Keeping the Legend of X-Rated ‘Midnight Cowboy’ Alive

Many films considered “classics” still hold a place in the annals of film, but Midnight Cowboy stands alone. A humble film with a down and dirty plot, Midnight Cowboy secures its staying power through nuance and subtext.

The only X-rated film to ever win an Academy Award (three, in fact), Midnight Cowboy shocked audiences with far from glamorous sexual scenes, yet it appeared at a time when film-goers were in need of a shock to the system. This refusal to omit the unsavory or atypical fit in with the protest culture of the late 60s, a fact beautifully explored in Nancy Buirski’s deeply analytical new documentary Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy.

Midnight Cowboy—based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy—is the story of a young man named Joe Buck (Jon Voight). Almost-authentic cowboy Joe lives in a small west Texas town, but he has big dreams of the big city. He boards a bus and makes his way to New York City. Joe, a hustler confident in his sex appeal, plans to find rich women who will open doors to a life of luxury.

Upon arriving, Joe finds Manhattan far less hospitable than he had hoped. Then he meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who wants to be called “Rico,” but is better known on the streets as Ratso. First Ratso scams Joe out of his pocket money, but eventually Ratso takes Joe in first as a wingman and then as a friend.

Ratso and Joe make their way by stealing and scrounging for anything they can find while squatting in a condemned building. Ratso struggles with illness and Joe puts his looks to use hustling in Times Square, where he attracts the attention of more men than women. Once Ratso’s illness progresses, Joe manages to gather enough money to fulfill Ratso’s dream of going south to Florida.

Nancy Buirski’s documentary film, Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy, angles in on the film and examines it from a variety of perspectives—aesthetic, cultural, historical, and sociopolitical—while pulling anecdotes and reactions from the memories of those involved. Actors Jon Voight, Jennifer Salt, Bob Balaban, Brenda Vaccaro (and more) share their personal histories. Nancy also includes many clips, from interviews as well as films made before and after Midnight Cowboy, to ensure that the POV of director John Schlesinger (who died in 2003) is included.

On Saturday, June 24th, I was privileged to be at the Film Forum (an Indie film mecca in Greenwich Village) to celebrate the legacy of Midnight Cowboy. First, we saw the film itself in a new restoration, and then (after a dinner break) we saw Desperate Souls followed by a Q&A with Nancy (and several companions). This was a thoughtful way to introduce audiences to a classic film as well as the impressive work of a consummate female filmmaker.

Nancy is best known for her documentaries By Sidney Lumet and The Rape of Recy Taylor, films that shed light on little known stories using irreplaceable firsthand accounts from the sources themselves. Her documentaries have garnered impressive attention, playing across the USA as well as in prestigious international film festivals like Cannes and Venice.

Nancy’s style is marked by tight, intimate shots, true face-to-face conversations with personalities from behind and in front of the camera. She expertly cuts in original source materials such as photographs and film clips as she seamlessly creates an atmosphere unique to each subject.

Nancy Buirski focuses on the lasting nature of art and what still makes Midnight Cowboy so pivotal.

In the Film Forum Q&A, Nancy described her editing process as free-association; never actively intentional, she says she lets the material guide her. In reference to Midnight Cowboy, she stated her goal was to play to the intricacies of the film and its interaction with society at large. Her focus was on the lasting nature of art and what made this film so pivotal.

Midnight Cowboy indeed made a splash. It is a layered film with a rich subtext imbued with themes from the 1960’s zeitgeist. At the time of Midnight Cowboy’s release in 1969, the USA was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War, and the counterculture movement was making its voice heard.

Part of this social revolution was the growing gay movement and the emergence of openly gay individuals and materials into the world of pop culture in a way that had never happened before. Midnight Cowboy fearlessly portrayed sexually intimate (though never explicit) moments between Joe and other men, as well as adding an ambiguous subtext to the relationship between Joe and Ratso. In the nascent ratings system of the era, this earned Midnight Cowboy an X rating.

Desperate Souls discusses this not only in the context of the film’s reception but also in association with its creators. Novelist James Leo Herlihy and director John Schlesinger were both gay men, and Schlesinger’s choice to adapt Midnight Cowboy—along with screenwriter Waldo Salt—was a way of bringing a minority voice to the Big Screen. Schlesinger would then go on to direct Sunday Bloody Sunday, which was not only among the first films to positively portray a gay relationship, but featured the first on-screen gay kiss in a film meant for mainstream audiences since the 1920s.

The story plays against the raw filth of a realistic New York.

Also notable at the time was Midnight Cowboy’s choice to film on location in Manhattan. The story plays against the raw filth of a realistic New York. Ratso pounds on the hood of a cab; Joe loiters in the seedy light of Times Square. Yet despite the mess, and despite the fact that Joe Buck and Ratso are two losers, two people who find each other in the process of failing to achieve their dreams, these characters convince the audience to root for their success.

At its heart, Midnight Cowboy is a love story. It’s an unconventional relationship, a friendship between two young men trying to survive in a difficult world. They’re fearless and off-kilter; they’re young and hungry. This friendship is what gives the film its lasting impact, the light in the sea of dark themes.

Desperate Souls dives back into the narrative and truly explores the legend of Midnight Cowboy. Jon Voight speaks lovingly of the film, describing how desperate he was to get this part, to inhabit the life of Joe Buck, and tell his story. The world was changing and this film had the potential to join the manifesto of a new society.

Many socially-experimental films came before Midnight Cowboy and set the stage for this new narrative, and thanks to this film’s daring, many more would come after. In making a record of this accomplishment, Nancy Buirski keeps the legend alive. Audiences who see both films can now experience Midnight Cowboy’s lasting impact for themselves.

© Julie Musbach – Special for FF2 Media (7/11/23)


Read Stephanie Taylor’s interview with filmmaker Nancy Buirski.

Check out Lesley Coffin’s in-depth discussion of Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor.

Explore Nancy Buirski’s filmography on IMDb.


Feature Photo: John Voight as “Joe Buck” hustling on Times Square. Copyright WARNER BROS. See Alamy RYDA9E.

Middle Image: Midnight Cowboy opens with a tight close-up on a coin-operated mechanical horse, frozen in time under the huge screen of a deserted Drive-In. This image is an evocative reminder of the tenacious hold cowboys have on our American mythology. (Google)

Bottom Photo: John Voight as “Joe Buck” with Dustin Hoffman as “Ratso Rizzo”. Copyright WARNER BROS. See Alamy RYXA2X.

Click on image to enlarge


Filmmaker Nancy Buirski with producer Simon Kilmurry after the Film Forum Q&A.

Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (6/24/23)

Tags: 1960’s zeitgeist, Best Picture Oscar, By Sidney Lumet, cowboy mythology, Desperate Souls, Desperate Souls Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy, Documentary Films, female documentary filmmaker, Film Forum, filmed in NYC, Julie Musbach, LGBT, LGBTQIA, Manhattan, Midnight Cowboy, Nancy Buirski, Recy Taylor, Times Square, Vietnam War

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Julie Musbach began her career in Sydney, Australia and has since tackled many a career. From film and television production to theatre publicity and journalism, she has enjoyed life on set and on the red carpet. Julie has also spent time living in Minnesota, California, Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and Edinburgh, Scotland. Currently residing in New York City, she fosters a passionate love for medical dramas, cheese, and a little black cat called Stevie Nyx.
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