‘Shooting Midnight Cowboy’ a masterful film history of the X-rated Oscar winner

Glenn Frankel’s last two film books have tackled Westerns, specifically “The Searchers” and “High Noon.” His latest, “Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., ★★★★ out of four), unpacks an Eastern: the tale of two lost souls trying to get by in late-1960s New York, an unforgiving land of thick grime and ubiquitous hustles.

As Frankel writes, “New York was never a refuge – the city’s embrace was far too noisy, edgy, chaotic, and dangerous for comfort or reassurance. But it was exhilarating.” The same can be said for John Schlesinger’s 1969 movie, the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture, and for Frankel’s book, a masterfully structured study bursting with detail and context. 

“Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic,” by Glenn Frankel. (Photo: Farrar, Sraus and Giroux)

The book is the latest chapter in what has been a fascinating period in Frankel’s career. He spent 27 years at the Washington Post, covering Southern Africa, Jerusalem, and London, and winning the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Then he decided he wanted to write about movies. His film books are doggedly reported and researched, built around collision courses between ambitious artists working in this most collaborative of mediums. 

James Leo Herlihy was a troubled novelist and playwright from working-class Detroit, tormented by self-diagnosed manic depression. He had, as Frankel writes, a “taste for emotionally damaged characters who reflected his own labyrinthine conflicts.” The self-lacerating Schlesinger came from a well-to-do English family; after finding success as a documentarian, and then making a name with sexually frank films including “Darling” and “Billy Liar,” he discovered Herlihy’s 1965 novel “Midnight Cowboy” and determined it was time to direct his first American movie.

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Soon we meet the movie’s two principals: Jon Voight’s Joe Buck, a tall, dim, red-cheeked Texan who takes a bus to New York with dreams of making it as a boy toy for sexually frustrated women; and Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, a cagy, tubercular street creature looking for his next hustle. After a rough start together they come to share Ratso’s dilapidated squatter’s apartment, emotionally depending on each other in what becomes a sort of platonic love story.

Joe Buck services men in Times Square, as many hustlers of the era did, though neither lead character is gay. Herlihy and Schlesinger, however, were, and some of the book’s most revealing passages deal with the era’s homophobia as expressed in liberal establishment publications including the New York Times, Time magazine and the New York Review of Books. All spread some variation of the myth that homosexuality is an illness.

Speaking of myths, there’s that X rating, which did not come about as you might have heard. The Motion Picture Association of America, with its new ratings system, actually gave “Midnight Cowboy” an R. But the film’s distributor, United Artists, hired a psychiatrist who sounded the alarm over “Midnight Cowboy’s” “homosexual frame of reference” – at which point UA self-rated the movie X. As Frankel writes, the psychiatrist’s “message was that ‘Midnight Cowboy’ might cause young men to become gay.”

These revealing details permeate Frankel’s book, touching on the making of the movie (you’ll likely never think about casting in the same way), the individuals involved, and the social history of the time and place. Frankel puts it all together with narrative verve, telling a propulsive tale about creativity, commerce and loss.    

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