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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH MIDNIGHT COWBOY?

SPOILER WARNING! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN MIDNIGHT COWBOY, SKIP THIS ENTRY. (It’s a great movie and if you have not yet seen it I don’t want to be responsible for giving anything away.)

MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the infamous Best Picture Oscar winner from 1969 and first film ever to be labeled with the MPAA’s then new “X” rating. Back in those days the “X” was an indication of adult content rather than the blanket scarlet letter now associated with such classics of world cinema as “Bust A Nut In Grandma’s Butt” or “Animal Action: Barnyard Bang Part 17,” and the idea of a movie with such a rating winning the Oscar was not inconceivable. I recently sat down and checked it out again on DVD and was once more overwhelmed with questions about certain story points that pop up throughout the picture.

The film tells the story of Joe Buck (John Voight), a handsome self-proclaimed “stud” from Texas who moves to New York City in order to gain fortune as a male hustler servicing rich, older women, all while rocking his rather laughable cowboy gear. Sadly, Joe ain’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree and the Big Apple just keeps on kicking his ass, what with daily doses of poverty, hunger, and just plain bad luck. He strikes up an unlikely and deeply touching friendship with “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sleazy, disabled conman who lives in a heatless condemned building, and soon has Ratso acting as his manager (read “pimp”). Joe frequently mentions his discomfort with “fags” and “tutti-fruity” types, eventually failing to get it up for a ritzy customer (Brenda Vaccaro) who believes that his problem may just be that he’s queer himself. Spurred on by that bit of armchair psychoanalysis, Joe fucks the living shit out the lady and she is consequently impressed enough to set up the first of many referrals to her friends for the services of the “cowboy whore” who considers himself expensive with a rate of twenty bucks per fuck. Elated that he now has his shit together — sort of — Joe returns home to find Ratso in seriously poor health; throughout the movie Ratso has exhibited symptoms of some sort of potentially fatal ailment, and now it has caught up with him. In an effort to save his friend’s health, Joe packs up Ratso and the two board a Greyhound bus on a three day trip to Florida, a place that Ratso has long been convinced will be the cure-all for his illness and general loser status. Just as they are about to arrive in the Sunshine State, Ratso expires and Joe must finish the journey with his arm around a smelly dead guy. The End.

Now my questions about this film have to do with several flashback sequences throughout that shed some light on Joe’s situation, and the persistent allusion to the fact that Joe may be a homosexual. Here are the few pieces to the oblique and disjointed puzzle:
  • At roughly age 9 Joe is left by a woman whom one must presume was his mother to live with his boozy grandmother. During his time with granny Joe is exposed to all sorts of sordid behavior on her part, and we are lead to believe that she may have had an incestuous relationship with the very young boy, even allowing him in bed with her and her equally drunken rodeo cowboy lover. The cowboy may be the inspiration for Joe’s hustler alter ego, and the older women that Joe pursues for his gigolo services tend to resemble his grandmother (with the notable exception of Brenda Vaccaro's character).
  • A presumably twenty-something Joe enjoys a hot and heavy relationship with the very sexy Annie, a girl who constantly tells him that he’s “the only one” when they have sex, sex that she very clearly and enthusiastically enjoys. Apparently one night Joe and Annie go to the movies and are harassed by a bunch of rednecks who appear to be turned on by Annie’s hot figure (the sequence is silent so no dialogue gives an outright explanation); after leaving the theater Joe and Annie have sex in a car only to be interrupted by the flashlight-wielding rednecks who haul the naked couple out of the vehicle. A nude Annie is seen being pursued by the rednecks who soon catch her, hold her down where Joe can see it, and gang rape her. Joe is himself held down over the hood of the car, his legs graphically splayed, and also gang raped. We then see the police arrive — with a dream image of Ratso Rizzo in their group — and a clearly shattered Annie is wrapped in a blanket, while deliriously pointing at Joe and mumbling “He was the only one.” Annie is last seen in a straight jacket through the rear window of the ambulance that bears her away.
Those traumatic events and Joe’s homophobia may be connected, since at times Joe’s handling of his new chosen career seems to be in some way his attempt at revenge upon the world for his rape and his perceived loss of his own manhood, or maybe even revenge against his grandmother's initiating him into things that one's grandparent should not be bringing him into. The look of his cowboy persona looks like something designed by the late Tom of Finland — Google him to see what I’m talking about — and as Ratso and other characters point out he does look a bit faggy. And while Joe may cling to his ideas of masculinity like a frightened child, his one outright gay hustling experience involves him being in the dominant role, namely allowing a geeky gay teen to go down on him in dark movie theater. His other experience with a man is cut short when his trick has a change of heart and Joe, furious and in need of immediate money to take care of Ratso, murders the client.

My questions are these:

1). What’s the whole story of the double gang rape? Were the assailants so horny that they just rape anyone they can get their hands on? Was this kind of thing common in that part of Texas? What finally happened to Annie? Did Joe do time for allegedly raping Annie, or was the physical evidence enough to exonerate him? Or did Joe cover up his own violation rather than face the “shame” of being a “fag?”

2). Is Joe a homosexual? His upbringing was a study in sick dysfunction and although it got off to a bad start, his relationship with Ratso was the only real love he ever shared with anyone (other than Annie, but that relationship is also kind of vague) and God knows we all need to be loved. Joe clearly loves Ratso deeply but both of them get the douche-chills when it is even suggested that might be a couple.

So what do you, the reader, think? If you’ve seen MIDNIGHT COWBOY and have any insight into all of this, please write in.

6 comments:

Jimmi said...

Well, the movie is actually based on a book, which I suppose has all the answers. My take on it was that it was bullshit movie psychology; so it has little to do with any reality. First there was the era of M, where thankfully the explanation of deviancy was only suggested. Then in the era of Hitchcock there was a lot of laughable pseudo-psychology, like the final "explanantion" of transvestitism in Psycho or the mess which the world worships as Vertigo. And Midnight Cowboy seems to belong to that Peckinpah era where real sexual questions in society are being mangled by otherwise talented auteurs. I'd lump Straw Dogs and Clockwork Orange into this. Nowadays everyone in movies was molested as children and have a good weep over it and hug. We've moved beyond violence...can't you tell? Watch the news if you don't believe me.

Anonymous said...

The Double Gang rape - Crazy Annie used to be the town prostitute. Then Joe comes along, and she loves Joe so much that she no longer wants to be a prostitute, and she wants Joe to be "the only one"

Homosexuality - Joe is not homosexual. He becomes a hustler, and is trying to find his true self. He soon realizes that homosexual sex is the only way to get money. At the end, he throws away both his cowboy self and his hustler self for a new life (throwing away his clothes.) hope this helped!

Anonymous said...

I have not read the book so this is all speculation.

I disagree that Annie is a prostitute not because the movie doesn't support this angle but because to think of her as a prostitute who has been "saved" by Joe gives Joe waaay to much power as the heteronormnative White male come to save the virtues of the poor prodigal White female trope. And Joe is nether heteronormnative nor powerful, two points shown by his shocking similarity to Tom of Finland and his struggle to manage his life.

Ricco Ratzo Rizzo however I think is a self hating Queer. I'm not sure about Joe but Ricco definatly is attracted to him. What makes me think this includes the following scenes.

When Joe is approached by the very effeminate man in the bar who asks for a "fag" Ricco takes the cigarette. Technically Ricco is stopping another person from taking advantage of Joe but figuratively by taking Joe's fag Ricco is guarding or being possessive over Joes sexuality and claiming it as his own.

Later Ricco lustfully watches Joe fall asleep.

Ricco fantasizes about being in Florida with Joe only to be attacked by the women in the fantasy

Ricco lovingly grabs Joes waste before the drug fueled swinger party as Joe caringly lifts his shirt to wipe the sweet off Ricco's face.

And lastly Ricco dies of some unnamed illness. AIDS entered the United States circa 1969 although it was not recognized until the 80's. Could Ricco have died from AIDS before they had a name for it?

The great thing about the movie is you can pretty much write your own plot details.

Anonymous said...

Accoding to John Schlesinger Ricco Dies of Tuberculosis.

Josiah Read said...

from the books wikipedia page; The book opens with would-be stud-for-hire Joe Buck getting ready to leave his Podunk Texas town, recalling the events that set him upon his sordid path. Here are the pertinent details:

-Joe was born out of wedlock to a mother who may or may not have been a prostitute, and raised by a succession of blondes who may have been his aunts or other whores until being dropped off to live with his grandmother, Sally Buck, at approximately age nine. During these years Joe sexually imprinted on fleshy blondes, and that imprinting was cemented once he entered into an incestuous relationship with Sally. Upon Sally’s death while Joe was serving in the army, he loses all sense of direction and security since Sally was the only real family or friend he ever had.

-Joe lost his "virginity" during his mid-teens to Annie, the local high school nympho, a girl who would regularly take on six boys at a time upon a dirty mattress behind a movie theater screen, each waiting patiently in line for his turn and watching his comrades exert themselves upon the unmoved Annie. That is, unmoved until a novice Joe seriously turned on her lights, leading to a secret relationship that was squelched when one of Annie’s many jealous “users” alerted her father to his daughter’s activities, after which Annie was swiftly institutionalized.

-Joe befriends a local hustler named Perry, a beautiful young man who schools Joe on the art of psychologically dominating one’s “tricks” and gets him stoned on marijuana for the first time. It is very clear that Perry wants to have sex with Joe — and that Joe is attracted to Perry but is confused and dishonest with himself as to how to handle that — and he eventually takes Joe to a Tex-Mex whorehouse to supposedly get Joe laid. While Joe is having spirited sex with an underage Mexican whore, he realizes that his efforts are being watched; the house’s madame, her fat, gay half-Indian son and Perry are the voyeurs, and they try to coax Joe into continuing, but a furious Joe attacks Perry, only to be pulled off of the hustler by the big gay Injun, at which point Joe is raped by both the fat guy and Perry. Needless to say, that messed him up pretty bad, but he soon gets over it, more or less. The gang rape of Joe and Annie by rednecks as seen in the film is nowhere to be found in the book.

-Joe does not care whom he sex with, male or female, so the film’s questions about Joe’s sexuality are answered rather plainly; Joe isn’t really gay, bi or straight, he’s simply a sex machine who has such a low opinion of himself that any sexual preference is moot. So other than the information that you just read, the movie is about a 95% accurate

Anonymous said...

Everyone in the movie is a fag.