Midnight Cowboy (1969)

X | 111 or 113 mins | Drama | 25 May 1969

Director:

John Schlesinger

Writer:

Waldo Salt

Producer:

Jerome Hellman

Cinematographer:

Adam Holender

Production Designer:

John Robert Lloyd

Production Company:

Jerome Hellman Productions
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HISTORY

British director John Schlesinger became interested in making a film adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel, Midnight Cowboy, soon after it was published in Aug 1965. As noted in a 3 Aug 1969 NYT article, Schlesinger pitched the project to United Artists’ (UA) president, David V. Picker, in Oct 1965. Although a reader in the UA story department had already rejected the book on the basis that the action went “steadily downhill,” Picker and his executive team read the novel themselves and agreed to finance the production. In Apr 1966, the studio committed to backing a budget of roughly $1 million, in exchange for forty percent of the profits, with Schlesinger and his producer, Jerome Hellman, set to receive the other sixty percent. The deal was announced in a 12 Jun 1966 NYT item, which stated that filming would take place entirely in New York City.
       Jack Gelber was initially hired to adapt the screenplay, according to the 20 Aug 1966 LAT. In an interview published in the 29 Jun 1969 LAT, Schlesinger stated that two early drafts (presumably by Gelber) were thrown out, and Waldo Salt was brought in to write a new version of the script from scratch. Salt reportedly wrote the first fifty pages before collaborating with Schlesinger, and unnamed others, on the remainder. The 29 Jun 1969 LAT stated that the final screenplay incorporated “an intensive method of rehearsing and writing the dialog” that entailed improvisational exercises between co-stars Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
       While the picture was in development, Schlesinger honored a previous commitment to make Far from the Madding ... More Less

British director John Schlesinger became interested in making a film adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel, Midnight Cowboy, soon after it was published in Aug 1965. As noted in a 3 Aug 1969 NYT article, Schlesinger pitched the project to United Artists’ (UA) president, David V. Picker, in Oct 1965. Although a reader in the UA story department had already rejected the book on the basis that the action went “steadily downhill,” Picker and his executive team read the novel themselves and agreed to finance the production. In Apr 1966, the studio committed to backing a budget of roughly $1 million, in exchange for forty percent of the profits, with Schlesinger and his producer, Jerome Hellman, set to receive the other sixty percent. The deal was announced in a 12 Jun 1966 NYT item, which stated that filming would take place entirely in New York City.
       Jack Gelber was initially hired to adapt the screenplay, according to the 20 Aug 1966 LAT. In an interview published in the 29 Jun 1969 LAT, Schlesinger stated that two early drafts (presumably by Gelber) were thrown out, and Waldo Salt was brought in to write a new version of the script from scratch. Salt reportedly wrote the first fifty pages before collaborating with Schlesinger, and unnamed others, on the remainder. The 29 Jun 1969 LAT stated that the final screenplay incorporated “an intensive method of rehearsing and writing the dialog” that entailed improvisational exercises between co-stars Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
       While the picture was in development, Schlesinger honored a previous commitment to make Far from the Madding Crowd (1967, see entry) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (MGM). The film was not a box-office success, and Schlesinger claimed in a 12 Apr 1970 LAT interview that MGM’s head of publicity subsequently warned him against making the risky Midnight Cowboy in lieu of something more commercial. Schlesinger received similar pressure from his talent agent, who wanted him to direct The April Fools (1969, see entry) with Jack Lemmon. UA also became wary of the project as budget figures rose to $2 million. Several meetings were held among studio executives to determine whether or not to drop it from their slate, as stated in the 3 Aug 1969 NYT. However, UA stayed with the project, even as the final budget reached $3 million. Despite being over budget and over schedule, Schlesinger was reportedly afforded complete artistic control and an extended cutting period of six months.
       The casting of Dustin Hoffman, the first actor to whom Schlesinger offered a role, was announced in the 21 Feb 1968 DV. Although Hoffman was a relative newcomer, he received a salary of between $150,000 and $250,000, according to items in the 14 Jul 1968 and 3 Aug 1969 NYT, thanks to his Academy Award-nominated turn in The Graduate (1967, see entry). Van Heflin was considered for the lead role of “Joe Buck,” as noted in the 18 Apr 1968 DV, as was Michael Sarrazin. Jon Voight also lobbied for the part, and although Schlesinger did not think he was physically appropriate, casting director Marion Dougherty urged him to reconsider. The 29 Jun 1969 LAT stated that a thorough screen test was done for a total of four actors, including Sarrazin and Voight. Of the two, Sarrazin was initially offered the part, but Universal Pictures, with whom he was under contract at the time, demanded twice the initial figure that had been discussed for his salary. The re-negotiation prompted Schlesinger and Hellman to reconsider Voight’s screen test, and after some deliberation, they decided to cast him, instead. A 20 Dec 1970 NYT article noted that Sarrazin was so upset about losing the part, he ripped his telephone out of the wall upon receiving the news. In the 12 Apr 1970 LAT, Schlesinger described his initial reticence toward Voight as “one of those ridiculous blind spots one has.” The director also recalled that when he cast Viva, a frequent collaborator of Andy Warhol’s, the actress excitedly called Warhol to tell him in the news. Schlesinger witnessed the call, during which Viva overheard Warhol being shot by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas. Viva later spent time on the set of Midnight Cowboy making audio recordings for Warhol, who was in the hospital, recuperating from the assassination attempt.
       The 8 May 1968 Var announced the official casting of Voight. Prior to filming, the actor joined a location scout in Texas, where he practiced his Texan accent by interviewing locals, spending time with teenagers, and working with advisor Jim B. Smith.
       Principal photography began 6 May 1968 in New York City, according to a 10 May 1968 DV production chart and the 22 May 1968 Var. Four weeks of shooting were scheduled to take place in the city, including interiors staged at Filmways Studios in Harlem. Production was slated to move to Miami Beach, FL, the week of 29 Jul 1968, as noted in a 26 Jul 1968 DV item. Following the filming of dream sequences there, cast and crew traveled to Texas, where shooting was underway as of late Aug 1968, the 29 Aug 1968 DV reported. Final scenes were being shot in New York City as of mid-Sep 1968, according to the 18 Sep 1968 Var.
       An article in the 5 Jan 1967 NYT identified Midnight Cowboy as one of a wave of upcoming adult-themed films that portended “a revolution that could remove all the old taboos concerning subject matter and treatment” in Hollywood. Nevertheless, its controversial subject matter of male prostitution, and the depiction of homosexual sex, led UA to briefly consider releasing the picture through its subsidiary, Lopert Pictures, which had been used to release the similarly controversial Kiss Me, Stupid (1964, see entry). Further adding to its reputation as a risqué film, Midnight Cowboy was rated “X” (banning viewers under the age of seventeen) by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), as stated in the 21 May 1969 DV. The 25 Feb 1970 Var explained that the MPAA had initially offered an “R” rating, but UA had opted for the X in an effort to present the film to the public in a responsible manner. According to the 25 Jun 1969 Var, Midnight Cowboy was only the third X-rated film, to that time, that was not condemned by the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, which deemed the movie “morally unobjectionable for adults,” and called it “strong and striking, at times masterful” and “a celebration of man’s dignity.”
       The picture became a touchstone in the growing argument over the need for distinction between artistic and exploitative X-rated films, especially in light of recent advertising bans. An article in the 19 Oct 1969 LAT reported that daily newspapers in San Diego, CA; Reno, NV; Phoenix, AZ; Indianapolis, IN; and Oklahoma City, OK, were no longer running advertisements for X films. Movie critic Charles Champlin described Midnight Cowboy as a “work of art,” and the fact that it might be negatively affected by such bans as “perfectly symbolic of the uncomfortable and unsatisfactory state of affairs these advertising prohibitions create.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, Texas Senator Ralph Hall cited Midnight Cowboy as one of the pictures that had prompted his recent “dirty movie” tax proposal, which suggested charging an extra fifteen cents for tickets to M-rated movies, twenty-five cents for R-rated fare, and an additional fifty cents for X-rated films, as noted in the 5 Sep 1969 LAT. Hoping his tax – if passed – might prompt a shift toward more conservative filmmaking, Hall was quoted as saying, “The movie people I have talked to are as disgusted by the fact that these movies are what the public wants to see as we are.”
       On 25 May 1969, the X-rated Midnight Cowboy opened exclusively at the Coronet Theater in New York City. An advertisement in the 3 Jun 1969 DV touted the picture’s first week gross of $61,503 as “the biggest week’s gross for any film in the history of New York’s East Side!” Reviews were largely positive, and the picture went on to become one of the top-grossing movies of 1969, earning $11 million in film rentals that year, according to the 7 Jan 1970 Var, which deemed it the only “’non-family’ effort” to gross more than $10 million. Four months later, the 15 Apr 1970 Var predicted the domestic gross would exceed $17 million.
       Midnight Cowboy marked the first X-rated picture to be nominated for an Academy Award. Its seven nominations included Best Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight), Actress in a Supporting Role (Sylvia Miles), Directing, Film Editing, and Writing (Screenplay—based on material from another medium). The 25 Feb 1970 Var stated that the nominations posed a dilemma for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which was set to air the Oscar telecast, since the company had “a policy against unspooling X-rated product.” Regardless, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture, Directing, and Writing (Screenplay—based on material from another medium). Other accolades listed in contemporary sources included the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award for Best Director, the New York Film Critics prize for Best Actor (Voight), the Motion Picture Herald’s exhibitors’ poll selection for New Personality of 1969 (Voight), and a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance given to Harry Nilsson for his song on the film’s soundtrack, “Everybody’s Talkin’.” The picture was also named one of the top ten of the year by the National Board of Review. In 1994, it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, and in 2007, it was ranked 43rd on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies--10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films, moving down from the 36th position it held on AFI's 1997 list.
       In 1971, UA re-submitted Midnight Cowboy to the MPAA for a re-rating, after removing the film from theaters for a requisite sixty days. The organization reverted to its original decision to rate the film R, and the picture was subsequently released as an R film. Prior to the re-rating, a fourteen-year-old girl sued the Tedd Mann Circuit in Minneapolis, MN, for denying her admission to a screening at one of its theaters. The 3 Aug 1970 DV reported that, although the lawsuit was dismissed, the girl’s stepfather, attorney Jerry Rosenzweig, filed a request for the Minnesota Supreme Court to overturn the decision, calling his stepdaughter’s complaint “a test case of an exhibitor’s right to refuse to sell tickets to certain customers.”
       The film marked Adam Holender’s first motion picture as director of photography.
       The song "Jungle Gym at the Zoo" is misspelled "Jungle Jim at the Zoo" in the onscreen credits. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
21 Feb 1968
p. 1.
Daily Variety
18 Apr 1968
p. 3.
Daily Variety
10 May 1968
p. 10.
Daily Variety
26 Jul 1968
p. 15.
Daily Variety
29 Aug 1968
p. 2.
Daily Variety
15 Nov 1968.
---
Daily Variety
14 May 1969
p. 3, 12.
Daily Variety
21 May 1969
p. 1.
Daily Variety
3 Jun 1969
p. 12.
Daily Variety
16 Mar 1970
p. 19.
Daily Variety
3 Aug 1970
p. 3.
Film Daily
20 May 1969
p. 6.
Filmfacts
1969
pp. 169-73.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jun 1969.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
27 Jul 1969
Section E, p. 1, 4.
Los Angeles Times
20 Aug 1966
p. 22.
Los Angeles Times
29 Jun 1969
Section R, p. 22, 26.
Los Angeles Times
20 Jul 1969
Section O, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times
27 Jul 1969
Section P, p. 1, 22.
Los Angeles Times
5 Sep 1969
Section H, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times
19 Oct 1969
Section U, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times
3 Feb 1970
Section C, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times
16 Feb 1970
Section C, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times
13 Mar 1970
Section D, p. 1, 16.
Los Angeles Times
12 Apr 1970
Section O, p. 16.
New York Times
12 Jun 1966
p. 13, 24.
New York Times
5 Jan 1967
p. 27.
New York Times
4 Mar 1968
p. 28.
New York Times
14 Jul 1968
Section D, p. 13.
New York Times
26 May 1969
p. 54.
New York Times
3 Aug 1969
Section F, p. 1, 11.
New York Times
30 Dec 1969
p. 38.
New York Times
2 Jan 1970
p. 34.
New York Times
27 May 1970
p. 36.
New York Times
20 Dec 1970
p. 85.
New Yorker
31 May 1969
p. 80.
Newsweek
2 Jun 1969
p. 90.
Time
30 May 1969
p. 89.
Variety
8 May 1968
p. 32.
Variety
15 May 1968
p. 24.
Variety
22 May 1968
p. 20.
Variety
14 Aug 1968
p. 3.
Variety
18 Sep 1968
p. 22.
Variety
14 May 1969
p. 6.
Variety
21 May 1969
p. 23.
Variety
25 Jun 1969
p. 7.
Variety
7 Jan 1970
p. 15.
Variety
25 Feb 1970
p. 5, 22.
Variety
15 Apr 1970
p. 6.
Variety
27 Jan 1971
p. 18.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Jerome Hellman-John Schlesinger Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
2d unit dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Chief elec
Chief elec
Key grip
ART DIRECTORS
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Const grip
Head carpenter
Master scenic artist
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward supv
MUSIC
Mus prod
Mus supv
Harmonica played by
VISUAL EFFECTS
Graphic eff
Spec lighting eff
MAKEUP
Makeup consultant
Hairdressing
PRODUCTION MISC
Creative consultant
Prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Asst to the dir
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy (New York, 1965).
SONGS
"Everybody's Talkin'," words and music by Fred Neil, arranged and conducted by George Tipton, sung by Nilsson
"A Famous Myth" and "Tears and Joys," words and music by Jeffrey Comanor, sung by The Groop
"He Quit Me," words and music by Warren Zevon, sung by Lesley Miller, arranged and conducted by Garry Sherman
+
SONGS
"Everybody's Talkin'," words and music by Fred Neil, arranged and conducted by George Tipton, sung by Nilsson
"A Famous Myth" and "Tears and Joys," words and music by Jeffrey Comanor, sung by The Groop
"He Quit Me," words and music by Warren Zevon, sung by Lesley Miller, arranged and conducted by Garry Sherman
"Jungle Gym at the Zoo," words and music by Richard Sussman, Rick Frank and Stan Bronstein, produced by Wes Farrell for Buddah Records, sung by Elephants Memory
"Old Man Willow," words and music by Richard Sussman, Michal Shapiro, Myron Yules and Stan Bronstein, produced by Wes Farrell for Buddah Records, sung by Elephants Memory.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
25 May 1969
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 25 May 1969
Berlin Film Festival screening: 5 July 1969
Los Angeles opening: 30 July 1969
Production Date:
6 May--late September 1968
Copyright Claimant:
Jerome Hellman Productions
Copyright Date:
26 May 1969
Copyright Number:
LP37236
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
DeLuxe
Duration(in mins):
111 or 113
MPAA Rating:
X
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
22039
SYNOPSIS

Restless and dissatisfied with his life as a dishwasher in a small Texas town, young Joe Buck outfits himself in flashy cowboy dress and heads for New York City, confident that his fortune will be made by selling himself to wealthy, sex-starved Manhattan women. While traveling by bus, he recalls some of the events of his childhood--the father who abandoned his wayward mother, the endless stream of men who visited his frisky grandmother Sally, and a series of sexual encounters during adolescence, including a gang rape of both Joe and his girl friend Annie. After checking into a seedy Manhattan hotel, Joe takes to the streets and eventually picks up Cass, a rich, coarse, middle-aged blonde. Although they make love in her East Side apartment, Joe not only fails to collect a fee but ends up giving her $20 for cab fare. Later, at a cheap Broadway bar, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo, a crippled, tubercular petty thief and con artist who volunteers to work as his pimp and manager. Although the two misfits have a falling out when Ratso sends Joe to the sleazy room of Mr. O'Daniel, a homosexual, religious fanatic, they patch up their differences and agree to share Ratso's dismally cold room in a condemned building. Almost in spite of themselves, their mutual loneliness leads to genuine friendship as Ratso shares with Joe his fantasy of someday living a life of luxury in Miami Beach. Economically, their partnership meets with little success, as Joe's typical "conquests" turn out to be as unprofitable as his encounter with a timid student to whom he gives himself in a 42nd Street theater ... +


Restless and dissatisfied with his life as a dishwasher in a small Texas town, young Joe Buck outfits himself in flashy cowboy dress and heads for New York City, confident that his fortune will be made by selling himself to wealthy, sex-starved Manhattan women. While traveling by bus, he recalls some of the events of his childhood--the father who abandoned his wayward mother, the endless stream of men who visited his frisky grandmother Sally, and a series of sexual encounters during adolescence, including a gang rape of both Joe and his girl friend Annie. After checking into a seedy Manhattan hotel, Joe takes to the streets and eventually picks up Cass, a rich, coarse, middle-aged blonde. Although they make love in her East Side apartment, Joe not only fails to collect a fee but ends up giving her $20 for cab fare. Later, at a cheap Broadway bar, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo, a crippled, tubercular petty thief and con artist who volunteers to work as his pimp and manager. Although the two misfits have a falling out when Ratso sends Joe to the sleazy room of Mr. O'Daniel, a homosexual, religious fanatic, they patch up their differences and agree to share Ratso's dismally cold room in a condemned building. Almost in spite of themselves, their mutual loneliness leads to genuine friendship as Ratso shares with Joe his fantasy of someday living a life of luxury in Miami Beach. Economically, their partnership meets with little success, as Joe's typical "conquests" turn out to be as unprofitable as his encounter with a timid student to whom he gives himself in a 42nd Street theater balcony, only to discover that the boy cannot pay. Their situation appears to improve when Joe meets Shirley, a chic swinger at an underground party in Greenwich Village, and earns $20 for spending a wild night with her. By now, however, winter has taken its toll on Ratso, and he can no longer walk. Determined to get the bus fare to take his friend to Florida, Joe brutally beats up an aging homosexual in a hotel room and steals his money. Ratso manages to stumble onto the bus, but dies as they reach Miami. Facing an uncertain future, Joe puts his arm around the dead body of the only true friend he ever had. Upon arriving in Miami Beach, Joe disposes of his cowboy apparel and plans to find work as a landscaper. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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