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Midnight Cowboy

This article is about the 1969 film. For the novel upon which this film is based, see Midnight Cowboy (novel). For other uses, see Midnight Cowboy (disambiguation).
Midnight Cowboy
File:Midnight Cowboy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Schlesinger
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Screenplay by Waldo Salt
Based on Midnight Cowboy 
by James Leo Herlihy
Starring Dustin Hoffman
Jon Voight
Sylvia Miles
Brenda Vaccaro
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Adam Holender
Edited by Hugh A. Robertson
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • May 25, 1969 (1969-05-25)
Running time
113 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.2 million[1]
Box office $44,785,053[2]

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 American drama film based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. The script was written by Waldo Salt, directed by John Schlesinger, and stars Jon Voight in the title role alongside Dustin Hoffman. Notable smaller roles are filled by Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Salt and Barnard Hughes; M. Emmet Walsh appears in an uncredited cameo.

The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. To date, it is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture.[3] It has since been placed 36th on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, and 43rd on its 2007 updated version.

Plot summary

As the film opens, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young Texan working as a dishwasher, dresses in new cowboy clothing, packs a suitcase, and quits his job. He heads to New York City hoping to succeed as a male prostitute for women. Initially unsuccessful, he succeeds in bedding a well-to-do middle-aged New Yorker (Sylvia Miles), but Joe ends up giving her money.

Joe then meets Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street con man with a limp who takes $20 from Joe by offering to introduce him to a known pimp, who turns out to be a Bible thumper (John McGiver). Joe flees the encounter in pursuit of Ratso. Joe spends his days wandering the city and sitting in his hotel room. Soon broke, he is locked out of his hotel room and most of his belongings are impounded.

He tries to make money by agreeing to receive oral sex from a young man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater. When Joe learns that he has no money, Joe threatens him and asks for his watch, but eventually lets him go. The following day, Joe spots Ratso and angrily shakes him down. Ratso offers to share his apartment in a condemned building. Joe accepts reluctantly, and they begin a "business relationship" as hustlers. As they develop a bond, Ratso's health, which has never been good, grows steadily worse.

Joe's story is told through flashbacks. His grandmother raises him after his mother abandons him, though his grandmother frequently neglects him as well. Ratso's back story comes through stories he tells Joe. His father was an illiterate Italian immigrant shoe-shiner, who worked down in a subway station. He developed a bad back, and "coughed his lungs out from breathin' in that wax all day". Ratso learned shining from his father but won't stoop to it. He dreams of moving one day to Miami.

An unusual couple approach Joe and Ratso in a diner and hand Joe a flyer, inviting him to a party. They enter a Warhol-esque party scene (with Warhol superstars in cameos). Joe smokes a joint, thinking it's a cigarette, and, after taking a pill someone offered, begins to hallucinate. He leaves the party with a socialite (Brenda Vaccaro), who agrees to pay $20 for spending the night with him, but Joe cannot perform. They play Scribbage together, and Joe shows his limited academic prowess. She teasingly suggests that Joe may be gay, and he is suddenly able to perform.

In the morning, the socialite sets up her friend as Joe's next customer, and it appears that his career is on its way. When Joe returns home, Ratso is bedridden and feverish. Ratso refuses medical help and begs Joe to put him on a bus to Florida. Desperate, Joe picks up a man in an amusement arcade (Barnard Hughes), and when things go wrong, robs the man when he tries to pay with a religious medallion instead of cash. With the cash, Joe buys bus tickets. On the journey, Ratso's frail physical condition further deteriorates. At a rest stop, Joe buys new clothing for Ratso and himself, discarding his cowboy outfit. As they near Miami, Joe talks of getting a regular job, only to realize Ratso has died. The driver tells Joe there is nothing else to do, but continue on to Miami. The film closes with Joe, alone and afraid, seated with his arm around his dead friend.


Production notes

Midnight Cowboy was Adam Holender's first cinematography assignment; he was recommended to Schlesinger by Holender's childhood friend, filmmaker Roman Polanski.[4]

According to Schlesinger his inspiration to make the movie came from the 1967 Yugoslav film by a Serbian director Živojin Pavlović, "When I Am Dead and Gone".[5]

The opening scenes were filmed in Big Spring, Texas. A roadside billboard stating "IF YOU DON'T HAVE AN OIL WELL...GET ONE!" was shown as the New York-bound bus carrying Joe Buck rolled through Texas.[6] Such advertisements, common in the Southwestern United States in the late-1960s and through the 1970s, promoted Eddie Chiles' Western Company of North America.[7]

Joe first realises the bus is nearing New York when he hears a Ron Lundy broadcast on WABC while listening to his pocket radio.[8] At the time of filming in 1968, Lundy worked the midday shift (10 AM–1 PM) Monday through Saturday at the radio station.[9]

Joe stayed at the Hotel Claridge, at the southeast corner of Broadway and West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan. His room overlooked the northern half of Times Square.[10] The building, designed by D. H. Burnham & Company and opened in 1911, has since been demolished.[11]

A motif featured three times throughout the New York scenes was the sign at the top of the facade of the Mutual of New York (MONY) Building at 1740 Broadway.[6] It was extended into the Scribbage scene with Shirley the socialite, when Joe's incorrect spelling of the word "money" matched that of the signage.[12]

Despite his portrayal of Joe Buck, a character hopelessly out of his element in New York, Jon Voight is a native New Yorker, hailing from Yonkers.[13] Dustin Hoffman, who played a grizzled veteran of New York's streets, is from Los Angeles.[14][15]

Voight was paid "scale", or the Screen Actors Guild minimum wage, for his portrayal of Joe Buck, a concession he willingly made to obtain the part.[16]

The line "I'm walkin' here!", which reached #27 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes, is often said to have been improvised, but producer Jerome Hellman disputes this account on the 2-disc DVD set of Midnight Cowboy. However, Hoffman explained it differently on an installment of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. He stated that there were many takes to hit the traffic light just right, so, they didn't have to pause while walking. In that take, the timing was perfect, and a cab came out of nowhere and nearly hit them. Hoffman wanted to say, "We're filming a movie here!", but decided not to ruin the take.[17]

Upon initial review by the Motion Picture Association of America, Midnight Cowboy received a "Restricted" ("R") rating. However, after consulting with a psychologist, executives at United Artists were told to accept an "X" rating, due to the "homosexual frame of reference" and its "possible influence upon youngsters". The film was released with an X.[18] The MPAA later broadened the requirements for the "R" rating to allow more content and raised the age restriction from sixteen to seventeen. The film was later rated "R" for a reissue in 1971 with no edits made. The film retains its R rating.[18][19]

It was during the making of Midnight Cowboy that Schlesinger met his long-time partner, the photographer Michael Childers, whom he hired as his assistant.[20]


The film earned $11 million in rentals at the North American box office.[21]

The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay; it is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar in any category, and one of three X-rated films nominated for an Oscar (the others being Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 film Last Tango in Paris). Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Best Actor awards and Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, in what is one of the shortest performances nominated (clocking at about five minutes of screen time). Hugh A. Robertson was nominated for the best film editing Academy Award. In addition, the film won six BAFTA Awards. It was also entered into the 19th Berlin International Film Festival.[22][23]

In 1994, this film was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.


John Barry, who supervised the music and composed the score, won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme.[24] Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin'" won a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, for Harry Nilsson.

Schlesinger chose the song "Everybody's Talkin'" (written by Fred Neil and performed by Harry Nilsson) as its theme, and the song underscores the first act. Other songs considered for the theme included Nilsson's own "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" and Randy Newman's "Cowboy". (Bob Dylan wrote "Lay Lady Lay" to serve as the theme song, but did not finish the song in time.)

The song "He Quit Me" was on the soundtrack, performed by Lesley Miller; it was written by Warren Zevon, who included it (as "She Quit Me") on his debut album Wanted Dead or Alive. The soundtrack also features music from Elephant's Memory, Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, and electronic music passages performed by Moog Synthesizer pioneer Walter Sear.

The movie's main theme, "Midnight Cowboy", featured harmonica by Toots Thielemans, although Barry himself did not like it. It was covered by instrumental duo Ferrante & Teicher as a single, and reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart in January 1970.[25]

A soundtrack album for the film was released by United Artists Records in 1969.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company The Changed the Film Industry, Uni of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p 292
  2. ^ "Box Office Information for Midnight Cowboy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 26, 2012. 
  3. ^ Ditmore, Melissa Hope (2006). "Midnight Cowboy". Encyclopedia of prostitution and sex work 1. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 307–308. ISBN 0-313-32968-0. 
  4. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (February 27, 2005). "'Midnight Cowboy' and the very dark horse its makers rode in on". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 27, 2009. 
  5. ^ Surfing the Black - Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments Author: Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić and Žiga Testen Publisher: Jan van Eyck ISBN 978-90-72076-51-9
  6. ^ a b Chris. "Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  7. ^ Barry Popik. "The Big Apple: "If you don’t have an oil well, get one!" (Eddie Chiles of Western Company)". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  8. ^ "Ron Lundy Retires From Radio". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  9. ^ "WABC Schedule 1966-1970". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  10. ^ "Midnight Cowboy Film Locations - On the set of New". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  11. ^ "Hotel Claridge, New York City -". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  12. ^ "Midnight Cowboy (1969)". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  13. ^ "Jon Voight". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  14. ^ "Monitor". Entertainment Weekly (1219) (Time Inc.). August 10, 2012. p. 27.
  15. ^ "Dustin Lee Hoffman, Born 08/08/1937 in California -". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  16. ^ "Voight Worked for Scale for 'Midnight Cowboy' Role". New York Times. Aug 29, 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-29. 
  17. ^ Onda, David. "Greatest Unscripted Movie Moments". Xinfinity. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  18. ^ a b United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry by Tino Balio
  19. ^ Monaco, Paul (2001). History of the American Cinema: 1960–1969. The Sixties, Volume 8. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-520-23804-4. p. 166
  20. ^ "Midnight Revolution". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  21. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1969", Variety, 7 January 1970 p 15
  22. ^ " Awards for Midnight Cowboy". Retrieved 2010-03-07. 
  23. ^ "Tri City Herald – Jul 6, 1969". Google News. Retrieved 2010-03-07. [dead link]
  24. ^ "Midnight Cowboy (1969)"., Inc. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  25. ^ Smith, Jeff (1998). The Sounds of Commerce. Columbia University Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-231-10863-8. 
  26. ^ "Midnight Cowboy - John Barry". Retrieved 28 April 2015. 

External links