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John Schlesinger wanted to make a film of James Leo Herlihy's 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy soon after it was published. When he suggested the project to United Artists, however, he found that a reader in their story department had already submitted an unfavourable report on the book. The reader said that the action of the novel went steadily downhill from the outset, and had recommended that the company not acquire the film rights. Schlesinger, on the other hand, saw dramatic possibilities in the story of a Texan named Joe Buck, who comes to New York with illusions that he can make easy money as a male companion to wealthy women. United Artists eventually decided to let him make Midnight Cowboy (1969), and the film won Academy Awards for best director, best adapted screenplay, and best film; and was a huge financial success in both America and England.
Joe (Jon Voight) is himself taken advantage of repeatedly by the assortment of tough and desperate individuals he encounters in the course of his descent into the netherworld of New York's slums, and at one point it looks as if he will become as ruthless as the rest. However, he makes a friend of Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a repulsive-looking bum who needs companionship as much as Joe does; and the two take refuge in each other's friendship. Their relationship is not homosexual; rather, as Schlesinger pointed out to this writer, the story shows ''how two men can have a meaningful relationship without being homosexual.'' The film is faithful to the novel from which it is derived, but Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt exercised some degree of freedom in adapting it to the screen. The first third of the novel, dealing with Joe's lonely youth, is compressed into a few fragmented flashbacks, as he makes his way cross-country by bus. These flashbacks indicate how unsuccessful Joe's search for friendship and love has been up to this point and explain why Ratso is fulfilling a need in Joe's emotional life.
There is an interesting religious dimension that becomes apparent in the film when one examines it in-depth. While Joe travels crosscountry on his way to New York, his Bible-belt religious formation is sketched for us as he listens to a faith healer preaching on the radio and notices through the bus window the words ''Jesus Saves'' painted on the roof of an abandoned shed. Once in New York Joe meets a Mr. O'Daniel (John McGiver), a religious fanatic who tries to force Joe to pray with him before a garish statue of Christ that flashes on and off like a neon sign. As Joe escapes from Mr. O'Daniel's shabby hotel room, Schlesinger intercuts shots of Joe's boyhood baptism in a river. Though Joe's religious experiences have not always been pleasant, there is inbred in him a need for some kind of religious belief to give meaning and purpose to his life. Significantly, the only friend that Joe makes in New York is Ratso, an Italian Catholic from the Bronx, who sleeps in the condemned tenement they share with a picture of Christ hanging over his bed. Small church candles provide illumination at night because the electric power has long since been shut off. These and other religious references in the film have a cumulative effect on the viewer. ''Is God dead?'' a bishop asks rhetorically in a TV sermon. One might be tempted to answer ''yes''—at least in the corrupt world in which Joe finds himself among the low life of New York's slums. Yet these isolated reminders of religion, which Joe encounters throughout the film, are like so many souvenirs of a faith that he has somehow mislaid, but which he has never completely abandoned hope of finding again. It is true that Joe does not have his faith in God strengthened in any explicit way in the picture but through his friendship with Ratso, he does have his faith in mankind restored; and that in itself is significant.
As their various money-making schemes fail ludicrously, Joe and Ratso begin to care about each other's welfare—something that has never happened to either of them before. Joe literally sells his blood for money in order to buy medicine for his tubercular friend. Joe and Ratso are like two orphans in a storm, huddling together for safety. More than once they are photographed through a fence, implying that they are imprisoned together in a cruel and indifferent world and must stick together for survival. It is all the more poignant, therefore, when Joe and Ratso both begin to realize that Ratso's illness is fatal and that he is never going to recover. Frantically, Joe steals money to take Ratso to Florida before he dies, since they have both looked forward to going there as a kind of retreat to a benign earthly paradise, however Ratso dies aboard the bus just before they reach their destination. Joe, tears in his eyes, puts his arm around Ratso in the only overt gesture of affection in the film. The ending, nonetheless, is not pessimistic. Having experienced the friendship denied him in youth, Joe is ready to embark on a more mature way of life; his adolescent illusions about the easy life are now shattered.
Schlesinger says that he tried to breathe into the film ''the mixture of desperation and humour'' which he found all along Forty-second Street in New York while filming there, and in fact he does. It is noteworthy that a British director could bring such an authentic sense of realism to a film made in what for him is a foreign country. He has captured the atmosphere of New York, Miami Beach, and the Texas Pandhandle in Midnight Cowboy as surely as he captured the atmosphere of his native England in films like Sunday, Bloody Sunday.
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