It may be nigh-on impossible to watch any Dustin Hoffman these days without hearing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon parodying his nasal New York accent, but I watched John Schlesinger’s classic Midnight Cowboy the other night and it still remains an astute metaphor for the mess America is in, now as then.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a dim-witted pretty boy from the South. He’s looking to hustle, having heard on his ever present transistor radio that there are lonely, horny rich housewives out there in that there New York city, and since “loving’s all I ever been good for”, he decides to relocate from his lonely Texas town, only to be met with the grim reality that folks ain’t so friendly, nor money plentiful.
Co-star Hoffman as crippled sleazeball Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo becomes his unlikely companion, a perma-hacking, sweaty little man with street smarts (he’s a petty thief) and his own big plans. He’s going to Florida, see?
The flashbacks of abuse and a doomed love affair with Crazy Annie marinade Buck’s back-story in sadness, with the sense that the past lives in the present, and that people are pretty much universally corrupt, regardless of where we land.
It’s as sour as eight day old guacamole, a savage satire on the American Dream, the flip side even to Gatsby. NY is populated by cynical rich ladies who exploit Buck’s naiveté, hipsters who hold happenings (Warhol superstars Viva, Joe Dallesandro and Paul Morrissey appear in trippy party scenes) drugged -out mothers, and crazed Jesus freaks imposing their lunacy on others in shabby rooms.
Buck becomes increasingly savvy, corrupt, and ultimately, violent, caring only for himself and his new surrogate brother. It doesn’t end well, suffice it to say.
The film, adapted from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, may be a time capsule of the late sixties, but it’s sadly as true now as it ever was, as well as a beautifully performed character study of two lost souls buddying up against the world.
The big cities may be gentrified and homogenised in 2021, but for the poor, sick and dispossessed, the problems remain unassailable.