It’s a film that still has the power to move, shock and disturb, 40 years after its release. Characters, situations and lines of dialogue entered the cultural consciousness, starting with the title. Even though it was rated X, seemingly everybody saw “Midnight Cowboy.” And everybody knows what a Midnight Cowboy is.
“If anything,” says movie critic Leonard Maltin, it’s a film that “looks better today than it did when it first came out.”
The movie cemented Dustin Hoffman’s reputation as an actor’s actor, Method with a capital “M.” And it launched the career of his co-star, Jon Voight. Voight had been around, begun to make a mark in theater, done supporting roles on TV and bit parts in movies. But “Midnight Cowboy” turned him, at 30, into an overnight sensation.
“I had had indications, kind words from others, that I had talent,” Voight, now 70, recalls. “I could have had a career, made an impression here or there. But to get something serious and as auspicious as this, right off, high art? Well, you don’t get an opportunity like that but once.”
One of those indications that Voight had “it” came from his co-star, Hoffman, years before. They met when Hoffman was assisting his friend, director Ulu Grosbard, in rehearsals for the play that was Voight’s first big break - “A View from the Bridge.”
“He was preparing the understudies and giving ideas to Ulu,” Voight remembers. “After the first rehearsal ‘on our feet,’ he came over to me, and in that deep, deep voice he had even back then, he said ‘You know, you’re going to be very good in this.’ That was my first indication from a peer that it was going to happen for me.”
That connection led Voight, sometime later, to send a copy of the novel “Midnight Cowboy” to Hoffman. But while the hot new star of “The Graduate” would be essential to getting the film made, the fellow who would co-star, playing the naive “stud” hustler Joe Buck to Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, was very much up in the air. Voight fought to get an audition, and fought to be considered even though director John Schlesinger told him, “I already have my favorites.” Voight is quick to credit one woman for the entire career he’s had since.
“An icon, a legend, the great casting director Marion Dougherty (who went on to cast “The Killing Fields,” “Batman,” “Lethal Weapon”) pushed me, believed in me,” Voight says. “She got me parts on TV, got me billing, a little extra money. I was pretty bad in one, I remember, ‘Naked City,’ the TV series. I was so upset that I tried to write her a letter, several times, just to apologize.”
Voight wasn’t the first choice to play Joe Buck, but he was the final one. And that set up one of the great pairings in screen history - Voight as the tall, blond Texan and Hoffman’s short, feral, New York con-artist and fast-talker. Voight fought for the role not just because he was a hungry young actor trying to get his break, “but I felt I knew this guy. Joe keeps trying to look like he belongs. There’s a desperation and loneliness in his gestures, even with people who are fooled by him, who think he’s smooth. He’s a clown, a hollow, scared clown.” The sort of rube who says “I only get carsick on boats.”
The casting set up a great contest between the two young actors. “We were both looking for our walks, having this great time competing and yet helping each other,” Voight says. “I tried all these walks, like that Monty Python sketch, the silly walks. I went to bars in Texas, trying to pass as Texan, trying to get something real. He got his walk, I found mine.
“And then, I came into the makeup room and he shows up with these horrible false teeth that he’d gotten from his dentist. I was so jealous. I mean, I had a walk, he had the limp. But he had the teeth, too!”
Working for Schlesinger (“Darling,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday”), one of the great filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, was “real actor fun,” Voight says. “These two characters could not have been more theatrical. For two character actors to be the leads in a movie, and for it to be this movie, is just unheard of.
“I used to tell Dusty, ‘We’re Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. That’s what this is, a pas de deux.’”
Voight says now that he realized, even back then, that he would never have a movie-making experience to match that one again, “that symmetry, those talents, that style of filmmaking.” But to a large degree, “Midnight Cowboy” set the tone for the careers that followed. Both men not only have Oscars, they have continued to work and thrive in films and TV long past their natural leading-man days. Voight, in recent years, has proven equally at home playing a pope, a reptilian river guide, a real-life president, a basketball coach, or a villain on TV’s “24.”
“That’s been our mark. We’ve both hung around, I think, because of what we established from this film from 1969. We’re both character actors. And I guess it really started on that film, 40 years ago.”