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 seem 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.