‘Once Upon a Time...’ may be the hit of the summer, but Quentin Tarantino’s vision of 1969 is more than rivalled by a film made that very year. The newly restored ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is one of the great films about the transition to the gritty ’70s. ‘A sometimes amusing but essentially sordid saga of a male prostitute in Manhattan’ was Variety’s harsh judgment at the time, but its stature has grown and grown since then. Director John Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt pump so much emotion into it that it becomes a moving epitaph both to its two striving characters and the American dream itself.
It made Jon Voight a star in his film debut and cemented the credentials of Dustin Hoffman two years after ‘The Graduate’. Voight is Joe Buck, a rural ingénue who travels to New York with the delusion that he will make a killing as a Park Avenue stud. Disillusioned, he ends up squatting with Ratso (Hoffman), a sickly Italian-American petty trickster. Oscar nominations came to both Voight, with his kicked-puppy energy, and Hoffman, with eyes so harrowed it hurts to look at them. Their performances anchor the narrative, while the soundtrack, editing, flashbacks and dream sequences pull in the opposite direction, evoking a sense of the dreams tantalisingly out of reach and promises destined to either break, or leave them broken.