In the film industry, an X or NC-17 rating for a mainstream film is a kiss of death. When Midnight Cowboy first opened, many theaters would not show the film and newspapers would not run printed ads because of its X rating being associated with pornography. Yet, the film went on to win the Academy’s approval and the award for Best Picture.
Culturally, this is a historic moment set right in the middle of the Sexual Revolution that was spreading in Western society. The fact that a film dealing with such controversial topics so frankly and explicitly could win over critic acclaim shows the shift happening from within. These topics suddenly had merit and could now be openly discussed, where just years ago they were called smut and swept under the rug. Back in 1957, Peyton Place was pushing the envelope, but it just felt like an after school special and turned into a corny soap opera.
The film is about Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naive young man from Texas who plans to make a living in New York as a male prostitute. This seems to be the only job market he thinks he has potential in. He’s got the cowboy look down naturally, but he doesn’t realize that that won’t win over his target audience: rich lonely married women. Business doesn’t go so well mostly because Joe doesn’t know how to manage himself. After having their initial disputes and running out of money, Joe teams up with Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) an outcast with a bum leg living in the most rundown apartment you can imagine. A friendship grows between the two, not just over business but through their struggle for survival within the harsh city.
I found the portrayal of religion is more stirring, and perhaps more controversial, than the sexual nature of this film. In the scene where Joe thinks he’s meeting someone to help him find more clients, the man is actually a preacher of some sort. They have a conversation, where we assume this man is a pimp talking about the other boys working for him, ““I’m warning you Buck, I’m gonna use you. I’m gonna run you ragged.” The fact that he’s a preacher is not revealed until he asks Joe to get on his knees (where both our minds and Joe’s naturally go to the gutter), then the man opens the door to his bathroom. On the other side of the door is a little alter, complete with a plastic glowing Jesus statue. This sends us to a terrifying flashback of Joe remembering his baptism in a river. As Joe runs away in fear, we hear the preacher yelling, “Don’t run from Jesus!” From this scene, we can see that Joe views religion to be more unnatural and terrifying than sex.
It is never fully revealed in the film what the connection is between Joe, religion, an old girlfriend, his reasons for leaving Texas and new his career choice. These are all in the past, so maybe it’s not the most important thing, but those are the dots and they can be connected in a variety of ways. I’ve formed my own theories.
Please don’t skip Midnight Cowboy because you’re afraid you mom will scold you and drag you to church by your ear for watching an initially X rated film. The more graphic scenes here are pretty tame compared to what some R rated films hold today. In fact, Midnight Cowboy was only X rated for two years before being resubmitted to the MPAA and receiving an R rating in 1971. So relax already and enjoy a film that is more about friendship and working through hard times than it is about sex.
“Frankly, you’re beginning to smell and for a stud in New York, that’s a handicap.”