Honesty and Love in “Midnight Cowboy”

16 mins read

This week, Movie Monday found me watching Midnight Cowboy, the 1969 film-that-couldn’t, pulled off miraculously by director John Schlesinger. Midnight Cowboy is a spectacular blip in the vast expanse of film history, ignored by some, cult classic for others, with one legendary line–“I’m walking here!”–that retains it’s cultural capital decades after it was improvised. (Warning: This post contains the “f” slur.)

“I ain’t a f’real cowboy,” is what a sheepish and smiley Joe Buck says to several people throughout his time in New York, “but I am one helluva stud!” We know from the first time he says it that there’s something funny going on here, besides Joe’s bad business sense as he tries to prostitute himself to rich women. There’s something deeper, beneath the cowboy exterior that Joe, portrayed by Jon Voight, doesn’t wear on the outside.

Ratzo and Joe meeting for the first time.

Pretty but dumb, Joe moves to New York to become a prostitute, because the rumor of the leagues of wealthy older women abandoned by the newly-gay men of New York has somehow made its way to Texas. Joe hopes to capitalize on this, but soon realizes he’s in way over his head. When Dustin Hoffman’s crippled con-man character Ratso Rizzo first meets Joe in a bar, he refers to one of these gay New Yorkers by calling him a “faggot” after he tries to pick up Joe. It’s the first time the word is used in the movie, but it’ll be back, and with some frequency, too. The young man and Ratso clearly know each other, but this subtlety bypasses Joe, who thanks him for intervening. Ratso sees an opportunity to con this idiot out of some cash, and so begins our buddy movie. Later, Joe and Ratso have another conversation where the word gets thrown around left and right–“John Wayne! You wanna tell me he’s a fag?” Joe demands after Ratso criticizes his cowboy getup as a gimmick that might work on 42nd Street, but won’t pick up women these days. When Ratso gets angry, frustrated, or emotionally distant, he pulls out the word like a weapon, criticizing anyone he doesn’t like by slinging it in their direction. And when other characters make assumptions that the two are a couple, the same knife of denial will come out to kill it before it spreads.

The question of are-they-or-aren’t-they gay is common in discussions of the film, and with good reason. The movie takes clear, bold steps to suggest that Joe has feelings of homosexuality buried deep in his psyche. Repression and homophobia don’t necessarily go hand in hand in real life, but for Joe it seems as if they do. He lashes out whenever queerness is suggested of him: When he meets the religious eccentric who attempts to take advantage of the situation, he escapes in a rage; when he realizes the closeted college kid he let blow him in a theater doesn’t have money to pay him for it, he beats him up; and of course, at the end of the film, when he picks up an older Chicagoan who himself has shame over his homosexuality, Joe beats, suffocates, and robs him. Even when he has sex with a woman, Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a beautiful socialite who takes him home from a party, he can’t perform until she prods him, asking if he’s gay. We watch him tackle her at the suggestion, and all but fuck her into oblivion. It’s anger that fuels him, not passion, but she’s pleased anyways. In an America where queer men are seen as undermining heteromasculinity, Joe uses the heteromasculine tactics of violence and aggression as his automatic defense mechanism against dealing with his sexuality.

This quasi-awareness of queerness defines the film in many ways. I wonder if Joe would have ever come in contact with this part of himself had he stayed back in Texas, or if his subconscious dragged him out of it as a kind of live-your-truth survival mechanism. After all, his life in Texas hadn’t been that great: He was a dishwasher; he was abandoned by his parents and brought up by a grandmother who traded attentiveness to him for a series of sexual partners; he was gang raped alongside his girlfriend, who was then taken to an insane asylum. He had no remaining family. Luckily, the American Dream called to him: If you think you’re good at sex, you’re wanted in New York. And who should he meet there but Ratso, with whom he develops a relationship that’s the closest thing to love he’s ever really experienced.

It’s notable that this relationship isn’t a sexual one at all; it’s a purely romantic bond. (Although, of course, it begins with the businesslike promise of pimping on Ratso’s part.) As much as Joe grapples with homosexuality, he also struggles to understand what being physical with another person means. He seeks a profession that would provide him with near-constant connection to women, but soon finds that these women care only for his services, and don’t care for him as a person (cue flashback of young Joe giving his grandmother a back rub). Joe refers to having sex as “lovin'”, but it almost never lives up to that name.

Joe looking very out of place on a crowded New York street

Is sex with women unfulfilling to him because he’s gay? I’m not sure it’s that simple–for one, there are all types of queer men who have sex with women and are still queer. For another, it’s not clear to me whether or not Joe understands or cares about his own homosexuality by the end of the film. At that point, he just cares about Ratso. After interacting with the Chicagoan, who voices the same shame Joe has been pushing back this whole time, Joe doesn’t deal directly with the reflection presented to him–he runs from it. I doubt the Joe at the end of the movie would call himself gay any sooner than the Joe at the beginning of the movie would, even if he does brush up against his own impulses constantly in New York. You can lead a Midnight Cowboy to water, but you can’t make him drink.

But he does learn a bit about what surprising places a person can find a genuine partnership. Ratso the street urchin is the last place Joe expected to find love, and yet by the end of this he’ll be abandoning his dreams to go with him to Florida.

Sexuality, of course, is complicated, and includes a great deal more than just sex. Everyone learns this at some point, and so too does Joe. When Joe says he’s “not a real cowboy,” he’s betraying the falsehood he lives in. Maybe Joe isn’t really a cowboy in that, like many queer people, he’s wearing a kind of costume all the time. Or, more likely, he isn’t a real cowboy because the kind of man he is is something that can’t be summed up in either the Old West’s archetypal man’s man or the new, queer, sexxed up version of it. From a modern, queer perspective, Midnight Cowboy wears it’s heart on its sleeve from the get-go, telling the story of a man who grapples with sexuality first time and, like many real queer people, doesn’t fully finish that journey.

For some reason, a lot of people really push back on this. In doing research after I watched the movie, I read several film reviews that seemed exhausted with how people insisted on reading this movie as gay (“Yes, he looked gay in his ridiculous cowboy getup, but he was not a gay” was my favorite, and by favorite, I mean least favorite, because really?). Even Roger Ebert criticized the film’s use of symbols from the Swinging Sixties (which are symbols that show up time and again in queer history) as frivolous and unnecessary, even though he acknowledged the film as a love story.

To split queerness from queer symbols seems bizarre, but people want to do it all the time with Midnight Cowboy. It’s not that he’s gay or that they’re gay or that anyone’s gay, it’s just that cowboys look gay or their love was platonic or everyone in the sixties was faking it anyways, and that’s the point!

But what else could pull Joe so far off his course as to move to Florida besides finding what he was really looking for in the first place–a genuine connection, an honest love? And what’s more–what else could Ratso experience besides that same feeling when he washes Joe’s clothes, cuts Joe’s hair, gives Joe a bed in his own home, and fantasizes about the two of them running through a beach in Florida, Joe shirtless the whole time? Even if the movie never makes it sexually explicit, there’s a heavy argument for it as a textually explicit romance nonetheless. Sex, as Joe learns, can end up having nothing to do with love, and vice versa. All those looks of admiration and longing Ratso gives Joe is enough text to satisfy me.

Ratso giving Joe a look

I’ve read heaps of essays and reviews on this by now, and each one teaches me something more about it, including some essays that go directly against the claims I make here. I choose to believe Ratso and Joe did feel a true affection for one another that went beyond friendship–there are dozens of reasons why that might not have ended up clear-cut in the film, the least of which can be attributed to the actual characters, whose worldviews are so molded by heteromasculinity that overhauling it would be bitter work for them and the writers alike. You can lay much of this flexibility of meaning at the feet of the script, which has Joe make peculiar but honest confessions, like, “My grandma, Sally Buck, she died without letting me know,” and “The only one thing I ever been good for was lovin’.” There is a discussion of masculinity inside Midnight Cowboy that goes beyond the love, or potential love, between the two leads. It touches everything: What does the cowboy symbolize in American culture? How has heteromasculinity changed since then? How does that hurt Joe? How does it free him? Can it free us, too?

At the beginning of his relationship with Ratso, Joe has been kicked out of his hotel room because he can’t pay the rent. Ratso invites him to stay at the apartment he’s squatting in, where Joe, exhausted, falls asleep quickly, only to wake up hours later with his cowboy boots off. He leaps up and demands wildly what Ratso did with his boots; Ratso replies that he took them off for him. “Why?” Joe demands. “So you could sleep,” Ratso says, hurt that his act of kindness is being received this way. After this is all over, we’ll see Joe return the kindness and buy himself and Ratso new clothes after Ratso, unable to move with illness, pisses himself on the bus to Florida. He takes off Ratso’s old clothes and puts him in the Hawaiin shirt, which he will soon die in. Those very same cowboy boots that Joe panicked without will end up in the trash. It’ll be an easy decision to throw them out, because he doesn’t need them anymore. The costume isn’t doing anything for him now, and he’s okay with it–“’cause, hell, I ain’t no kind of hustler. There must be an easier way of making a living than that.” And one that lets him be his honest self, too.

Rachelle Martin is a writer, media analyst and graduate student at the University of Southern California. You can find her rewatching her favorite kid's shows, writing furiously about gender, and weeping over the ‘folklore’ album. She is always wearing a sweater.

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