As someone born in the eighties, my first exposure to Midnight Cowboy was as a joke on Seinfeld that I didn't get. Jerry and Kramer were on a bus, Kramer slipped into a weird accent and started acting pathetic and all of a sudden some music kicked in and my dad was laughing much harder than I was. “They're doing Midnight Cowboy!” he said, as if this was something a teenager should just know.
Amazing how jokes you didn't get will stick with you like that. Yet in the 20-odd years since that Seinfeld episode, I still hadn't ever seen the 1969 Best Picture winner the only X-rated film ever to do so and number 43 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of best American films. What can I say, we didn't have streaming services back then. But now Midnight Cowboy is available free on Amazon Prime and all the movie theaters are closed and so here we are.
One great thing about watching old movies in the age of streaming is that they look fantastic. Watching on any decent modern TV, you get a sense of how it must've felt to see them during their original run in a way VHS or even relatively recent DVDs never allowed. Digital technology has only barely caught up with what film projected in its original format could accomplish in the 1930s. I can't say the same for flat screen sound, but that unmistakable Midnight Cowboy song “Everybody's Talkin,” by Harry Nilsson kicks in right away. Jangling guitars, lyrics that you can kind of understand that trick you into singing along — definitely don't watch if you're not prepared to have it stuck in your head for a week. Midnight Cowboy is almost more song than movie.
We open in small-town Texas, following a jarringly handsome Jon Voight at least compared to the present-day MAGA incarnation as Joe Buck, a cosplay cowboy who has quit his dishwashing job to set out for the Big Apple. He tells everyone who asks or doesn't and mostly they don't that he's going to become a “hustler,” which apparently means pleasuring older ladies for money. Joe Buck is either a lovable idiot or working hard to give the impression of one. His plan is plainly quixotic but he does have two things going for him: irrational optimism and total commitment to a look. He apes wholesome TV cowboys and assumes panties will simply melt away for him, something that makes perfect sense in his mind.
Directed by John Schlesinger who went on to direct Marathon Man and Pacific Heights, among others and written by multiple Academy Award winner Waldo S from the novel by James Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy's most obvious contribution to pop culture was this oddball lead, whose echo I recognized for years without knowing it, from Seinfeld to Don Cheadle's cowboy phase as “Buck” in Boogie Nights. Even Woody in Toy Story feels like he has a little Joe Buck in him.
Of course, Buck's entire character in the first place is that he's derivative, a tumescent Don Quixote determined to sell Americana back to horny housewives, flipping the script on Manifest Destiny — go east, young man! His most prized possession is his hand-held radio, embodying an America seduced by its own media myths and high on its own supply. Clearly they've done a symbolism here.
The rub is that no one's buying. Joe Buck, whose multiple attempts at sidling up fail to produce any partners on the bus ride to New York, does manage to score with a voluptuous older rich lady Sylvia Miles soon after he arrives, even despite his absurd pick-up line: “Ma'am, I'm new in town, can you tell me how to get to the Statue of Liberty?”