“Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic” by Glenn Frankel— A Controversial Film Remembered

Frankel, Glenn. “Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux . 2021.

A Controversial Film Remembered

Amos Lassen

“Midnight Cowboy” is the controversial 1969 Oscar-winning film that signaled a dramatic shift in American popular culture. Director John Schlesinger became a a new commodity in the world of film with his film “Darling” that was nominated for five Academy Awards, and introduced the world to Julie Christie in 1965. He used his newfound fame and clout to film an expensive, Panavision adaptation of “Far from the Madding Crowd” for which expectations were tremendous but the film failed commercially and Schlesinger became a persona non grata in Hollywood.

His next project seemed daring— his adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel “Midnight Cowboy” about a Texas hustler trying to survive on the streets of 1960’s New York. The novel  was dark and transgressive but evidently the book’s look at cultural alienation spoke to the director.

Glenn Frankel tells the story of a modern classic that, by all accounts, should never have become one in the first place. The film pushed the boundaries of homosexuality, prostitution, sexual assault and it received an X rating when it first appeared in cinemas in 1969. This was the first film that Schlesinger film in the United States and he decided to shoot on location in New York, at a time when the city was approaching its grittiest but this changed when a sanitation strike filled Manhattan with garbage fires and fears of dysentery.

“Shooting Midnight Cowboy” is so much more than a history of Schlesinger’s film. It is a look into the world from which it emerged. The performances of both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as “Ratso” Rizzo and Joe Buck are intensely moving. Frankel included interviews with Hoffman, Voight, and others to give us the definitive account of the film that brought about a new wave of innovation in American cinema. The book is also the story of a country and an industry beginning  on the threshold of breaking free from cultural and sexual repression.

Frankel puts the film in historical context by detailing major world events at the time of the shoot, including the Vietnam War, New York’s decline, and the Stonewall Riots.
We have behind-the-scenes anecdotes  as we read of  the social upheaval of the era and the fall of Hollywood’s censorship. I loved reading the in-depth portraits of the man who created the characters of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo and the men who brought them to life on the screen. “Midnight Cowboy” is a classic of American cinema, and Frankel gives us the context  so that we can fully appreciate the film as to how it reflects a specific time and place in American history

“Midnight Cowboy” is a film that is important because it both broke taboos and was a success at an important time in American cultural history.  it is the story of how a gay novelist, a gay director and a blacklisted screenwriter paved the way for the acceptance of gay themes in books and movies through “making a film about human loss.” 

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