Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Midnight Cowboy (1969)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In John Schlesinger's X-rated (originally) Best Picture-winning drama, accompanied by a soundtrack with Harry Nilsson's haunting tune "Everybody's Talkin'" and the soulful sounds of his harmonica, and based on James Leo Herlihy's 1965 novel - it was a major milestone although controversial at its time for its gay-related content and subject of male prostitution; the title "midnight cowboy" referred to nocturnal cowboys in the big city - those who were hustlers; it became the first (and only) X-rated (for adult-oriented, not porno) mainstream film (later reduced to R) to be voted Best Picture, with an A-list stars, at a time when the ratings system was first introduced.

The Oscar-winning film was an exceptional, provocative, and gritty character portrait, filmed on location in New York to portray seediness, corruption, and big-city anonymity. It was unusual for the film rating to be so high, since the unflinching film did NOT contain significant profanity, graphically-brutal violence, or frontal nudity, although it did portray some partial nudity and simulations of sex:

  • the adult-themed story opened in a small Texas town, where a naive, swaggering, uneducated, "cowboyish" dishwasher/stud - a misinformed, pretty-boy blonde named Joe Buck (Jon Voight), believed the illusion that he could score big by hustling sex-starved, rich women for his sexual prowess and the services of a real man - he quit his job, and boarded a bus bound for the big city of New York; the transplanted and displaced Texan believed he could become a successful hustler or gigolo - posing as a "macho midnight cowboy"
  • in brief flashbacks during his trip across the heartland, it was revealed that the emasculated male was raised by two women (his mother and grandmother) in a home without men; he also was reminded of his past passionate sexual relationship with girlfriend "Crazy" Annie (Jennifer Salt, the screenwriter's daughter), who kept promising him that she was being faithful by telling him: "You're the only one. You're better Joe. You're better than the rest of 'em"
  • upon his arrival in NYC, he checked into the Claridge Hotel, where he vainly posed shirtless in front of his hotel room's mirror; he had decorated his fifth-floor, second-rate hotel room with a torn beefcake poster of Paul Newman from Hud (1963) and a picture of a topless woman from a men's magazine; the transplanted 'cowboy' aspired to fulfill his dreams in NYC; however, as he walked down Fifth Avenue, his tall Texan figure, taken with a telephoto lens, bobbed through the densely-crowded, anonymous sea of people
  • Joe's first trick was fast-talking, brassy society girl Cass (Best Supporting Actress nominee Sylvia Miles), a professional hooker who out-hustled Joe in her Park Avenue penthouse apartment; during a comedic sex scene, they humorously activated channels with the TV remote control beneath their bodies - the metaphoric climax came with the closeup view of the winning results of a slot machine jackpot - spewed-out coins
  • Cass turned the tables on Joe by talking him out of his money as she quickly dressed to leave via taxi for her next client ("You were gonna ask me for money? Who the hell do you think you're dealing with?"), and she reached into his wallet to get paid
  • disillusioned and sitting in a tacky bar, Joe was befriended by another impoverished, limping, coughing, homeless, vagrant street hustler from the Bronx, a sickly, repulsive-looking, unshaven and scruffy bum named Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman); Ratso, an inveterate con artist, learned that Joe was a "hustler" and immediately suggested taking over as his street manager; he suggested becoming Joe's pimp connection - to help set him up and introduce him to "social register types" - rich lady clients
  • in the famous "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" scene, the crippled Ratso crossed a busy New York City street and banged with his fist on a taxi-cab hood that almost hit him, and demanded respect
  • Ratso hoodwinked Joe and set him up with his first client - Joe was actually beginning his career as a homosexual street hustler in the sordid 42nd Street area of NY; Joe was sent to the room of Mr. O'Daniel (John McGiver) in a shabby, flea-bitten hotel room, where Joe boasted: "Uh, well, sir, I-I ain't a for-real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud"
Joe's Many Clients (Homosexual)

Mr. O'Daniel (John McGiver)

Gay Young Student (Bob Balaban)
  • Mr. O'Daniel - Joe's first homosexual client, was a religiously fanatical and homosexual, guilt-ridden, Jesus-freak Christian; during their time together, the scene was intercut with Joe's flashback to his disturbed and abused boyhood when he was baptized in a river (recalled as terrifying); Joe also had more memories of his ex-girlfriend "Crazy" Annie, when the two were brutally pulled from making out in their car by enviously-jealous Texas males
  • soon enough, Joe found himself enmeshed in the netherworld of New York's Times Square, a place of desperation, futility, dashed hopes and false dreams; destitute, low on money, and kicked out of his hotel, Joe became desperate and resorted to getting picked up by a bespectacled, geeky young gay student (Bob Balaban) outside a movie theatre; during their sexual encounter in the darkened theatre, Joe had more bizarre images of sex with Annie, as she again told him: "You're the only one, Joe". Unable to collect from the frightened, sickened and penniless student, Joe slept in the all-night theatre
  • Joe ran into Ratso again, and although he was vengeful, the two of them realized their impoverished state; Ratso was also broke and suffering from a hacking cough (from TB), but invited Joe to share his filthy condemned, East Village tenement building where he lived; they both found themselves destitute and barely surviving; while taking a nap there, Joe experienced a more frightening, complete flashback of he and his girlfriend's vicious seizure and assault by town rednecks visualized in his sinister dreams - he was homosexually raped and she was traumatically gang-raped
  • they began to develop an unspoken homosexual relationship and bond together which included frequent bickering, as Ratso taught Joe the rules of the game; together, they committed petty crimes, while Ratso fantasized about relocating to idyllic Florida to frolic on the beach and score big; Joe realized that he was unable to succeed in the big city without the assistance of a real hustler - they paired up again in a pathetic client/managerial partnership, with Ratso serving as Joe's pimp or stud manager
  • Ratso continued to have his favorite fantasy dream - during Joe's propositioning of a woman - in which he was in Florida in good health and enjoying the good life there without a limp (sunning, sprinting with Joe on the beach, having his shoes shined on a terrace above a luxury hotel's swimming pool, being pampered, gambling with rich dowager women, being admired by women from balconies, and sampling a gourmet spread) - until the deal fell apart (and so did the dream)
  • as winter and cold approached and Ratso lost their condemned apartment home, Ratso's cough and medical condition worsened; together, they visited the cemetery and tombstone-gravesite of Ratso's illiterate father who couldn't sign his name; Joe began to care for his ailing feverish friend Ratso, who was suffering from the end stages of tuberculosis
  • momentarily, they both experienced the riches of the American dream when invited to a freaky Greenwich Village party by a "couple of fruity wackos" (Gastone Rossilli and Warhol's Viva); as they ascended the stairs to attend an underground film-making party in Greenwich Village, Joe wiped off the sweaty head of ailing friend Ratso in the stairway, before they found free food, drugs, and opportunities for sex; at the ultra-hip, Warholesque psychedelic party, an out-of-place Ratso sized up the "wacko" hosts
With Heterosexual Female Client Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro)

  • at the party, Joe attracted the attention of a rich, also-stoned socialite named Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), who was quite willing to pay $20 for his services and take him home - she was his first successful heterosexual score; at first, though, he suffered sexual inadequacy until angered when she teasingly suggested that he was gay: ("Gay, fey. Is that your problem, baby?") - and then he performed vigorously; afterwards by phone, she recommended his studly services to an unhappily-married female friend named Marjorie
  • Joe was jubilant about his success as a hustler, but at the same time, Ratso had become deathly ill with pneumonia; he admitted that he was afraid of not being able to walk anymore: ("You know what they do to you when they know you can't... When they find out that you can't wa... walk. Oh, Christ!"); his dying wish was to be taken to Florida: ("You ain't gettin' me no doctor...No doctors, no cops. Don't be so stupid...You get me to Florida...Just put me on a bus....You ain't sendin' me to Bellevue")
  • Joe's final trick, to acquire money for the trip, was with another homosexual - a middle-aged Catholic man named Towny (Barnard Hughes); back at the man's hotel room, in the last sordid act of his street-life existence, things turned violent. Joe ended up in a rage, brutally attacking the self-loathing, mother-dominated, despicable man after receiving a St. Christopher's Medal and only ten dollars; he committed a horrible crime - he robbed the man of all his money and then brutalized the customer, probably killing him; he left after jamming the phone receiver into the man's bloodied, toothless mouth
  • in the film's final sequence, Joe frantically dragged Ratso to a bus bound for sunny Florida, using the last of their money to pay the bus fare and help realize Ratso's dream of moving there. To the end, Ratso wanted to maintain his dignity and insisted on being called "En(Rico)" in Florida
  • from New York and venturing southward to his dream during their poignant Florida-bound bus trip, Ratso wet his pants and his body was wracked with pain: ("Here I am goin' to Florida, my leg hurts, my butt hurts, my chest hurts, my face hurts, and like that ain't enough, I gotta pee all over myself. (Joe chuckled) That's funny? I'm fallin' apart here")
  • during an extended rest stop in northern Florida, Joe bought new warm weather clothes for the two of them, and symbolically discarded his own 'midnight cowboy' costume/gear (boots, fringe jacket, hat) in a trash container. As they approached the environs of Miami, he had dressed Ratso in a new, more comfortable flowery shirt
  • as palm trees and views of endless beaches passed by the window, Joe realized that his best buddy had passed away; Ratso died next to Joe, as he talked about their better future in Florida: ("I got this damn thing all figured out. When we get to Miami, what we'll do is get some sort of job, you know. Cause hell, I ain't no kind of hustler. I mean, there must be an easier way of makin' a living than that. Some sort of outdoors work. Whaddya think? Yeah, that's what I'll do. OK Rico? Rico? Rico? Hey, Rico? Rico?")
  • in the final scene with tears forming in Joe's eyes, Joe affectionately wrapped his arm around Rico's shoulder and held him, while palm trees were reflected on the window glass - in a view from outside the bus, as the film slowly faded to black and ended; Joe would now face life alone without the aid of his pal to guide him through, but he had learned his limitations and true potential from his friend

"Cowboy" Hustler Joe Buck Leaving Texas

Flashbacks of Love-Making With Ex-Girlfriend Annie (Jennifer Salt)

Joe on the Crowded Streets of NYC

With Society Girl Cass (Sylvia Miles)

Encounter with Ratso Rizzo in Tacky Bar

Ratso: "Hey, I'm walkin' here!"

Co-dependent Buck and Rizzo in His Tenement Building Dwelling

Continuing Fantasies of Frolicking on the Florida Beach

Visiting The Gravesite of Ratso's Illiterate Father

Joe Wiping Rizzo's Sweaty Head Before Greenwich Village Party

Joe Buck's Caring for the Dying Rizzo

The Fateful Bus Trip to Florida


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