A hot trend in publishing these days is to write an entire book about the making of one seminal movie. In the last few years there have been books about West Side Story (the 1961 Oscar winner, not the Spielberg remake), The Wild Bunch, Chinatown and The Godfather, to name a few. Glenn Frankel, who wrote earlier books about the making of High Noon and The Searchers, followed up last year with Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic. Now that book has in turn inspired a new documentary by Nancy Buirski, which is playing in both Venice and Tellurida.
Although a 101-minute movie will never have the breadth or depth of a 340-page book, Buirski’s film does have the advantage of providing revealing on-camera interviews with several of the movie’s principals, including actors Jon Voight, Brenda Vaccaro and Bob Balaban. Voight is especially passionate in testifying to his admiration for director John Schlesinger and the incisiveness of the film’s portrayal of the friendship between two of society’s outcasts, the hustler Joe Buck and the scrounger Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman. Buirski was unable to secure an interview with Hoffman, though she relies on audio interviews conducted by Frankel as research for his book.
Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy
The Bottom Line
One failing of the film is that it relies on too much voiceover commentary, not simply from Hoffman but from interviews with Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt that were conducted decades ago. (Schlesinger died in 2003.) Some of these disembodied voices are not identified as frequently as they might be, and they do grow tiresome. Salt’s daughter, actress and writer Jennifer Salt, who had a small role in Midnight Cowboy and was also romantically involved with Voight while they were shooting the movie, provides some of the most incisive on-camera commentary.
The film suffers in several respects when compared to Frankel’s book. He was able to weave in two larger themes — the decay of New York City during the period depicted in Midnight Cowboy and the revolutionary gay content of the film (much of it deriving from the original novel by James Leo Herlihy), which reflected a massive sea change in American culture during the late 1960s. Buirski does include some pertinent commentary by gay historians like Charles Kaiser (The Gay Metropolis), and she also delves into Schlesinger’s own struggles with his sexuality. Here the filmmaker depends on some revealing interviews with Schlesinger’s nephew, Ian Buruma, and with the director’s life partner, Michael Childers. But perhaps inevitably, she fails to do justice to this larger theme of Frankel’s book.
Instead Buirski tries to link the movie to the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War, and these comparisons often seem forced. Of course many of the dark films created in the late 1960s indirectly reflected the disillusionment bred by American involvement in Vietnam, but Buirski overstates the point without really providing enough trenchant insight to sock it home. The war is shown both at the beginning and at the conclusion of this film, and this emphasis seems strained.
Probably the strongest elements in the film, aside from some effective interviews, are generous clips from Midnight Cowboy itself. These excerpts highlight the gamier elements of the film, including some less-than-idyllic portrayals of gay sexual encounters, along with the tenderness in the scenes between Hoffman and Voight.
Buirski has created several earlier docs, including one about director Sidney Lumet, an early study of the Loving v. Virginia case that legalized interracial marriage, and other potent movies about racial conflict. Her latest film may not be her strongest, but it will encourage viewers to learn more about some of the forgotten players in the Midnight Cowboy saga, including Waldo and Jennifer Salt, cinematographer Adam Holender and casting director Marion Dougherty, who played a pivotal role in bringing Voight to Schlesinger’s attention.