For whatever reason, I don’t recall where or when I first saw Midnight Cowboy. But I do know that from that very first time, one scene and piece of dialogue has stuck with me.
“Ratso” Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman, and Joe Buck (Jon Voight) are crossing a street in downtown New York City against a “Don’t Walk” sign. When Ratso is almost hit by a cab, he glares at the driver, pounds on the hood and yells, “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” The next line isn’t too bad either. He says to Buck, “Actually, that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance, you know.”
I always think of that scene — over which there is disagreement whether it was scripted or ad libbed — when I hear or think of the movie. Released in 1969, the film is its own cultural icon. The core plot is fairly simple. Buck, a Texan who thinks he’s quite the love stud, comes to New York to seduce and live off rich women. As NYC is wont to do, his dreams are crushed. He ends up being taken in (using the phrase in more than one sense) by Rizzo, a streetwise and lame homeless person. With content dealing with sex and drugs, not to mention male prostitution, the movie was originally rated “X.” Yet Midnight Cowboy became the only X-rated movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (When it was re-released in 1971, the rating was changed to “R” without a single change in the movie.)
Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor — losing to John Wayne in True Grit. My favorite line ended up 27th on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best movie quotes. Hoffman ranked seventh on Premiere Magazine‘s list of 100 Greatest Performances of All Time for his portrayal of the “persevering, slumping, filthy, sweaty, rodent-like tubercular street hustler.” The appropriately named Ratso came in 33rd on the magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. The film itself was named to the National Film Registry in 1994, was 36th on the AFI’s 1998 list of America’s 100 greatest movies (but dropped to 43rd ten years later) and gets a 90 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
But it really is the characters who make this film. Roger Ebert summed it up quite well, saying “a 1994 viewing of the film confirms my original opinion, expressed in 1969, that the movie as a whole doesn’t live up to its parts. And that Joe and Ratso rise above the material, taking on a reality of their own while the screenplay detours into the fashionable New York demimonde.” It’s how Joe and Ratso rise above the material that is enthralling.
Hoffman’s Ratso is unquestionably one of the best performances of his career. We see and understand the relationship between him and Buck as it develops and what it grows to mean to each. Buck may be naive and Ratso a seedy street hustler but both have dreams. Despite — or perhaps because — those dreams and life turn more nightmarish, their relationship becomes stronger. Even though neither achieves his dream, both characters are unforgettable.
The X on the windows means the landlord can’t collect rent, which is a convenience, on account of it’s condemned.
Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), Midnight Cowboy