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New Movies: Improbable Love Story

4 minute read

They gather with the twilight in every city, swaggering under awnings and before the fluorescent lights of cafeteria windows. They like to bill themselves as “studs,” but they are guys who swing from both sides of the bed. Around them swirls another kind of urban flotsam: maimed, embittered victims with out a prayer of sexual gratification or a hope of companionship. From these unpromising fragments, James Leo Herlihy wrote a lyric blues ballad disguised as a novel. The film adaptation of Midnight Cowboy may grant that ballad too much orchestration, but it preserves its essential compassion and humor.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a strutting phallus, good, he admits, for nothin’ but lovin’. His muscles are like his mind, heavy and ornamental. His eyes are like attic windows, blank and blue, opening onto a pile of dusty junk. The son and grandson of prostitutes, Joe flees the loveless desolation of his Tex as home and heads for Manhattan.

There, in his cowboy paraphernalia, he is as out of place as a stallion in a park ing lot. The demon lover swaggers before a mirror; a clown peers back.

Wrecking Ball. After a series of sexual skirmishes, Joe finds himself smack in the middle of the country he left: despair. As he wanders, he comes upon Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). A septic, crippled thief, Rizzo lives, like his nicknamesake, in the upper reaches of a condemned building, waiting for the wrecking ball. In a sense it has already arrived. Though he nourishes fantasies of a future in Miami, Ratso is too frail to last the winter. With a final galvanic reach for life, he extends a greasy hand —and Joe Buck takes it.

Nothing overt ever transpires between them; every conversation is an exchange of slurs. They become inseparable chiefly because they share a common loss: both could sue life for alienation of affections. Joe Buck is alternately a male hustler and a gigolo; if he knows a lot about sex, he is, like Ratso, ignorant of sympathy. Neither realizes that the only place he has ever found it is in his companion. Yet by the time the two head for Florida, they have become aspects of the same person. As the thief coughs his way to death aboard a bus, the cowboy is literally beside himself with grief.

TV Clicks. A simple tale of simple souls demands a simple style. Accordingly, Herlihy’s prose was like a pane of glass, with the described objects clearly in view. Director John Schlesinger sometimes seems less interested in Buck and Rizzo than in himself, covering his film with a haze of stylistictics and baroque decorations. Buck’s involuntary memory provides him with a series of erotic flashbacks; the film illustrates them with the primitivity of a comic book. Joe’s heterosexual encounters are treated with suppressed smirks. During one love session he bounces up and down on a TV remote control, so that Schlesinger can represent his athletics with quick TV clicks of Al Jolson in blackface, a bishop preaching and a Stegosaurus lunging through a forest.

Still, no amount of obfuscation can obscure the film’s vaulting performances. Ratso is so unkempt that he can be smelled, so unredeemed that he can be lamented. From his debut as the open-faced Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Hoffman has progressed by stepping backward—to a supporting part. It is an act of rare skill and rarer generosity. No matter how well Ratso is performed, Midnight Cowboy is, after all, the tale of Joe Buck. It is a mark of Voight’s intelligence that he works against his role’s melodramatic tendencies and toward a central human truth. In the process, he and Hoffman bring to life one of the least likely and most melancholy love stories in the history of the American film.

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