben-Hur, The Godfather, even The Towering Inferno - I can watch none of these without reflexively thinking back to wonderful SCTV sketches.
As you've undoubtedly guessed, Midnight Cowboy also falls into this category. In fact, although I saw the movie once or twice back in the Eighties, virtually all of my memories of the film have been shaped by that SCTV sketch. It featured Dr. Tongue (John Candy) and Woody (Eugene Levy) as they filmed a 3-D remake of Cowboy. This wasn't their best effort - Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Stewardesses rules that particular roost - but it was a clever way of poking fun at a classic film.
And I guess Midnight Cowboy qualifies as a classic, though I really didn't think it was all that fantastic. It's another one of those movies that I imagine had a much stronger impact when it first appeared. After all, this sucker was actually rated "X" in 1969. The cause for that seems mysterious, as I barely saw enough crudeness to get it past a "PG-13" these days. (Cowboy remains the only "X" or "NC-17" rated film to earn a Best Picture award, though it eventually was re-rated as an “R”.)
Cowboy tells the sad tale of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), an ebullient Texan who clearly thinks he's God's gift to women. With so many fine fillies to service, he leaves the Lone Star state and trucks to New York City, where he plans to sell his services to all those wealthy ladies.
Inevitably, things don't work out as he planned. Before too long, he's been sucked down to poverty level and can barely scrape by, even though "aided" by scummy pal Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two dream of a better life, but we know it ain't gonna happen.
So much of the story seems inevitable, as we can tell this isn't the kind of movie that will feature a happy ending. As such, we're left to the way in which the plot is told to get our entertainment, and director John Schlesinger does move things along at a reasonable pace, though the movie bogs down at times. Put simply, there's not that much of a story to be told, and the characters themselves aren't overly compelling.
As played by Voight and Hoffman, Buck and Rizzo come across as rather cartoonish. Voight's Buck is little more than a broad caricature of a Texan, as wickedly lampooned by Candy on SCTV. His Doctor Tongue followed virtually every line with a hearty "y'all". Voight is engagingly artificial, but fake nonetheless.
I've never been terribly enamored of much of Hoffman's acting, and Rizzo points out his flaws. Too often Hoffman seems to create a peculiar voice or a look, and he lets the affectations run him rather than the other way around too much of the time. That's the case with Rizzo; Hoffman appears so concerned with the funny little voice and the hunched walk that all we get is a cartoon character. I'll admit that Hoffman and Voight provide good cartoons, but they remain broad and unreal.
Such characters can work for some movies, but I couldn't help but feel that Midnight Cowboy would have been better served by more realistic leads. As it stands, Buck and Rizzo are vaguely interesting personalities, but they're almost never likable, sympathetic or compelling. The movie itself provides a decent look at the dark side of the dream, but I'd take better films like Taxi Driver over this one.