Thursday, November 10, 2011
What About it?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
Midnight Cowboy is a film about two very lonely, abandoned men trying to survive with no resources in an uncaring environment that requires a lot of them. Both are terminal outsiders, Joe due to his terrible memories, and Rico due to his failing health. While initially their meeting is "naive country guy meets jaded city guy" it quickly steps out of that model. The two have more in common than it appears. Joe believed that coming to NY would let him reinvent himself, and Rico believes the same thing about Florida. Despite each man being irreparably damaged, they are able to establish a very deep friendship, outside the conventional rules.
Jon Voight gives an astonishing performance as Joe Buck. Watching him practice lines in the mirror, it's amazing that he believes his own act. But, it's clear that Joe believing his act is an act of determination as his terrible memories are never too far away. He desires to be a take charge kind of guy, but at every moment of confrontation he's crippled by memories of his past. It's sad to watch the build up, as he asserts himself only to back down, as if he knows deep down that there's no point. He grabs a bottle, thinking to threaten a bartender, but his grandmother's voice yelling at him in his head, kills his resolve. His first attempted hustle ends with him giving Cass his own money. He knows he was tricked, but can't do anything about it. His hustle with the man at the movies goes the same way, when the customer reveals he has no money. Joe takes the man's watch as possible payment, but hands it back, when the guy seems distressed. His first confrontation with Rico follows the same pattern. Joe confronts him aggressively, but when Rico empties his pockets, Joe just gives up. Joe is terribly confused, in many different ways. It makes sense that when presented with his first real gig, sex with Shirley, that Joe is initially impotent, and only able to get his performance back when teased about first his intelligence, and then about being gay, as if he has something to prove to himself. Rico also teases him about being gay, suggesting that gay men are the only ones who would appreciate his cowboy act. Joe himself is more aware of this than he lets on, and he's quickly able to pick up a gay man as a last resort when he runs out of options (although he doesn't get paid.) When he's desperate to get Rico to Florida, he turns to a man again. His last encounter ends differently however perhaps due to his desperation. As if admitting he's not a good hustler, he simply takes the man's money by force, an act that is very uncharacteristic for him, given his own crippling memories.When Rico asks if Joe killed him, he declines to talk about it, clearly troubled by what he's done.
Joe's world is as much memory as it is reality. The cruelty of it is that his fond memories are intertwined with the horrible ones. He misses his grandmother and Annie, but he can't think of them without recalling the horrors that happened. We're shown flashbacks without being given every detail but we get more than enough to know that everything centers on sexual abuse. Joe's naive wholesome cowboy act keeps him from having to commit to the real world where these these happened to him. It's no accident that he cites John Wayne to Rico, as a defense against his assertion that he is gay. The picture of Paul Newman from "Hud" is also telling, as Hud is aggressively heterosexual, and has a habit of sleeping with married women, which is certainly part of Joe's imagined new life in New York, with the added element of charging the women for the service. Joe gets a lot of his information from the movies, as we see when he imagines chasing down Rico. Even when faced with the reality of having nowhere to live, and being completely alone, he maintains his stance, telling Rico that he's a "truly dangerous man." He doesn't realize) chooses not to realize) that no one is fooled by his posturing and that Rico is sympathetic because he sees the true situation, a man hopelessly out of his element, with little chance of surviving alone. However, Rico has to remind him of his own image, telling him he's starting to smell, which he says "is a handicap." Rico helps him get it back, helping him clean his clothes, and shine his shoes via theft, which Joe goes right along with having no other options.
The experience in New York changes Joe. In the end, he abandons his dream, to help Rico realize his. He brings his own impossible hopefulness to it, thinking perhaps that Rico will be ok if he gets to Florida, much like he imagined he would be ok if he got to NY. On the way, he finally realizes he isn't a hustler, resolving to get a regular job. Rico doesn't hear this however, as he's just died, having served a purpose, in a sense having gotten Joe where he needed to be. Rico and Joe essentially end up taking care of each other, Rico when Joe is out on the street, and Joe, when Rico is finally unable to walk on his own anymore. Neither is begrudging about it, and one the most remarkable things in the film is the genuine affection they have for each other.
Dustin Hoffman's Rico is a tremendous piece of acting. We never wonder why he's nicknamed "Ratso." He tells us with his performance, initially he resembles a rodent very much. It isn't until he gets close to Joe that we realize how much the nickname bothers him. His dream is not so much Florida, as it is being anywhere where no one knows to call him Ratso. Despite his scheming exterior, Rico is very fragile and feels every slight, often even before they arrive. His eagerness to offer to "get lost" so Joe can go to a party shows this side of him. Rico actually has a big heart, but this is hindered by the fact that he has trouble surviving. It's clear that his health prevents him from keeping any regular job, as well as a possible legal troubles (he's insistent that Joe doesn't call a Dr. or the cops.)
Rico has a long history of feeling inferior, clearly identifying more than he would like to with his dead father. His contempt for his father's physical condition (a hunchback) and his lack of intelligence (his gravestone, should have a big X) don't alter the fact that he feels compelled to visit his gravesite, or the fact that he can shine shoes well enough to do it for a living. Certainly he feels abandoned by his father's death and wants to be something more than his father was. He paints a picture of his father as a man whose whole life was spent underground in the subway station, but didn't know any better. It's significant that he compares the proposed X on his father's gravestone to the X's on the windows of the building he lives in. He's just as trapped as his father ever was.
When Joe arrives, it's a change for Rico, who is surrounded by people who couldn't care less what happens to him and even view him with contempt. Joe's genuineness touches him, and he feels compelled to help. This results in Rico finding the only person in the world who cares what happens to him. Rico is shrewd, but like Joe, he has his own fantasy life. His imagining the scene in Florida while Joe meets with a client he set up, is every bit as vivid as Joe's fantasies and reveals a lot about what he wants for himself, to be celebrated and not reviled. Seeing Rico accept kindness is fascinating. When Joe informs him he won't go to the party without him, we see that Rico is moved, but makes an effort not to show this. He ends up being a very giving person, although he has little to give. The care he takes to clean Joe up, back to his cowboy image give us someone very thoughtful and meticulously so.
The New York City John Schlesinger presents here is a very cold and busy one, not so much mean, as uncaring. Everyone goes about their own business without looking around very much. For example, early in the movie, Joe finds a dead man on the street, and no on else seems to notice, just walking around him. The song "Everybody's Talkin' at Me" gives us a good indicator of the environment, everybody sees everyone else, but nobody really connects. The odd pairing of Rico and Joe should on the surface, end up simply as con man and mark, but the two of them are really a lot more and a lot less than that. They can connect because both are so terribly lonely and broken. For both of them, just having someone else in the world who cares about them, is a tremendous thing. This bond does not however cure all of their problems. Rico is still dying, and Joe is still largely clueless as to how to interact with people. But they both end up with a better ending than could logically be expected. Rico isn't totally forgotten and Joe realizes he's not a hustler. Hardly a Disney ending, but it's something. Shown with the strength of both brilliant performances, it's a genuinely affecting journey, warm, sincere and tragic.
We begin the movie with a young man named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) in a hotel in Texas, getting into an over the top outfit, including a cowboy hat, suede fringe jacket and gaudy cowboy boots. He practices a line he plans to say, "You know what you can do with them dishes. And, if you ain't man enough to do it for yourself, I'd be happy to oblige." He takes a look in his mirror, obviously pleased with himself. At the restaurant where he works, we hear people calling for him, but when he finally gets to work, he asks his boss to talk for a minute. His boss brushes him off and tells him to get to work. Rather than confront him, Joe heads to the kitchen and tells another employee, Ralph (George Epperson) "He knows what he can do them dishes." He tells Ralph that he's not going to work, but "heading east." Ralph asks what he's going to do there, and Joe replies "There's a lot of rich women back there, Ralph, beggin' for it payin' for it too. And the men are mostly tutti-fruttis." Ralph doesn't seem entirely convinced but Joe leaves to catch a bus for NY City. He has flashbacks on the way out of town, of his grandmother Sally Buck (Ruth White) complimenting him while he gives her a back rub, and of a girl, Annie, who tells him he's "better than any of them." He has some awkward exchanges with people on the bus, and listens to a portable radio getting excited when he gets a NY station, where women are being asked what they want in a man, and he assumes they're describing his qualities.
He gets a hotel, and after unpacking (hanging up a picture of Paul Newman from HUD) starts practicing lines in the mirror. He goes out into the streets to figure out how to approach women as prospective clients, but no one seems very interested. He approaches an older woman, and asks her where the statue of liberty is as an opener, but she brushes him off. He approaches another older woman, Cass (Sylvia Miles) who lets him into her place. They start undressing as she talks to her husband on the phone. They have sex and afterwards she starts rushing to get ready for an appointment. Joe awkwardly tell her that he "almost hates to bring up business." Cass isn't paying any attention to him, and just asks "what line are you in?" He tells her, "Well, I'm kind of a hustler." She tells him that "everyone needs to make a living." without registering what he'd said. She suggests they exchange numbers and get together again soon, and then asks him if he has a little money so she can get a cab. He explains that he was going to ask her for money. She gets angry and hysterical, and he gives her $20.00 to settle her down.
At a bar later he runs into Rico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) a sickly, slick talking character, with a bad limp. Ratso compliments his shirt. Joe starts explaining what happened with the woman earlier to Ratso, who suggests he seek management with his friend Daniel. The two of them go for a walk and Ratso tells him he might make $100.00 a day. Joe asks to meet Daniel right away, but Ratso tells him he needs a cut. Joe gives him ten bucks and Ratso, tells him he'll need another ten when they get to Daniel's place. Ratso makes a phone call to Daniel and brings Joe to an apartment. Daniel (looks him over and starts ranting wildly when Joe admits he's a little lonesome. Daniel tells him he'll "run him ragged." which excites Joe. He insists then that he and Joe, "get down on their knees." which makes Joe clearly uncomfortable. Daniel reveals a plastic lighted Jesus in the next room which triggers an uncomfortable flashback for Joe, involving him getting baptized. He runs from the room, and imagines chasing Ratso as if he was in a movie chase scene. He has another flashback of being held back by a bunch of men, while the girl he was with and possibly Joe himself are raped.He returns to the bar where he met Ratso, but the the bartender tells him he doesn't know anything. A cross dressing man who was there at he and Ratso's first meeting laughs loudly at Joe. Joe picks up a beer bottle, only to have another flashback of breaking a mirror as a boy while being yelled at by his grandmother. He puts the bottle down and leaves.
Watching TV at his hotel, he remembers his grandmother, leaving the house when he was a boy. She calls him loverboy and tells him she'll leave him "movie money." He starts walking through the city at night with radio in hand. Returning to his hotel, he finds he's been locked out of his room until he settles the bill. He goes into a restaurant and gets some crackers from some people having soup. Attempting to put ketchup on the crackers he ruins his pants. He tells himself "you know what you gotta do, cowboy." We see him standing on the street, when a man approaches him. They nod at each other and then go to a dark theater where the man gives him oral sex while Joe remembers the girl from his past. The man then tells him he's sick and doesn't have any money. Joe takes the man's watch off, but the man says his mother would die if he lost the watch, so Joe leaves him with it and watches a movie.
The next day he runs into Ratso at a diner and demands his money. Ratso empties his pockets and says he only has 64 cents. Although initially confronting him angrily, Joe gives up, realizing he's wasting his time taking to Ratso, and leaves but Ratso follows him inviting him to stay at his place if he has no place to go, yelling at him "I'm inviting you, god damn it!" Joe gives in and goes home with Ratso. Ratso brags about the x's on the windows of the building he lives in saying "it's good, because you can't be evicted. It's condemned." He leads Joe into the dilapidated building, having Joe carry a refrigerator up the stars for him. There's no electricity but Ratso reasons, they can keep perishables in it to protect them from roaches. He explains that there's no heat, but says in the winter, he'll be in Florida. Joe quickly falls asleep and has disturbing dreams of the girl and of his grandmother. He works Ratso into it as well, dreaming Ratso is trying to attack him with a broken beer bottle. He wakes up and grabs his radio from Ratso, demanding to know where his boots are and questioning him about how the boots got off. Ratso explains that he took them off so he could sleep. He questions Ratso's motives for having him stay, figuring Ratso is after something. He says, "You don't look like a fag." Ratso reminds him that no one's forcing him to stay, and Joe gets offended, causing Ratso to reassure him that he does want him to stay. Joe tells him "Well, I hope you know what you're in for. I'm a truly dangerous person, I am. Someone does me bad, like youI swear, if I'd have caught up with you that night there would've been one dead Ratso right now, you understand me?" Ratso answers deadpan "I'm impressed. You're a killer." Joe agrees to stay for a couple days.
Ratso takes a minute and says "Joe, do me a favor, this is my place. Am I wrong?"
Joe: No, you're not wrong
Ratso: In my own place, my name ain't Ratso. I mean, it just so happens, in my own place, my name is Enrico Salvatore Rizzo
Joe: Well hell, I can't say all that.
Ratso: Rico, then. Please call me Rico, in my own goddamned place.
Joe: Okay, Rico, Rico Rico....
The next morning Joe and Rico walk together. Rico gets confronted by a fruit vendor for stealing a coconut, but Joe sticks up for him. They go back to Rico's place and he tells Joe all about Florida, while he cooks. Joe complains about the food, but quickly takes it back when Rico tells him he can cook from now on. He goes on about the ladies in Miami.
Rico: Miami Beach, that's where you could score. Anybody could score there, even you. In New York, no rich lady with any class at all buys that cowboy crap anymore. They're laughing at you on the street.
Joe: Ain't nobody laughing at me on the street.
Rico: Hanging back, I seen them laughing at you.
Joe: Oh what the hell do you know about women anyway? When's the last time you scored, boy?
Rico: That's a matter I only talk about at confession. We're not talking about me now.
Joe: When's the last time you been to confession?
Rico: That's between me and my confessor. And, I'll tell you another thing, frankly, you're beginning to smell, and for a stud in New York, that's a handicap.
Joe: Well, don't talk to me about clean. I ain't never seen you change your underwear once, the whole time I been in New York.Now that's pretty peculiar behavior.
Rico: I don't have to do that kind of thing in public. I ain't got no need to expose myself.
Joe: No, I bet you don't. I bet you've never even been laid. And you're gonna tell me what appeals to women?
Rico: I know enough to know that that big dumb cowboy crap of yours don't appeal to nobody, except every jockey on 42nd Street. That's faggot stuff! You wanna call it by its name? That's strictly for fags!
Joe: John Wayne! You wanna tell me he's a fag? (Rico doesn't answer)
I like the way I look. It makes me feel good. It does. And women like me, god-dammit. Hell, only one thing I've ever been good for is lovin'. Women go crazy for me. That's a really true fact. Ratso, hell, Crazy Annie, they had to send her away.
Rico: Then how come you ain't scored once, the whole time you've been in New York?
Joe: Cause, 'cause I need management, god-dammit. 'Cause you stole twenty dollars offa me. That's why you're gonna stop crappin' around about Florida. And, and get your skinny butt movin.' And earn twenty dollars worth of management which you owe me.
Joe grabs Rico's coconut and drops it out the window.
Rico and Joe go to the laundromat, and Rico sneaks Joe's clothes into a washer with another customers. He also helps Joe get his hat back from the cleaner's without paying by distracting the store owner. Rico shines his boots and Joe tells him he does it so well he could do it for a living. Rico says "And end up a hunchback like my old man? You thin I'm crippled, you shoulda caught him at the end of the day." They go back home and Rico cuts Joe's hair and finishes the story "My old man spent fourteen hours a day down in that subway. He'd come home at night, 2-3 dollars worth of change, stained with shoe polish. Stupid bastard coughed his lungs out from breathing in that wax all day. Even the faggot undertaker couldn't get his nails clean. We had to bury him with gloves on."
Joe admires himself in the mirror, now clean with a new haircut. Rico says "Not bad, not bad, for a cowboy. You're ok. You're ok."
Rico stands outside a male escort service, catching an official escort as he hails a cab. He distracts him and steals his appointment information from his pocket. He then calls the escort agency and tells them the appointment is cancelled, sending Joe to meet the woman at the "hotel for women" where she's staying. He reminds Joe to get cash. Rico watches from across the street, imagining he and Joe living it up in Florida, where everyone calls him Rico. His vision turns sour however, when he sees the woman slap Joe for grabbing her ass, before getting kicked out of the hotel.
The two of them have a tough time when it starts getting cold, as the water freezes in Rico's place.They dance in place to keep from freezing, and Rico's cough gets worse. Joe agrees to sell his radio for five dollars at a pawn shop. Joe figures out that he can sell blood to make some money, and surprises Rico with some groceries. Rico's cough is horrible by now. Rico accuses Joe of "going down to 42nd Street." and Joe notices Rico has a new coat and accuses him of stealing it and letting some poor guy freeze. Rico says "I stole it for you. It's ten sizes too big for me."
The next day Joe goes with Rico to the cemetery to see RIco's father's grave. He tells Joe " He was even dumber than you. He couldn't even write his own name. "X" that's what it should say on that headstone, one big lousy X, just like our dump, condemned by order of city hall." Joe tells him "My Grandma, Sally Buck, she died without letting me know." They go to a restaurant and eat. Rico talks about reincarnation, Joe choosing to come back as the president instead of as a dog. While they're discussing it a couple dressed all in black, take Joe's picture and then hand him an invitation to a Hansel and Gretel McAlbertson's party, before walking off. Rico insists that it's a scam, but Joe teases him about not being invited. Rico offers to get lost, but Joe insists he'll tell them "I don't go nowhere without my buddy here." RIco thinks about dressing for the party.
It's snowing the night of the party, and when they arrive, Rico isn't doing well. The party is ridiculously elaborate and theatrical, with a film crew moving from guest to guest. Rico exclaims "Wacko's, they're all wacko's." Joe ends up smoking a joint with a woman named Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) , while Rico loads up on free food and pickpockets some cash. A little high, Joe is captivated by his surroundings. Rico gets questioned about stealing food, a woman telling him "It's free, you don't need to steal it." He counters, "If it's free, I ain't stealing it." He has a hard time with the attention and lays down. Shirley runs into him again and they kiss and touch a little bit, both stoned. She suggests they leave and go to her place or his. Rico sets up the transaction telling her it'll cost $20.00 to have sex with Joe. Rico also includes a dollar for his own cab fare. Before they leave, Rico injures himself falling down the stairs, but he tells Joe to go on.
In bed, Joe can't perform, and the woman reassures him, although he feels bad. She suggests he doesn't call her ma'am and it might work better. He swears it's the first time it's ever happened to him. Shirley suggests they take a nap and see what happens, but he insists he isn't sleepy. She convinces him to play a word game and he attempts to spell "Money" as "Mony" He tries to think of another word starting with Y, and she tells him it could also end in Y, teasing that "gay" ends in Y. He determines he'll prove her wrong and is able to perform again. The next morning Shirley suggests Joe to one of her friends, even setting up a date for him, which he eagerly agrees to. She pays him and he heads home with groceries including something for Rico's cough. He enthusiastically tells Rico, they won't have to steal anymore. He gets Rico some soup, and Rico tells him "don't get sore or anything. I don't think I can walk anymore. I mean, I've been falling down a lot. I'm scared!"
Joe: What are you scared of?
Rico: You know, what they they do to you when they find out you can't walk. Oh Christ. I've gotta lay down. Joe helps him to his bed and tells him to stay there. Rico asks where he's going, and Joe says he's getting a doctor. Rico insists no doctor or cops and tells him to just out him on a bus to Florida.
Joe makes a call to Shirley, and finds she won't be home for some time. He goes out and attracts a gay man who wants him to go back to his hotel. While the man is on the phone, Joe practices talking tough in the mirror, explaining that he has to get his sick friend down south in a hurry. Joe confronts the man about what he wants, and the man starts reproaching himself and gives Joe his own St. Christopher necklace. Joe insists that he needs money, and the man offers him ten dollars which he pulls out of a drawer insisting that Joe stay back. Joe overpowers him and takes the money he needs from the drawer, beating the man when he resists, although opting not to him with a lamp. When the man picks up the phone before Joe leaves, Joe comes back and shoves the telephone in his mouth/
The hotel room scene is mixed with scenes of Joe carrying Rico out of their place, into a cab and onto a bus. Rico is covered in sweat, but he talks about when they'll arrive in Florida. He asks Joe "You didn't kill him, did you? You got blood on your jacket." Joe says he doesn't want to talk about it and Rico closes his eyes before he finishes the sentence. Rico gets steadily worse, and Joe tells him to pull up his blanket. Rico tells him he's concerned about Joe calling him Ratso, and he wants to be Rico all the time when they get there. Joe agrees. Joe notices Rico seems bothered and Rico tells him he wet himself. Rico tells him "Here I am, goin' to Florida, my leg hurts, my butt hurts, my chest hurts, my face hurts, and like that ain't enough, I gotta pee all over myself." Joe laughs and Rico says "That's funny? I'm falling apart here?" Joe laughs and says "You just took a little rest stop that wasn't on the schedule." He asks Rico what size pants he wears and picks up some clothes for the both of them when the bus stops, throwing out his cowboy outfit. He tells Rico, he's planning to get a job in Florida saying "I'm no kind of hustler." When Rico doesn't answer, he checks on him and realizes he's died. The bus stops and a man gets on to check Rico. He asks Joe "Is he kin to you?" and then tells Joe to close his eyes, which he does. They drive on, a few minutes away from Miami. Joe holds Rico while everyone stares back at him, and then we watch the two of them through the bus window.