By John H. Foote
Glenn Frankel has written two books that sit on my bookshelf, and I just added a third. They are three of the finest books I have ever read about filmmaking as they explore each film with striking intimate details. Yet, each is a love letter to a particular film, managing to capture the adoration of the subject matter by the creators, the astonishing detail that went into the work, and the pins and needles the makers sit on in showing their creation for the first time.
No one intentionally makes a terrible movie. It just happens. The alchemy is all wrong and nothing comes out right. By the same token, no one sets out to make a film for the ages, a masterpiece, an award-winning classic that will be discussed for years to come. Again, it just happens, everything fits together.
Frankel explored the making of two westerns in his previous books – John Ford’s seminal The Searchers (1956), the greatest film he ever made, containing a seething, stunning performance from John Wayne (never better), and he wrote about High Noon (1952), Fred Zinnemann’s real time classic about Marshall will Kane’s showdown with killers arriving on the noon train. Gary Cooper won an Academy Award for Best Actor for High Noon, giving the performance of his career, and Wayne should have won for The Searchers, giving a towering performance driven by pure hatred.
This time he turned his sights on a sixties film, Midnight Cowboy, one of those groundbreaking films that altered the course of American cinema forever more, launching a neo-realism in American film that turned the seventies into the greatest decade for cinema in American history.
“Shooting Midnight Cowboy” is endlessly fascinating and, as expected, brilliantly written. The book begins with the writing of the novel, a limited success, brought to United Artists and put together for John Schlesinger to direct. Schlesinger was part of the British kitchen sink group of directors that had been making ultra-realistic films for about a decade. He scored an Oscar nomination for Darling (1965) which earned its star Julie Christie an Oscar. He was the perfect choice to direct a film about a lonely Texas man come to New York to be a hustler, a male prostitute for the rich, bored women he has heard about.
Joe Buck is a tall, good looking blonde working as a dishwasher in a diner in Texas. He buys himself a new set of clothes, dressing like a cowboy, bids goodbye to his friends in the diner and hops a bus bound for New York. Joe is a decent man, polite, kind and enjoys children, and we just know from the early scenes in the film, New York City will eat him alive. In the late sixties, New York City was the most exciting place to be but also the single most dangerous city in the world. Joe finds out why very quickly.
Encountering Ratso Rizzo, he is conned out of some money but as luck would have it, finds Ratso. By now homeless, having been kicked out of his cheap hotel, unable to pay his bill, Joe goes home with Ratso and the two begin to eke out an existence in a condemned building. They become friends out of necessity, stealing to eat, conning when they can, giving blood (Joe does) for groceries, braving the bitter winter without heat but buried under blankets and a small heater with an open flame, all the while dreaming of Florida with Ratso convinced the healing rays of sunshine can heal him of tuberculosis, slowly killing him.
Ratso helps Joe find work as a hustler, getting him out of the gay theatres he has been frequenting and the cowboy impresses the ladies who plan to get him more work within their circle. But Ratso takes a turn for the worse and Joe beats a tourist, stealing his money, and the pair are finally out of the city headed to Florida and sunshine. Sadly, Ratso dies on the bus, leaving Joe without his best friend and again alone in a new city.
Frankel superbly explores the casting of the film, the director not interested in either Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight despite the accolades the pair had received for their stage work, and in Hoffman’s case for The Graduate (1967). But the studio wanted Hoffman, fast becoming known as the finest young actor in movies, and a screen test Voight did greatly impressed him. Yet Schlesinger cast Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin who had scored a hit in The Flim Flam Man (1966) and been cast in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) opposite the rising Jane Fonda. When the young Canadian was told how much they were going to pay him, he withdrew leaving Schlesinger to cast Voight.
When they began rehearsals the filmmaker could not believe his eyes at the chemistry between the two actors. It all but exploded onto the screen. You sense chemistry the moment you see it, sometimes even at the audition, it just radiates. During a two-week rehearsal period he watched Hoffman and Voight improvise scenes that eventually made their way into the film, as the writer was onset and constantly doing re-writes or adding to the script. Hoffman made decisions as to how to play Ratso, the greasy pompadour, a limp, that nasally high-pitched voice he used, all created in rehearsals, while Voight did the same, finding the right walk for Joe, a long-legged strut, and his naïve (almost stupid) way in the big city. Though he towered over the New Yorkers, he was hopelessly naïve and, in his first job, totally out hustled by an older woman who takes money from him! Unable to believe his good fortune in casting, the shoot progressed like that, with the two actors doing constant brilliant work.
Voight often thought too much about every single line and needed to be told sometimes to back off, but Hoffman needed little direction, he was in character all the time and evolving with each shot. The supporting cast around the two did equally magical work.
The aspect of the film that agonized the director was finding the right song, a song that spoke to Joe Buck, that summed up his New York journey. He found it in Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking”, a mournful, haunting song he chose to use often in the film, along with a harmonica riff created especially for the film, again a slow pace, truly ghostly tune impossible to forget once heard. Troubles started only when he showed the film for the first time and the makers realized the frank sex scenes, the nudity, the language were going to mean trouble at the censors. It is said the kiss of death to any mainstream film is an X rating, and that is what Midnight Cowboy got, though the studio used it in their favor, reverting to an R when the film was a major hit.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor twice, and Best Supporting Actress, no one really gave the film much of a chance at the Oscars. Schlesinger did not believe he had a chance to win and did not even bother to attend! Come the big night, Hollywood was stunned when this critically acclaimed masterpiece took home three Academy Awards – Best Screenplay, Best Director, and the big one, Best picture, the first and only time to date an X rated film has won the Oscar.
Mr. Frankel what is young next project?
I cannot wait.
“Shooting Midnight Cowboy” is among the finest books I have ever read about the movies, as breathtaking a read as the film is powerful.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.