It’s rare indeed for one film to see two leads nominated for the same Oscar, but both Voight, a relative newcomer to the screen, and Hoffman, in only his second major role after The Graduate, were both up for Best Actor in Midnight Cowboy. Neither won, but Schlesinger and scriptwriter Salt both picked up Oscars, as did the film for Best Picture.
Voight plays Joe Buck, a Texan rube tired of washing dishes in a small-town diner who reckons he can make it as a stud in New York, servicing bored women for big bucks. But on arrival, he finds his cowboy act doesn’t work and he’s soon the one being hustled by Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), better known as Ratso, a crippled streetwise down-and-out. The pair form an unlikely relationship, with Ratso grooming Buck as a gay hustler, but both dream of Florida, where Ratso’s ill-health will be cured and Buck will be able to score with the ladies. After ending up in the gutter, Buck explodes, beating and robbing a male client for the pair’s bus fare. But as they pass the state line, only one of them is alive to see the palm trees…
Schlesinger uses the pair as opposites, using Buck’s naïve country character as the counter to Ratso’s big city hustler and so offering two views of the Big Apple’s dark side. But at the same time, he allows their characters to develop, with Buck’s self-dignity slowly being stripped away layer-by-layer while Ratso, as he becomes sicker, relies more and more on his increasingly disillusioned ‘partner’. Despite Midnight Cowboy being rooted in the ’60s, it still resonates today thanks to two towering performances.
USA / 1969
Director: John Schlesinger
Writer: Waldo Salt, from James Leo Herlihy’s novel
Cast: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vacarro