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Film / Midnight Cowboy

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"Hey, what's the matter?! I'm walkin' here! I'M WALKIN' HERE!"
Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo

A 1969 film adapted from the novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

Joe Buck (Voight) is a dishwasher in a rural Texas diner, who's not the sharpest knife in the drawer. One day he decides to dress up like a rodeo cowboy and move to New York City, hoping to prostitute himself to wealthy women. He burns through his savings very quickly, unable to hustle, and is taken in by Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Hoffman), a small-time con man with a bad leg and tuberculosis. They scrape by as best they can, hoping to escape to Florida one day...

The movie garnered quite a bit of controversy upon its release, being given an "X" rating by the MPAA—this being when the new "X" rating was meant to signify any kind of film for adults only and hadn't yet become associated with porn. (Its rating was changed to "R" the following year anyway). However, it won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director and for Waldo Salt's adapted screenplay, and is now seen as one of the defining movies of its era.

"HEY! I'm tropin' here!"

  • Age Lift: In the novel, Ratso is 21. Dustin Hoffman was a decade older when the film was made, so most likely the film's Ratso was intended to be in his late 20s or early 30s as well.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Joe is primarily heterosexual, but doesn't seem to mind having sex with men for money. It's strongly implied that after being raped in his youth, he really doesn't care who he has sex with.
    • Joe fantasizes about Crazy Annie while servicing the young man in the movie theater, suggesting that he's basically straight but willing to engage in gay sex for pay.
  • AM/FM Characterization: Joe's transistor radio that serves as his Companion Cube for most of the movie. He realises he's made it to New York City when he gets a local station, and snippets of urban soul music frequently diegetically underscore his adventures in the urban jungle.
  • Armoured Closet Gay: Towny, and presumably also the young man who picks up Joe in the movie theater who begs Joe not to take his watch because his mother "would die" if she found out about his sexual proclivities.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Ratso takes $20 from Joe to set him up with a man named O'Daniel, who (he claims) "operates the biggest stable in town". On meeting him, O'Daniel tells Joe, "I'm gonna use you. I'm gonna run you ragged." Moments later, Joe discovers that the guy isn't a bigshot pimp, just a crazed religious fanatic who runs a self-styled street-preaching operation.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: Joe Buck (6'3") and his new pal Ratso (5'5").
  • The Big Rotten Apple: New York in 1969 looking filthy and dirty and covered with garbage—and of course Joe is associating with various dirtbags and lowlifes of the sort that live in the Big Rotten Apple - petty con men, derelicts, sexual deviants, and prostitutes. Meanwhile, he lives with Ratso in a filthy, condemned building in the middle of a slum.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Joe has lost his only friend and is alone in a new city with no job and no money, suggesting a Downer Ending. On the other hand, his remarks on the bus imply that Joe has matured as a person and finally has a chance to get his act together and live something resembling a normal life rather than continuing on a downward spiral of life as a (usually unsuccessful) male prostitute.
  • The Blind Leading the Blind: Joe relies on Ratso's alleged street smarts to get by in New York. Unfortunately for Joe, Ratso isn't all that much more intelligent or capable than Joe himself - Ratso's delusions about wealth and success in Florida are every bit as naive as Joe's plan of making it big with rich New York City ladies. Ratso only (barely) managed to get by for a while because there was always someone even more naive to con or steal from.
  • Camp Gay: Jackie, the swishy guy who flirts with Joe (and spars with Rizzo) at the bar.
  • Catchphrase: Joe loves to announce himself by saying "I am one hell of a stud!"
    • Also Ratso's "no way to collect insurance" or "good way to collect insurance" about various dangerous situations.
  • Con Man: Ratso is a petty thief and con artist. While he manages a decent score with Joe thanks the latter's extreme trusting nature and gullibility (getting $20 - the equivalent of about $120 in 2022 money - in exchange for taking Joe to see an alleged pimp who's actually just a lunatic street preacher), it's clear that he's usually not very successful at his game among people with any street sense.
  • Coolest Club Ever: The Warholesque invitation-only party Joe and Rizzo attend. (Several of Warhol's "superstars" appear as extras.)
  • Country Mouse: Both played straight and subverted with Joe.
  • Creator Cameo: Waldo Salt, who wrote the screenplay for the film, is briefly seen as a TV talk-show host.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ratso has his moments:
    Gretel: Gee, you know [the food] is free, you don't have to steal it?
    Ratso: Well, if it's free, then I ain't stealing.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Joe's approach to his new vocation is... optimistic, to say the least. Sure, he's a good looking guy, but he really doesn't seem to have had a plan in place. He's essentially cold-calling wealthy-looking women on the street, which predictably fails most of the time, as they seem him as a bumpkin fool. Soon his money is completely gone and he's yet to get a single dime.
  • Dies Wide Open: Poor Ratso, dying of TB on the bus, just as they're finally on their way to Florida.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Played to the hilt with Rizzo.
  • Distracted from Death: Probably the most iconic cinematic example. Joe talks about getting a real job on Miami, only to realize that Rizzo has died mid-conversation.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Rizzo takes this attitude about his illness and refuses medical help.
  • Dumb Blonde: A male example - Joe's blond, good-looking, and not too bright.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Rizzo strongly dislikes being called "Ratso" and twice asks Joe to call him Rico instead.
  • Epic Fail: Joe Buck's gigolo career is ultimately a flop and his time in New York a disaster, as he comes to admit at the end of the movie. Plus he's lost his innocence and probably the only real friend he's ever had.
    • Perhaps the most notable example of Joe's gigolo career not going to plan is when he winds up giving money to Cass, the older woman he finally managed to pick up off the street, rather than being paid for his services.
    • When Joe succeeds in being a substitute escort for a wealthy woman thanks to Ratso's tricks, their date only lasts a few seconds. Joe immediately starts groping the woman, who slaps him and has hotel security throw him out.
    • Desperate for money, Joe prostitutes himself to a young gay student at a movie theater. The student has no money, and when he starts pleading, Joe feels sorry for him and doesn't even take his cheap watch.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Even social outcast Ratso is repulsed by the freakshow of poseurs, drug-users, and deviants at the Warhol-style party he and Joe attend.
  • Everybody Must Get Stoned: The underground party.
  • Fake-Out Opening: The film begins with a white screen and the traditional movie Western sounds of cowboys and Indians fighting. Then the camera pulls back to reveal the blank screen of an empty Drive-In Theater.
  • The Film of the Book: Based on a 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihey.
  • Foreshadowing: Ratso visiting his father's grave, and commenting on how he died an impoverished nobody. Not long after, Ratso himself dies in even greater poverty and anonymity. It's unlikely that Joe, the only person who knows and cares about him, will be able to afford a gravesite and tombstone.
    Ratso: [My father] was even dumber than you. He couldn't even write his own name. "X," that's what it ought to say on that goddamn headstone, one big lousy "X". Just like our dump. Condemned by order of City Hall.
    • The scene where Joe (unconvincingly) tries to intimidate Ratso by saying he's "a truly dangerous man" when it's obvious that Joe is friendly and nice to the point of being passive. However, when put in a desperate situation (ironically driven by his desire to help Ratso), Joe does prove that he can be a dangerous man.
    Ratso: (Sarcastically) So you're a killer. I'm impressed.
  • Gay Cowboy: Much to Joe's embarrassment, his studly cowboy persona utterly fails to win over any New York women, and only attracts men. Rizzo even flat-out tells him that only gay men like cowboys, but Joe still insists on the outfit because it makes him feel good.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Rizzo and Joe. Though not without a fair bit of Ho Yay, as Rizzo has a fantasy dream sequence of the two of them running along a sunny beach together.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Rizzo and Joe soon establish a basically spousal relationship, with Rizzo cutting Joe's hair and cooking for him. If that isn't overt enough, Rizzo imagines running down the beach and walking down the street with a shirtless Joe in Florida.
    Shirley: Don't tell me you two are a couple!
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Joe is a rare male example.
  • Hope Spot: When Rizzo sets Joe up as a replacement male escort at a high-end agency through a Bait-and-Switch, it looks as though Joe is finally on track to make some money, until he starts groping his charge at an inappropriate time and place. She smacks Joe and has hotel security throw him out.
    • A more mundane example is Joe looking into a diner with a "Help Wanted" sign, suggesting that he's willing to settle for any job that will bring him some money. When he sees a young man like himself working inside he decides against it and goes on with attempting to prostitute himself.
    • There's also the morning after Joe spends the night with Shirley: she calls her friend and recommends his services, to which the friend agrees and she sets up a night for them. It looks like Joe might finally be on the up-and-up in terms of sex work, but then Rizzo's failing health and the trip to Florida put an end to it.
  • Imagine Spot: Rizzo pictures himself and Joe living the good life in Florida.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Rizzo is shown with a persistent cough during his very first scene with Joe. It is, of course, tuberculosis, which eventually kills him.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: While riding the cross-country bus at night, Joe flashes back to various scenes of his childhood spent in the company of his grandmother and her various lovers (or johns), accompanied by his grandmother singing "Hush, Little Baby" over the soundtrack.
  • Jerkass: Rizzo, a good deal of the time, like when he tricks Joe out of $20 by promising to set him up with a pimp.
    • Note that $20 is about $135 in 2020 money.
    • However, we discover that Ratso is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold - basically a lonely man who needs friendship and company even more than he needs a quick buck.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Even though his motive in making the point is part of his Bait-and-Switch scam with O'Daniel, Ratso is absolutely correct that Joe's strategy of walking up to random, well-dressed older women in the street expecting to be paid for sex is destined to go nowhere. As he remarks later on, the cowboy outfit doesn't help either.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Ratso is constantly instructing Joe on the ways of the world, without being much more knowledgeable about anything than Joe himself.
    Ratso: You got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita, on a given day, there's probably, eh, three hundred of 'em on the beach.
    Ratso: The two basic items necessary to sustain life, are sunshine and coconut milk. Didya know that? That's a fact! In Florida, there you got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got 'em in the, eh, gas stations over there.
  • Leitmotif: ''Everybody's Talkin'", used for Joe Buck.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Joe experiences this with Shirley.
  • Mind Screw: The flashbacks to Joe Buck's past in Texas make a lot more sense if you've read the book, where the situations are described in depth.
  • Momma's Boy: Towny is a middle-aged Armoured Closet Gay man who's implied to still live with his mother (he's on the phone with her saying that he'll be home soon when Joe comes up to his apartment).
  • Naked in Mink: Shirley lounges around in her apartment in nothing but a fur coat when playing scribbage with a naked Joe. Then she keeps the coat on for sex.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Rizzo and Joe go to a kookie hippie party filled with hippies in colorful clothes and wild hair, who smoke dope and pop pills and watch weird movies.
  • Nice Guy: Joe is too nice for his own good, bordering on Extreme Doormat, practically handing out money to anyone who asks and refusing to take what's his out of pity. Subverted later in his encounter with Towny.
  • Odd Friendship: Joe is a naive, friendly, and cocky Texan. Ratso is a cynical, seedy, and crippled petty crook from the Bronx. In their first meeting, Ratso cons Joe out of $20 (a substantial amount of money in the late 1960s), yet they later wind up being one another's best and only friends.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In the "I'm walkin' here" scene. Hoffman yells it in his real accent, before resuming his character's accent. He also stops limping briefly, despite his character having a crippled leg.
    • According to Hoffman, the line was his natural reaction when a car unexpectedly ran a red light and nearly hit him while crossing the street; Hoffman said the close call prompted him to ad-lib the line in genuine surprise, but that he resumed character thereafter in an effort not to ruin the take.
  • One Head Taller: Rizzo and Joe Buck. It's a notable visual contrast as runty little Rizzo is definitely the dominant in the relationship with tall, strapping Joe.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The normally good-natured Joe (who wouldn't even take the watch of the gay student who stiffed him out of $25) brutally beats and possibly kills Towny when he needs money to fulfill Ratso's dream of going to Florida.
    Joe: Dammit, I got family!
  • Parental Incest: Or rather, grandparental incest. When Joe lived with his grandmother, he would share a bed with her and her various lovers. It's not clear whether they actually engaged in any sexual activity, but even if they didn't it's clearly inappropriate and grotesque.
  • Please Wake Up:
    Joe: When we get to Miami, what we'll do is get some sort of job, you know. Cause hell, I ain't no kind of hustler. I mean, there must be an easier way of makin' a living than that. Some sort of outdoors work. Whaddya think? Yeah, that's what I'll do. OK Rico? Rico? Rico? Hey, Rico? Rico?
  • Potty Failure: When Ratso wets his pants on the bus, it's initially Played for Laughs thanks to Joe's response. It's Harsher in Hindsight by the end of the bus trip, where Ratso's death makes it clear that he was dying during the bus ride and losing control of his body functions.
  • Promiscuity After Rape: Heavily implied with Joe, to the point where he's willing to engage in homosexual acts for money even though he's straight.
  • Rape as Drama: The flashbacks of "Crazy Annie" and Joe Buck getting gang raped.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The novel implies that Joe's time in New York City has matured him, as he vows to stop hustling and get a proper job in Florida to take care of both himself and Ratso. When Ratso dies, Joe plans to give him a proper burial and headstone. He may be alone but his plans are far more responsible than the ones he made for New York City.
  • Really Gets Around: Implied in the film's flashbacks and explicit in the novel about Crazy Annie. She was a very promiscuous girl in high school who took on one boy after another, until she went steady with Joe to the exclusion of other boys. Out of jealous resentment, several of the other boys in town ganged up to beat and rape both Annie and Joe.
    Annie: You're the one Joe. You're the only one.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: Rizzo tells Joe that the cowboy duds are ridiculous and aren't doing him any favors. He says it partially to hurt Joe, but also to improve Joe's prospects as a gigolo.
  • Red Light District: 42nd Street, which apparently has changed quite a bit since that movie.
  • Shout-Out:
    • During the opening credits Joe walks past a defunct movie theater advertising the John Wayne flick The Alamo on its dilapidated marquee, and Joe and Rizzo share a discussion about Wayne later in the film.
    • Joe keeps a poster of Paul Newman as Hud in his Times Square hotel room.
  • Slippery Soap: Dropped by Joe in the very first scene.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Subverted. Joe Buck and Shirley smoke out of frustration, after he is hit with erectile dysfunction.
  • Something Else Also Rises:
    • Joe's climax during sex with Cass is represented by coins spurting out of a slot machine.
    • Joe's climax when he's getting a blowjob from a man in a movie theater is represented by a clasp popping loose and a stage separating from a rocket in a sci-fi movie.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Joe Buck sure loves handing out money to people who ask.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Joe and Ratso are always arguing over something petty, calling one another names, and generally at each other's throats. They're also one another's best (and only) friends.
  • Welcome to the Big City: Joe leaves his podunk Texas town for New York City, only to find the big city filthy, crime-ridden, filled with scummy lowlifes. On his first day out and about in New York
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out if Towny survived having Joe shove a phone receiver into his mouth.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: A meta example. The MPAA did originally give it an R rating, but United Artists preferred to exploit its controversial premise and initially released it with a self-applied X rating. (As such, this is the only X-rated picture to ever have Transamerica references in its UA logo.) They did accept the original R rating after a couple of years, though.