‘Midnight Cowboy’ and the very dark horse its makers rode in on

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Times Staff Writer

The director was coming off a flop and coming out of the closet. The producer’s wife had taken the kids and left him. The screenwriter, whose career had been ruined by the blacklist, was scraping by writing second-rate schlock. The lead actors seemed all wrong for their roles. The Polish cinematographer had never shot a feature before and was learning English as fast as he could. By the time the movie finished shooting, the studio chiefs were so mad at the filmmakers for going over budget that they were barely speaking to them.

Sometimes it takes a bunch of misfits to make a masterpiece, which is what happened 35 years ago when “Midnight Cowboy” became a Hollywood sensation, not to mention the only X-rated movie to win the Oscar for best picture. “Midnight Cowboy” was more than an underdog; it was the longshot of a lifetime -- John Schlesinger, the film’s director, was so convinced it would be ignored on Oscar night that he didn’t even bother to show up. A cautious institution even in the best of times, the Academy Awards at the end of the 1960s was only dimly aware of the ferment that was transforming the culture outside Hollywood. The year before “Midnight Cowboy” won, the best picture had gone to “Oliver!”

Though 1969 spawned a host of daring breakthrough films, including “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Medium Cool” and “Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice,” none qualified as best picture nominees, an honor reserved for more traditional fare, such as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Anne of the Thousand Days.” The odds-on favorite for best picture was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Early on awards night, “Butch Cassidy” director George Roy Hill put his arm around “Midnight Cowboy” producer Jerome Hellman. “Don’t feel bad,” Hill told him, feeling gracious. “My people tell me we’re going to win, but I want to congratulate you anyway. You made a good little movie.”


By night’s end, “Midnight Cowboy” had not only won the grand prize, but a best director Oscar for Schlesinger and a best adapted screenplay Oscar for Waldo Salt. “I was so sure we weren’t going to win I didn’t even prepare a speech,” Hellman recalls. “I probably only said 10 words. It must’ve been the shortest speech in the history of the Oscars. I didn’t thank John [Schlesinger] or the actors or my mother or father. All I remember is going to the Governors Ball and seeing [screenwriter] Ernie Lehman, who ran up to me and said, ‘Tonight, you’re the king.’ It was just one of those special times when the academy somehow recognizes greatness.”

Coming in the same year that saw Woodstock, the Manson murders, Altamont and the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, “Midnight Cowboy’s” box-office success and subsequent Oscar triumph signaled the stirrings of a generational upheaval in Hollywood. Seen from the vantage point of today’s risk-averse studio system, “Midnight Cowboy” seems more exotic than ever, a film that symbolizes the burst of creative energy that brought Hollywood into a tumultuous new era.

Cult circuit to cinema classic

Published in 1965, James Leo Herlihy’s “Midnight Cowboy” was an obscure novel about the unlikely friendship between a New York street hustler, Ratso Rizzo, and a Texas dishwasher, Joe Buck, who’d come to the Big Apple to make a killing as a stud servicing sex-starved society women. It hardly seemed like movie material, even though the book had become something of a cult item -- Jon Voight recalls reading it when he was doing summer stock and, most importantly, Schlesinger was a huge fan.

Schlesinger’s interest gave the book a special cachet. In the mid-1960s, the English filmmaker was at the cusp of greatness, having directed two much-praised pictures, “Billy Liar” and “Darling,” that made Julie Christie a star and captured the new spirit of pop Britannia. So when Schlesinger phoned Hellman and asked if he’d produce, Hellman jumped at the chance.

“The book had a lot of things against it too, especially the sequences of very direct homo-eroticism, but it was a very powerful story,” Hellman recalls. “John and I had a very candid conversation -- I knew he was gay, but hadn’t come out -- and he made it clear he didn’t want to make a gay movie out of it, that he saw it as an oddball love story.”

Hellman bought the book rights and took them to United Artists, where he’d made a film previously. United Artists was a shrewd choice for a difficult project. The Miramax of its day, having made projects including James Bond films, Bergman movies and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” it was a studio renowned for its willingness to work with gifted artists on risky material. Like Hellman, UA’s production chief, David Picker, was a Schlesinger fan. He flew to London, met with the director and put up $1 million to make the picture.


That was the end of things going smoothly. Schlesinger and Hellman auditioned a number of writers, including Gore Vidal, who told them the book was rubbish, saying, “I did it all in ‘The City and the Pillar’ years ago -- why don’t you make that instead?” They eventually hired Jack Gelber, an off-Broadway playwright who dropped out after doing a lackluster first draft, telling Hellman that “the movie will never work if Ratso Rizzo has to limp.”

Looking for a replacement, Hellman was willing to cast a wide net, which is how he met Salt, a screenwriter who’d been in eclipse for years. He’d graduated from Stanford at age 18 and been the youngest writer on the Metro lot in the late 1930s. But he’d also been a proud member of the Communist Party. Salt was writing “The Crimson Pirate” for Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht when he was called to testify in 1951 before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

After he was named as a Communist, Hecht promptly fired him. Blacklisted for the next decade, his marriage fell apart, he drank heavily and struggled to make ends meet, writing for TV under the pseudonym of M.L. Davenport. In the mid-1960s he finally landed a job under his real name, hired by none other than Hecht, the man Salt’s daughter, actress Jennifer Salt, describes as “his nemesis and his savior.” In 1968, Salt’s agent, George Litto, who’d been loaning him money to keep him afloat, insisted that Hellman read 30 pages of a new script Salt was writing. Hellman was astounded -- it had all of the staccato rhythms and soulful spirit he wanted for “Midnight Cowboy.”

Hellman still vividly recalls the man who showed up the next day in his office, a man who only a year before had been so depressed about his career prospects that he’d threatened to jump out of his apartment window. “Waldo was beaten up -- his nose had no bridge left, as if it had been punched a bunch of times. He looked more like a longshoreman than a Hollywood screenwriter.” Quick-witted and articulate, Salt had already written a detailed memo about his adaptation plans. Hellman sent Salt’s memo to Schlesinger, who replied by telegram: “Hire him and start work at once.”

For Salt, who went on to write “Serpico” and win an Oscar for writing “Coming Home” before his death in 1987, “Midnight Cowboy” was a shot at redemption. “He’d been taking all these crappy jobs for films he took no pride in when along comes this movie that’s the real deal,” recalls Jennifer Salt, who ended up playing a key part in “Cowboy’s” flashback scenes and moved in with Voight during filming. “He was just full of excitement and energy, working with people that had faith in him.”

Soon-to-be-stars in alignment

Hellman already had one actor in mind to star in the film. When Gelber began work on the script, he’d sent Hellman to see an off-Broadway British farce called “Eh?” that starred Dustin Hoffman, then an unknown, as a Liverpudlian foreman of a boiler room. “I remember going to see ‘Hard Day’s Night’ about a dozen times to get the accent right,” Hoffman recalls. “I got a big write-up from Walter Kerr in the New York Times, who compared me to Buster Keaton, which was great, although I had to go and see a Keaton film to figure out what he was talking about.”


By the time “Midnight Cowboy” was ready to go into production, “The Graduate” had arrived. But like many off-Broadway actors of his era, Hoffman felt ambivalent about celebrity. “The truth was, I saw ‘The Graduate’ as a setback, because I was determined not to be a star,” he explains. For him, Ratso Rizzo was the very sort of grimy character role that might dispel the idea emanating from some “Graduate” reviews that Hoffman, as he puts it, was simply “some nebbish [Mike] Nichols had found who was like Benjamin Braddock.”

Hoffman desperately wanted to work with Schlesinger. The question was whether Schlesinger wanted to work with him. Having seen Hoffman only as a rich preppy in “The Graduate,” the director needed some convincing. Hoffman had spent a lot of time with his scruffy acting pals Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, drinking coffee at 2 a.m. at a seedy 42nd Street automat frequented by Ratso-like bums (“We didn’t call them homeless people then”). When Schlesinger met him there one night, he found Hoffman in character, with a three-day beard, disheveled clothes and a Bowery accent. After a few minutes Schlesinger told him, “Why Dustin, you do fit right in.”

Voight didn’t have it so easy. Unknown outside the theater world, he had to do a screen test opposite Hoffman with several other actors, including Michael Sarrazin. At first, Schlesinger thought Voight was wrong for the part, saying he looked like a blond Dutch boy. Sarrazin got the role, but when his agent held out for more money, Hellman was so infuriated that he slammed down the phone and persuaded Schlesinger to look at the audition tapes again. After watching Voight again, Schlesinger said, “The more I see these tests, we may have been spared a terrible fate. I think Jon is our cowboy.”

Voight vividly recalls that after Hellman told him Sarrazin got the part, “I was crushed. I felt sick to my stomach. I walked around like a wounded animal for a week.” Then he heard that Schlesinger might want to talk again. He went out for some groceries and on his way back, in the rain, he ran into a homeless ex-boxer who lived in the neighborhood. He bought him a bottle of Scotch and made him a sandwich at his apartment and told him he was waiting for a phone call that might change his life.

“It took the pressure off me,” Voight recalls. “This guy had it a lot worse than me, so I felt a lot more at ease.” When Schlesinger called and asked to meet, Voight and the old boxer did a victory dance in the apartment. “I ran out and left him with a tuna-fish sandwich and the Scotch and told him, ‘Don’t go out in the rain, but if you have to, here’s a coat.’ ” When Voight got the part, full of youthful bravado, he told Schlesinger, “You made the right decision -- I’m going to be terrific.” For his ticket to stardom, he received $17,500.

Before filming began in New York, Hoffman and Voight spent weeks in rehearsals, improvising scenes with Salt, who would tape the sessions on a Wallensack reel-to-reel recorder and weave them into the script. The relationship between Hoffman and Voight was as complicated as the relationship between their characters. Voight and Hoffman were creatures of 1960s off-Broadway, where artistic purity was held in far higher esteem than the blandishments of Hollywood.


They were also intensely competitive. Voight had been the first to win acclaim, earning raves for his role opposite Duvall in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” His success did not go unnoticed by Hoffman, who was the play’s assistant director and Duvall’s roommate at the time. “I’d be giving Bobby notes and I’d see Voight, with one eye on the mirror, putting on his makeup, and one eye on me, watching me work with the other actors,” Hoffman recalls. “He may have thought I was critical of him, but it’s more of a matter of him not being in the club -- I just didn’t feel as comfortable talking with him as I did with some of the other actors.”

Of course, when Hoffman became Benjamin Braddock the balance shifted. “Jon had been the rising star in the theater, but after ‘The Graduate,’ it was Dustin who was the star,” recalls photographer Michael Childers, whose long relationship with Schlesinger started just before the film began shooting. “They were very competitive, but it wasn’t bitchy. Everyone was just trying to do their best work.”

Hoffman compares it to a boxing match. “We were like Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, two fighters going at it. We knew the movie depended on the bond between us. All through shooting, we’d say to each other, out of the side of our mouths, like a fighter in a clinch, ‘Buddy, is that the best you can do?’ ”

A very personal approach

The film was a huge artistic leap for Schlesinger, who’d been depressed for months after the failure of his previous film, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Having never worked outside of England, he was fascinated by the giddy pop culture of late-1960s America. Friendly with the Warhol crowd, Childers took Schlesinger to a party at the Factory, where the director met Viva, Ultra Violet, Taylor Mead and Paul Morrissey, all of whom ended up in a sequence where Ratso and Joe (along with a young Brenda Vaccaro) attend a psychedelic Factory-style bash.

One day, scouting locations on 47th Street in Manhattan, Schlesinger saw a man fall on his face 20 yards away and watched, flabbergasted, as people kept walking by him, not stopping to offer assistance. “John couldn’t believe his eyes,” recalls Hellman. “He instantly said, ‘By God, that’s got to be in the movie!’ ” A fan of the unsentimental neorealism of postwar Italian films, Schlesinger wanted the film to have a documentary feel, as if the camera was eavesdropping on the action. Hoffman’s famous “I’m walking here!” scene was, as the actor recalls, “done with a hidden camera and radio mikes -- it was pure documentary.”

The film’s young Polish cinematographer, Adam Holender, whom Roman Polanski recommended, was also eager to work in a cinema verite style. Shooting the scenes where Joe Buck arrives by bus in New York, Holender relied on his own experience. “I shot the New York skyline just the way it looked when I came from Poland a few years before. It made a big difference that John was from London and I was from Poland. We saw a lot of things with fresh eyes.”


“Midnight Cowboy” was an especially personal film for Schlesinger. He felt an emotional connection with the characters’ identity as wayward outsiders. And though he admired his actors, Schlesinger didn’t feel comfortable with his tough-as-nails New York crew, who had never taken orders from an openly gay man before. The tension was often papered over with humor. Hoffman recalls the first assistant director, wearing shorts and exposing his hairy legs, telling Schlesinger, “We’re ready whenever you are, my queen.” Schlesinger would retort: “You’ll be out someday soon, luv.”

“We all sensed John was coming from a very personal place on this film,” Hoffman recalls. “He was the outsider -- he’d been ostracized because of his being gay. And here he was telling a story about two degenerate losers, but what he was saying was, ‘Don’t look at what they are, look at who they are.’ He was determined that we should feel what they had in their souls.”

Studio lends its support

By the time the film was finished, it had gone considerably over budget. UA’s unhappiness evaporated after the studio brass saw the final print. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The studio didn’t even blink when the newly organized MPAA ratings board gave it an X rating. “They were a great studio,” Schlesinger, who died in 2003, said in a 1999 interview. “They simply left us alone. If it had been like it is today, with previews and focus groups, things would’ve been different.”

As people who make movies will attest, there are simply times when a film lives a charmed life. Even the movie’s signature song, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” was a fluke, discovered by chance in a stack of demo tracks. When Hellman contacted the singer, Harry Nilsson, he was working as a bank teller to make ends meet. Even though UA had trouble booking the film in some cities because of its rating, “Midnight Cowboy” ended up being one of the biggest hits of the year. Its best picture triumph certainly turned heads at the MPAA. As UA’s Picker recalls: “Right after it won the Oscar, they re-rated the movie. We didn’t even ask them. They simply called one day and said it was now an R.” (Hoping academy members might be squeamish about “Cowboy’s” rating, 20th Century Fox had run ads for “Hello, Dolly!” reminding voters of its G rating.)

Today “Midnight Cowboy” is viewed as a classic -- it’s getting a deluxe DVD rerelease next month. But like most breakthrough art, it polarized critics and audiences alike. The film won plaudits from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but other critics, including Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert and Richard Schickel, panned the film. Some critics thought the film’s portrait of America was too harshly satiric. Others simply thought the movie was sordid. At some screenings, there were wholesale walkouts. When Schlesinger took it to the Berlin Film Festival, the film was met with boos. “It turned out the audience was full of Maoists who felt we’d made a frivolous film instead of an antiwar drama.”

Winning the Oscar was obviously a career highlight for nearly everyone involved, especially Salt, who showed up on stage, like a ghost from another era, in a custom-made velvet suit with satin lapels. He was handed his statuette by Voight, who was presenting the best adapted screenplay award. “For Waldo, you can only characterize it as coming back from the dead,” says Hellman. “It gave him a whole new life.” For Voight and Hoffman, the film meant stardom. For Schlesinger, it launched a decade’s worth of bravura filmmaking. For Hellman, who’d been broke when he started the movie, the Oscar meant never having to struggle to work again.


Perhaps the sweetest moment came several years later when the filmmakers were guests at a posh film seminar hosted by Judith Crist, then a leading New York critic. “Judith got up in front of a packed house and read her original review of the film, which brought the house down since, needless to say, it was incredibly negative,” recalls Hellman. “After she was done, she threw up her hands and said, ‘How could I have been so wrong?’ As a filmmaker, you couldn’t ask for higher praise than that.”

Research assistance by John Jackson.