Upon taking the role of directing the film adaption of James Leo Herlihy’s novel “Midnight Cowboy”, John Schlesinger – as recalled by Dustin Hoffman in Vanity Fair back in 2010 – only hoped that his film would at the very least pull in the “college crowd”. Instead, Midnight Cowboy (1969) walked home with three Academy Awards, and to this date is the only X-Rated film to have won an Oscar for Best Picture.
This film is so iconic it is now subconsciously integrated into the general social perception of the pop culture of the 60s and 70s. This is indeed the giant upon the shoulders of which current filmmakers stand: so much homage has been paid to Midnight Cowboy’s many classic moments that any imitation is terribly hackneyed (never again can Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” be used in film without it being a total parody). More than fifty years on, Schlesinger’s film remains a classic capable of moving all who come across it, its story being one that provides an invaluable insight into the attitudes and struggles of the era whilst remaining devastatingly relevant to this very day.
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1. The Acting
Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s produced some excellent films, and much of this can be attributed to the acting prowess of the stars of the time.
By 1969, an acting technique introduced to the West by Lee Strasberg had fully taken over in America – The Method. So-called Method Acting is based in realism, and speaks of actors inhabiting their roles to achieve emotionally expressive performances leading to incredibly complex and vulnerable renditions of their characters.
Recently, Method Acting seems to have earned a bad reputation for itself through horror stories relating to physical preparation for a role and staying within character – from Jared Leto’s creepy behaviour (sending his co-stars gifts such live rats) on the set of Suicide Squad (2016), to body transformations such as those of Christian Bale for his roles in The Machinist and Vice (2018) – but focusing on these tales is an unjust distraction from the real beauty of The Method.
Techniques within The Method, including Affective Memory in which actors recall the details of a memory similar to their characters’ experiences, lead to incredibly emotive performances, and in a film like Midnight Cowboy any disdainful preconceptions towards Method Acting are destroyed.
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are both undisputed masters of The Method, but even with their reputations, their performances in Midnight Cowboy are outstanding.
Jon Voight in particular is a revelation in what was his break-out role; a role he nearly lost out on due to his struggle as a native New-Yorker to perfect the Texan accent. Voight is transformed into a naïve wannabe cowboy, full of southern charm and stereotypical politeness. It’s a performance that proves to be even more extraordinary today than it was at the time, Voight’s outspoken conservative opinions and battered reputation not at all compatible with the character of Joe Buck.
The actor’s performance still stands as a testament to the empathic power of Method Acting: Joe Buck is an extremely complex character buffering against the very outskirts of what was acceptable in society, so it was a very brave performance steeped in the liberal counter-culture of the 1960s.
Voight’s co-lead, and the actor who remains “The Method’s” biggest advocate through his consistently superlative performances, is Dustin Hoffman as Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo. Here, Hoffman offers more than just a performance, but a complete transformation – he’s completely unrecognisable from his appearance as the All-American Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, the film that made him a star two years earlier.
Reportedly, there was a genuine fear that Midnight Cowboy would ruin his career. Instead, it consolidated Hoffman’s reputation as the man who could play anyone. Backed up by extensive research of observing New York’s homeless population and a dedication to his role’s physicality – such as putting rocks in his shoes for Rizzo’s limp (and apparently even accidentally making himself vomit when mustering up a coughing fit) – Hoffman’s performance is more than mere transformation, it resounds with the emotional depths of true life in ways that remain ground-breaking over 50 years later.
2. The Disability Representation
It has been said that “representation” is a buzzword with regards to current media – in understanding what representation actually means to people, this is definitely a grossly unfair assessment.
The struggle for representation in the likes of mainstream Hollywood has proven to be invaluable to marginalised groups that have faced constant oppression and discrimination. Sincere efforts in representation have helped to deconstruct harmful stereotypes, especially ones brought about by misrepresentation, and have brought attention to the stories of those who have been previously deprived of the attention lavished on those at the forefront of society. Overall it can result in better inclusion in our society and provide opportunities in the film industry for those who previously lacked the privilege.
However, Hollywood’s journey in representation, especially when trying to appeal to younger audiences, has often been fraught with scandal. Tokenism, queer-baiting and questionable casting have made the headlines time and time again, from Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell (2017) to John Boyega’s disappointing character arc in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, this lack of diversity (or poor attempts at it) is often due to discrimination and a lack of inclusivity in production and the writing room. Most recently, Sia has faced criticism with regards to her directorial debut Music (2021), in which an autistic protagonist is not played by an autistic actor. The general dismay of the autistic community towards Music is an excellent example of how the disabled community still faces major issues when it comes to decent representation in mainstream media. Susan Nussbaum in her article “Disabled Characters in Fiction” for HuffPost (2014) outlines the main character types disabled people fulfil within cinema: victim, villain, inspiration, monster – all of which compound ridiculous misconceptions and stereotypes that hurt the disabled community. She makes the point that disabled characters are included in their works for one reason: the disability and the conversation that surrounds it, from the desperate search for a cure to resorting to euthanasia. “Can’t there ever be a disabled character in a book or film just because? Where the topic doesn’t ever come up?”
This is why it is so surprising that Dustin Hoffman, in a film from 1969 (pre-dating Sia’s Music by 52 years), presents a character that manages to avoid many of the clichés surrounding disability.
Enrico Rizzo is an incredibly complex character. He is brimming full of humanity. It is evident that he has a physical disability, as he has a pronounced limp and throughout the story it becomes apparent that he is suffering from either a long-term or chronic illness that changes in severity over the passage of time. No sort of voyeuristic attempt is made to divulge all the details of Rizzo’s disabilities, they are just a part of him that aren’t even questioned, but instead accepted. More importantly, it is not a point of obsession for Rizzo himself; he does amusingly bring up the fact that he’s “a cripple” when he needs to wriggle out of trouble, but he doesn’t mention it to excuse himself in any sort of serious or genuine way. Whilst Rizzo does strive for a better life for himself (and Joe), it doesn’t revolve around the idea of a cure. His dream to go to Florida is the pursuit of happiness that arises from companionship, security and opportunity, not the magical disappearance of his afflictions but the accommodation of them. For the most part, Rizzo’s dream is universal, most of his aspirations are the exact same as those who are abled. While Rizzo is not free from all the typical tropes used for disabled characters mentioned by Nussbaum, Hoffman and director Schlesinger ensure that they are used as part of a relevant social commentary, and more importantly don’t detract from the humanity of his character.
In his introduction in Midnight Cowboy, it could be argued that Rizzo fits the role of villain – he does after all exploit Joe’s naivety and cheats him out of money – but here this reflects real-life discrimination and is a part of the film’s overarching confrontation of the American Dream fallacy. Rizzo has, by and large, been abandoned by society and is given no opportunity or means to ensure his actual survival. As such, he steals and he cheats. His supposed villainy is not a symptom of his disability but is instead symptomatic of the failure of society – it is also undeniable that Rizzo fills the role of victim as he slowly but surely succumbs to the harsh New York winter. The film, again, making the issue larger than his disability and marking the moment as a part of its continued condemnation of the American Dream.
Yes, Enrico Rizzo is a disabled character for the sake of being able to talk about disability, but Midnight Cowboy is not so much an examination of his character (it is amongst the many facets of Rizzo’s character), but is more an examination of society: Rizzo becomes a villain and victim because the society in the so-called “land of opportunity” has neglected him. If his needs were actually accommodated for, Enrico would be freed from these reductive tropes. Dustin Hoffman’s performance helps to create a character so enrapturing, one brimming with vitality and dignity in spite of his many humiliations.