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Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy, 1969

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his small town life to go to New York City, where he hopes to become successful as a prostitute serving the women of the city. Discovering that it's not quite that easy, Joe falls in with "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a chronically ill small-time grifter with dreams of a life in Miami. As the film goes on, the rough reality of city life wears on both men, even as their friendship strengthens.

This is another rewatch for me, and I think that the film went up a bit on this second viewing.

This film is a heartbreaker, with Joe's tragic backstory unfolding through a series of disjoint and bizarre flashbacks. The more we learn about Joe's past trauma---involving the assault/sexual assault on his girlfriend and probably a sexual assault that he endured as well---the more his adopted persona and desperation make sense. Joe has created an image for himself crafted from his ultimate notion of masculinity---the John Wayne-style cowboy. When he first swans into the diner where he works, bragging that he's going to the city to make money from sleeping with women, it feels like a lot of alpha male bluster. And it sort of is. But the more we get to know Joe, the more we see that this is an act that he has created to cope with a certain degree of shame and self-loathing.

Joe is searching for himself. And unfortunately for him, the New York City he lands in is not the land of possibilities of the past. Instead it is a decaying, often cruel landscape. We frequently see buildings being demolished or condemned apartments being crowbarred open by city employees. Ratso, a man who has adapted himself to this harsh environment, is at once Joe's savior and an emblem of the futility of trying to find success. Hoffman's sweating, agitated performance as Ratso is really excellent. In Ratso, Joe finds a different variation on the self-loathing he has tried to escape. But Ratso refuses to costume himself or fake it 'til he makes it. Joe's naivete and enthusiasm invigorates him for a short while, but the oppressive reality of his situation cannot be denied.

The film also touches on the very fraught issue of how, for men, sexual assault and sexuality, and self-hatred can become a very potent and deadly mixture. Throughout the film, Joe's sexuality is frequently questioned. Ratso tells him that his cartoonish cowboy look is the kind of camp thing that only appeals to gay men. A hurt Joe defensively tries to explain that he likes the way he looks, and likes the way that he feels in those clothes. I don't think that Joe is meant to be gay, but I do think that his experience of helplessness and having been assaulted has maybe made him afraid that he is. Joe has two encounters with gay men who want his services, and the difference between them is striking. I thought it was interesting that it was the second man---the one who openly expressed self-hatred--who most evoked Joe's rage. We frequently see that Joe is much more soft-hearted than the coldly masculine front he tries to put on. And the only moments of real rage/aggression come when his sexuality is questioned.

The emotional heart of the film is the friendship--and I would go as far as to say love--between Ratso and Joe. Probably my favorite moment in the film is when Joe tries to help Ratso clean himself up before the two go into a party. As Joe uses his shirt to wipe Ratso's face, Ratso just leans his head into Joe's torso, even lifting his arm to hold him by the hip. For two characters who have shown a lot of knee-jerk homophobia, it's a breakthrough moment of physical intimacy, and in a film that's theoretically about sex and sexuality, probably the most powerful moment of intimacy that we see. The men become invested in each others' wellbeing. In a different film, this united front would see them through to better things. But the world around them is a little too rotten, a little too unkind. And what kindness they get---like a woman who hires Joe and then later is willing to help him find more clients---comes too little too late.

The whole look and feel of this film is really great. Glad I got a chance to revisit it!