Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy Information

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 American drama film based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. It was written by Waldo Salt, directed by John Schlesinger, and stars Jon Voight, in his film debut, in the title role alongside Dustin Hoffman. Notable smaller roles are filled by Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Salt and Barnard Hughes; M. Emmet Walsh is an uncredited, pre-fame extra.

The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. To date, it is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture.

Plot summary

A young Texan named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) works as a dishwasher in a diner. As the film opens, Joe dresses himself like a rodeo cowboy, packs a suitcase, and quits his job. He heads to New York City in the hope of leading the life of a male prostitute.

Joe's naïveté becomes evident as quickly as his cash disappears upon his arrival in New York. He is unsuccessful in his attempts to be hired by wealthy women. When he is finally successful in bedding a well-to-do middle-aged New Yorker (Sylvia Miles), the woman breaks down when he attempts to collect the money and Joe ends up giving her $20 instead. Joe then meets the polio-crippled Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a third-rate con man who easily tricks Joe out of $20 by offering to introduce him to a well-known pimp, who instead turns out to be a Bible thumper (John McGiver). Joe flees the scene in pursuit of Rizzo, who has fled the area.

Joe then spends his days wandering the city and relaxing in his hotel room. Once broke, he is locked out of his hotel room for failure to pay the bill, and most of his belongings are confiscated. He finally attempts to make money by agreeing to receive oral sex from a young man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater, but this plan goes awry when the teen admits to having no money. An angry Joe threatens the teen and thinks about taking the guy's watch but then decides against this. The next day, Joe spots an unsuspecting Rizzo at a lunch counter. He angrily shakes down Rizzo for every penny he has "? 64 cents "? but Rizzo surprisingly offers to help Joe by sharing his place, an apartment in a condemned building. Joe reluctantly accepts and they begin a "business relationship", helping each other pickpocket, steal and further attempt to get Joe hired as a gigolo. They are both completely alone without each other, and a genuine bond develops between the two men. Rizzo had a cough when the two met in the summer and, as the story progresses into winter, his health steadily worsens.

The events of Joe's early life are told through fast cutting flashbacks interspersed throughout the film. He had been to church and baptized as a boy but has only frightening memories of the experience. The two people Joe loved were his grandmother Sally Buck (Ruth White), and his onetime girlfriend, Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt). His grandmother raised Joe after his mother abandoned him but often left him alone to go off with boyfriends; one of them, a wrangler named Woodsy Niles (Gilman Rankin), was Joe's only father figure. Annie had been a promiscuous girl who changed her ways after meeting Joe, but this did not sit well with the men of their hometown: the two were caught and raped by a gang of men. Annie was later sent to a mental institution and Joe joined the army. Sally Buck died while Joe was away serving in the Army, and Annie remains a constant presence in Joe's mind.

Rizzo's backstory comes mostly through the things he tells Joe. His father was an illiterate Italian immigrant shoeshiner who worked deep in a subway station, developed a bad back, and "coughed his lungs out from breathin' in that wax all day!" Rizzo learned shining from his father but refuses to follow in his footsteps. He dreams of moving one day to Miami.

At one point, an odd-looking couple approach Joe and Ratso in a diner and hand Joe a flyer inviting him to a party. They enter a Warhol-esque party scene (with Warhol superstars Viva, Ultra Violet and others in cameo appearances). The naive Joe smokes a marijuana cigarette thinking it's a regular cigarette, and after taking a pill offered to him, begins to hallucinate. He leaves the party with a socialite (Brenda Vaccaro), who agrees to pay him $20 for spending the night with her. Rizzo falls down a flight of stairs as they are leaving; he insists he is fine. Joe and the socialite attempt to have sex but he suffers from temporary impotence. They play a game of Scribbage together in which Joe shows his limited academic prowess. She teasingly suggests that Joe may be gay, and that does the trick. He is suddenly able to perform, and the two have lively, aggressive sex. In the morning, the socialite sets up a friend of hers to be Joe's next customer, and it appears his career is on its way.

When Joe returns home later, Rizzo is in bed, sweating and feverish. He admits to Joe that he is unable to walk. Joe wants to find a doctor, but Rizzo adamantly refuses, and begs Joe to put him on a bus to Florida. A frightened Joe is determined to take care of his friend and leaves the apartment to find money. He picks up an older male customer (Barnard Hughes), but the man tries to send him away at the last minute out of guilt. Joe's desperation boils over when the man gives him a religious medallion instead of cash. He beats up and robs the man, stuffing the phone receiver into the man's mouth when Joe thinks the man is calling the hotel front desk for help.

With the money, Joe buys two bus tickets to Florida. During the long journey, Rizzo's frail physical condition deteriorates further. At a rest stop, Joe buys bright new clothing for Rizzo and himself. He throws away his cowboy outfit and admits, "I ain't no kinda hustler." As they reach Florida and near Miami, Joe talks about getting a regular job, only to realize that Rizzo has died in the seat beside him. After Joe informs the bus driver, the driver tells him that there is nothing else to do but continue on to Miami. The film ends with Joe seated with his arm around his dead friend.


  • Dustin Hoffman as Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo
  • Jon Voight as Joe Buck
  • Sylvia Miles as Cass
  • John McGiver as Mr. O'Daniel
  • Brenda Vaccaro as Shirley
  • Barnard Hughes as Towny
  • Ruth White as Sally Buck
  • Jennifer Salt as Annie
  • Viva as Gretel
  • Bob Balaban as Young Student


Midnight Cowboy was Adam Holender's first cinematography assignment; he was recommended to Schlesinger by Holender's childhood friend, filmmaker Roman Polanski.

The opening scenes were filmed in Big Spring, Texas. A roadside billboard stating "IF YOU DON'T HAVE AN OIL WELL...GET ONE!" was shown while the New York-bound bus carrying Joe Buck rolled through Texas. Such advertisements, which were common in the Southwestern United States during the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s, promoted Eddie Chiles' Western Company of North America.

Joe first realizes that the bus was soon approaching New York when he heard a Ron Lundy broadcast on WABC while listening to his portable radio. At the time the movie was being filmed in 1968, Lundy worked the midday shift (10 AM–1 PM) Monday through Saturday at the radio station.

Joe stayed at the Hotel Claridge, which was located at the southeast corner of Broadway and West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan. His room overlooked the northern half of Times Square. The building, designed by D. H. Burnham & Company and opened in 1911, has since been demolished.

A motif that was featured three times throughout the New York part of the movie was the sign at the top of the facade of the Mutual of New York (MONY) Building. It was extended into the Scribbage scene with Shirley the socialite when Joe's incorrect spelling of the word "money" matched that on the signage.

Despite his portrayal of Joe Buck, a character hopelessly out of his element in New York, Jon Voight is a native New Yorker, hailing from Yonkers. Dustin Hoffman, who played a grizzled veteran of New York's streets, is actually from Los Angeles.

The line "I'm walkin' here!", which reached #27 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes, is often said to have been improvised, but producer Jerome Hellman disputes this account on the 2-disc DVD set of Midnight Cowboy. The cab was driven by a hired actor during a scripted take, and the production team filmed it to look like an ad-lib. However, Hoffman explained it differently on an installment of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. He stated that there were many takes to hit that traffic light just right so they didn't have to pause while walking. That take, the timing was perfect and the cab came out of nowhere and nearly hit them. Hoffman wanted to say "We're filming a movie here!", but he decided not to ruin the take.

Upon initial review by the Motion Picture Association of America, Midnight Cowboy received a "Restricted" ("R") rating (Persons under 16 not admitted unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian). However, after consulting with a psychologist, executives at United Artists were told to accept an "X" rating (Persons under 17 will not be admitted) due to the "homosexual frame of reference" and its "possible influence upon youngsters". The film was released with an X. The MPAA later broadened the requirements for the "R" rating to allow more content, and in addition raised the age restriction from sixteen to seventeen. The film was later rated "R" for a reissue in 1971 with no edits made. The R rating for the film remains to this day.


The movie earned $11 million in rentals at the North American box office.

The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay; it is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar in any category, and one of two X-rated films to be nominated for an Oscar (the other being Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange). Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Best Actor awards and Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, in what is one of the shortest performances ever nominated (clocking in approximately five minutes of screen-time). In addition, the film won six BAFTA Awards. It was also entered into the 19th Berlin International Film Festival.

In 1994, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.


John Barry, who supervised the music and composed the score for the film, won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme. Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin'" also won a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, for Harry Nilsson.

Schlesinger chose the song "Everybody's Talkin'" (written by Fred Neil and performed by Harry Nilsson) as its theme, and the song underscores the entire first act of the film. (Other songs considered for the film included Nilsson's own "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City", and Randy Newman's "Cowboy".) The song "He Quit Me" was also on the soundtrack, performed by Lesley Miller; it was written by Warren Zevon, who also included it (as "She Quit Me") on his debut album Wanted Dead or Alive. The soundtrack also features music from Elephant's Memory, Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson.

This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "Midnight_Cowboy" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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