The strangest and most magical day in the history of the Oscars was April 7, 1970. Somehow, a little X-rated drama called “Midnight Cowboy” won Best Picture.
Fifty years ago, the Academy consisted mostly of Hollywood insiders who remembered a time when foul language and nudity in movies was absolutely forbidden. And many still remembered the silent film era, when spectacle and broad comedy reigned and subtly and mundane drama was considered too boring for the big screen.
One thing is for sure: no one in the Academy had seen a major American movie quite like this. “Midnight Cowboy” tells the uncensored story of Joe Buck (Jon Voigt). He’s a good-natured, gregarious young Texan who has decided to move to New York City to earn a living sleeping with older ladies for money.
Where the heck did he get this idea? British director John Schlesinger gives us evocative flashbacks to Joe’s childhood, when he probably was molested by his grandmother and may have been raped by bullies.
Joe Buck is not the smartest guy, and his plan predictably falls flat. After an awkward and amusing series of prostitution misadventures, poor Joe finds himself dead broke and completely alone.
Before the mean streets of New York completely swallow him up, Joe is fortunate to find a friend. He meets a fellow unemployed lowlife named Enrico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). People call him Ratzo and he hates that more than anything. But he’s sickly and handicapped so he can’t do much about it.
Ratzo kindly invites Joe to live with him for free. Sounds like a pretty sweet offer, until we learn that Ratzo’s home is a one room apartment in a condemned building that has no electricity or heat.
“Midnight Cowboy” broke every conceivable rule of old Hollywood. There’s deviant sex and the tone is unrelentingly grim.
My favorite thing about “Midnight Cowboy” is how it presents Joe and Ratzo’s life of poverty. It doesn’t romanticize poverty or overdramatize it. We see the daily struggles of life without money or comfort, like the hassle of heating frozen food over a little fire and the luxury of a mug of hot soup.
John Schlesinger makes the forceful point that Joe Buck isn’t a homeless person: he’s a man who happens to have no home. He gets more desperate and a little harder around the edges – yes – but he’s still the same optimistic guy we met in Texas during the opening credits.
To a 21st Century audience, the film is a depressing reminder that city life has gotten even worse for poor people. Joe and Ratzo’s life is lousy, but at least they have beds, a roof over their heads, and some privacy. Today, there are fewer abandoned buildings, rent is much higher, and men like them are living in tents on the street.
“Midnight Cowboy” is a darn good movie. But it is most interesting to me as an Oscar mystery. What was in the Hollywood water in 1970? Why did they award Best Picture to a depressing, no-frills adult film?
I have no idea why the Academy did such a brave thing fifty years ago. I just think it’s amazing, and it partially makes up for the mediocre melodramas that have been winning Best Picture lately (“Parasite,” “The Shape of Water”).