How many ways did “Midnight Cowboy” occupy the nexus of the cultural changes of the 1960s? The documentary “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” cites plenty.
The film was revolutionary in its depiction of sex, and particularly in its acknowledgment of the existence of gay life. It tweaked the movie-cowboy archetype at a time when westerns allegorized the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Its screenwriter, Waldo Salt, had been blacklisted in the 1950s. It took advantage of the possibility of filming on location in New York and of capturing aspects of the city — such as hustlers and homelessness — that had scarcely been shown onscreen, or had been limited to experimental cinema. A late interlude in the film documented elements of the Warholian art scene.
And in winning the Oscar for the best picture of 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” may have represented a rare instance of the Academy Awards’ accepting important shifts in American life. (Or perhaps the academy looked forward and backward simultaneously: Two interviewees note that John Wayne, a supporter of the war and an icon of a more conservative America, took best actor that year for “True Grit.”)
Whether “Midnight Cowboy” deserves or can bear the weight that “Desperate Souls” accords it, the director Nancy Buirski presents these issues with a good mix of small-bore and big-picture insights and only the occasional overstatement or fuzziness. The documentary might have pinned down more clearly, for instance, why “Midnight Cowboy” received its X rating, later changed to R.
But “Desperate Souls” convincingly argues that there’s no other time at which Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) could have become enduring movie characters, let alone have the tenderness between them depicted so subtly. (The documentary was inspired by Glenn Frankel’s 2021 book, “Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic.”)
Buirski’s film gives much of the credit to John Schlesinger, the celebrated British director who was shooting his first movie in America. “Desperate Souls” notes that in his next film, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971), he would break ground again in showing gay life (and, through Peter Finch’s character, perhaps acknowledge some of his own outsider’s perspective as a gay, Jewish, relatively upper-class Briton).
Interviewed in the documentary, Voight recalls making a facetious — but accurate — prediction to Schlesinger that they would live in the shadow of the movie. (He’s also shown in a screen test that makes you wonder how he got the part.) Schlesinger (who died in 2003) and Hoffman are heard in voice clips.
But some of the strongest commentary comes from writers who can stand outside the film itself, like Charles Kaiser (author of “The Gay Metropolis”), the critic Lucy Sante and J. Hoberman, a regular New York Times contributor (whom I also know personally). All situate the film in a historical context, its importance in which, Sante suggests, came at least partly by chance: “When people express their own time, it’s generally by accident.”
Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.