I’m not going to call Midnight Cowboy a masterpiece, that is a word that gets thrown around too much (like luxury it has lost it has lost all meaning.) Midnight Cowboy is better than that. It is a perfect film. All of the elements: the script, the direction, the casting, the costumes, the cinematography, the production design, the music, the acting, the editing, compliment and counterpoint each other so well that the screen vibrates with an almost overpowering energy that you can’t help but get sucked into. Perfect films—Vertigo, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet, and of course Showgirls, to name a few—are the rare result not of meticulous perfection but of filmmakers (and all of their collaborators) trusting their guts, taking go for broke risks, and not letting anyone (studios, test audiences, their own self-doubt, or egos) dilute or cloud their visions.
Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic is not only a fascinating peek behind the scenes of how the film was made, but also a chronicle of the time in which it was made. It was the late 1960s and New York City was rapidly slipping into glorious despair. Homosexuality was considered a sickness that could be cured by physiatrists until 1973 and was not removed completely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1987. It’s hard to imagine The New York Times running a homophobic cover story on the dangers of homosexuals (it did) or theater critics (even gay ones) bashing gay and lesbian characters, not for being negative role models, but for existing at all. But that was the time in which two homosexual men, both not openly gay but not exactly in-the-closet either, created Midnight Cowboy. James Leo Herlihy (who wrote the book) and John Schlesinger (who directed the film) were from different classes, countries, and backgrounds. The only things that really linked them was their homosexuality and their love of outsiders.
The book not only examines James Leo Herlihy and John Schlesinger’s lives and work but also the brilliant (and underappreciated) casting director Marion Dougherty, the blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt, the maverick producer Jerry Hellman, the keen-eyed cinematographer Adam Holender, the innovative costume designer Ann Roth, the brilliant editor Hugh A. Robertson (aided rather subversively by Schlesinger and British editor Jim Clark), the resourceful production designer John Robert Lloyd and the ready to give their all and then some actors; Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, and Jennifer Salt.
John Schlesinger made four perfect (or near-perfect) films; A Kind of Loving, Darling, Midnight Cowboy, and Sunday Bloody Sunday, and many others that are flawed but interesting, like The Day of the Locust and Marathon Man, yet he was never revered or taken as seriously as his fellow New Hollywood filmmakers; George Roy Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, or Arthur Penn. Schlesinger, like all queer artists, was dismissed as camp. It’s shocking, but no real surprise, when Frankel details the homophobia that Schlesinger and his longtime partner, photographer Michael Childers, endured everywhere from everyone, even on the set of Midnight Cowboy.
If you have never seen Midnight Cowboy, get the beautifully restored Criterion Collection DVD or Blu-ray and watch it immediately then read Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel.
By Todd Verow
Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel is available now, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN: 9780374209018. Please support your local bookstore.