Midnight Cowboy gets to be a character study, but doesn’t start as one, which is an interesting situation. About forty-five minutes into the film, which runs just shy of two hours, Midnight Cowboy chucks the narrative urgency. Maybe not chucks, maybe just shuts down, because it does take the film a while to lose that pressure. Until eventually leads Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are sitting around starving to death and the film’s not treating it as problem to be solved; it’s a feature of the characters’ lives. Midnight Cowboy is never a wish fulfillment picture–even when it’s not absent hope, it’s not hopeful–but it goes from being a bad dream to a nightmare without reflecting on the change. And the nightmare runs a lot differently.
The nightmare also starts when Dustin Hoffman becomes the costar who’s taking top billing. When the film initially introduces Hoffman, it doesn’t hint at where the narrative’s going; it also doesn’t forecast what to expect from the actors. Voight and Hoffman have got a lot of character development with almost no expository assistance. Midnight Cowboy is a film with two exceptional performances, both independently ambitious and both agreeably codependent. Director Schlesinger keeps it together–Hoffman and Voight squat in a hovel, their domestic normality utterly shocking and utterly not because the actors and Schlesinger have done such a good job conveying the physicality’s of their performances. It’s like a stage play, those scenes in the apartment, perfectly choreographed, even more perfectly edited by Hugh A. Robertson. It’s an acting ballet, with these two actors playing their previously established caricatures with immediate depth.
The bad dream part of the film, which has Voight arriving in New York City to hustle his cowboy-attired bod out to the wealthy ladies of the Big Apple. Voight has a troubled past, which Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt introduce through flashbacks, usually as dream sequences. Both sleeping and napping dream sequences. Basically, Voight’s always flashing back to something to explain why he’s reacting the way he’s reacting. There’s some narrative efficiency to it, I suppose, but they’re not incorporated well. Voight actually does the best with them, intentionally or not.
It all changes, soon after the nightmare begins, when Hoffman gets his own daydream. It’s a gently done sequence, both actors silent to the audience; excellent editing from Robertson on it. Midnight Cowboy never glamorizes–until this daydream sequence–and it’s mind-blowingly effective in establishing the new angle on the characters. Oddly, Hoffman entirely downplays having the daydream–which is the opposite of Voight–and hits some of the same effectiveness notes for that inverse approach.
In the second half of the film, once Hoffman shares the narrative focus, Midnight Cowboy works more as truncated vignettes. The main plot line is still Voight trying to make it as a hustler, but it’s narratively reduced. Instead, it’s Voight and Hoffman’s bonding over this idea, usually unspoken in every way. It’s a lot of amazing acting from both of them. Hoffman’s loud, Voight’s quiet.
There are some excellent supporting performances–Brenda Vaccaro in particular, John McGiver, Sylvia Miles.
Fine photography from Adam Holender. Midnight Cowboy’s about the editing and Holender keeps up with where Schlesinger needs the camera to be for the cut. Schlesinger just seems impatient until Hoffman gets into the picture full-time. He rushes the first part of the film, then drags it down with the acceptable and pragmatic but way too obvious flashback sequences.
And it all kind of falls apart when Vaccaro’s vignette is over. It’s like the film’s running late, so Schlesinger is rushing again only now he’s got two actors instead of one to hurry along. But the film’s still quite good and the lead performances are phenomenal.
Directed by John Schlesinger; screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Hugh A. Robertson; music by John Barry; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Jerome Hellman; released by United Artists.
Starring Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Dustin Hoffman (Enrico Salvatore Rizzo), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley) and Barnard Hughes (Towny).