The Making of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

A film lover’s film book about the strangely underrated Oscar winner

Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a film lover’s film book. Franken takes you deep inside the making of this landmark work, in an insightful, engaging book that holds your interest from the first page, even if you’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy. This is because the broad approach he takes to the subject, indicated by the subtitle: “Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic.” Frankel designed this book to cover a lot of ground.

Midnight Cowboy

The film’s elements have become embedded in popular culture: Dustin Hoffman’s improvisational (or was it…?) riposte “I’m walkin’ here!”; the melancholy sounds of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” instantly conjuring up images of a lonely Jon Voight trying to find his way in New York City’s crowded, indifferent streets. Yet Frankel feels the film community somewhat underrates Midnight Cowboy, relegating director John Schlesinger to a second tier far behind the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola. The novel Schlesinger based the film on, by forgotten author John Herlihy, went out of print long ago. ‘Shooting Midnight Cowboy’ seeks to reclaim its place in film history, and how a film that reflected its turbulent era became timeless.

Frankel carefully unravels all the disparate strands of the creative team. In retrospect, it seems improbable that Midnight Cowboy would have attracted Schlesinger in the first place. After making his name with the British films A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, and Darling, he’d had a flop with Far From the Madding Crowd, and desperately needed to get his career back on track. Midnight Cowboy, with its bleak portrayal of New York’s sleazy underbelly, hardly seemed like a commercial prospect. 

James Herlihy, variously an actor, playwright, and author, mentored by Anais Nin and Tennessee Williams, thought Midnight Cowboy was the best thing he’d ever written. But it received mixed reviews, and its frank depiction of straight and gay sex was shocking for its time; Herlihy’s own mother called the book “pornographic.” But Schlesinger sensed the dramatic possibilities in the relationship between the novel’s two protagonists, the naïve, would-be Texan hustler Joe Buck, and the impoverished low-life Ratso Rizzo. This was key to the film’s underlying appeal; looking past the seediness of the setting to the humanity of the characters.

Every page has a new wealth of detail. Producers approached Truman Capote and Gore Vidal each to write the script. Vidal called Herlihy’s novel “garbage” and suggested to Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman that they instead make a film of his own book, The City and the Pillar. Neither Jon Voight or Dustin Hoffman were the first choices for, respectively, Buck and Rizzo. They’d actually cast Michael Serrazin as Joe Buck, only to lose the part when financial negotiations broke down (on hearing the news, Serrazin ripped his phone from the wall). The dilapidated doorway where Voight and Hoffman posed for the iconic shot used on the film’s poster was at 63-65 Suffolk Street, now the site of luxury apartments selling for up to $7.3 million. 

Though Hoffman claimed he’d shouted “I’m walkin’ here!” when a taxicab driver not connected with the filming mistakenly plowed into the intersection of Sixth Avenue and West Fifty-Eighth Street during the shoot, Frankel points out the sequence was actually in the script. Hoffman only improvised the specific line.

Frankel also takes apart the mythology of the film’s X rating, devoting an entire chapter to the subject. The MPAA had initially given Midnight Cowboy an R rating, but Arthur Krim, co-chair of United Artists (who released the film), insisted it be upgraded to an X. The thought that an R-rating would allow children to see the film (albeit when accompanied by an adult) troubled Krim, especially after a psychiatrist advised him that the film’s “homosexual frame of reference” might cause impressionable young minds to view heterosexuality in a negative light—a bizarre rationale, as the movie hardly makes gay life seem the better option.

Schlesinger, who was gay (as was Herlihy) had no intention of making a “gay movie,” largely out of concern that it would push a mainstream audience too far. Thus he contrasts Joe and Ratso’s presumed heterosexuality  with the pathetic gay men who are in the film; the nervous young man who gives Joe a blow job then admits he has no money to pay, and a middle-aged businessman who earns Joe’s wrath when the money he offers comes up short and moans “I deserve this!” as Joe beats him. But there’s nonetheless an intimacy between the two that takes Midnight Cowboy into unexpected emotional territory. Frankel quotes from Gary Needham’s essay, “Hollywood Trade”: “The film brought issues of male sexuality, male intimacy, male trauma, and male damage to the fore in ways that had never been examined in Hollywood with such explicitness and sympathy.”

Frankel probes into every area of the film’s creation, from costuming (designer Ann Roth made Joe’s suede jacket herself; “I didn’t want it to be cute, I wanted it to look real and unhip”) to music (Schlesinger had to fight with United Artists to keep “Everybody’s Talkin’”; UA had wanted an original number they could copyright) to the horror experienced by Jennifer Salt (screenwriter Waldo Salt’s daughter) in filming a rape scene (“Nobody was particularly sensitive to how it was to be the female in that situation”). The wealth of anecdotes and first-hand accounts throughout keeps the story lively and fresh. 

Midnight Cowboy ultimately laid the groundwork for the stark, uncompromising New York-based films that would follow: The French Connection, Serpico, Shaft. Frankel cites Taxi Driver as Midnight Cowboy’s “true fraternal twin,” both stories of military veterans who come to New York in pursuit of a dream, only to “run afoul of the city’s malign culture.” But at the end, Joe Buck’s future hints at positive change, while the pathology of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is left to potentially escalate. Set against what he calls the “morally coarsened and unhinged world we now inhabit,” Frankel argues the “quieter pleasures” of Midnight Cowboy make it a more redemptive, even hopeful film than anyone fully appreciated at the time.

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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