“Midnight Cowboy”: An Archive Rated “X”

From L-R: Jon Voight, John Schlesinger, Dustin Hoffman. Image credit: thecinemaarchives.com

An Interview with Glenn Frankel, author of “Shooting Midnight Cowboy”

     “Midnight Cowboy” stars Jon Voight (Joe Buck) and Dustin Hoffman (Ratso Rizzo) agreed with each other to do a scene together in bed.  Young Hoffman, just off “The Graduate”, brought this hot idea to director John Schlesinger, who was privately gay— but not out.  Aghast, Schlesinger replied “My God, we’ve barely got this thing financed, and now you want to play them queer?!  We’ll never sell this picture!”, Glenn Frankel reports in his meticulously researched film history “Shooting Midnight Cowboy”.

     “A movie is a great archival document, too”, says Frankel drawing from his four years of research into John Schlesinger’s epic movie starring Hoffman and Voight, featuring Sylvia Miles, Barnard Hughes (who gets murdered by Joe Buck) and a West Texas wasteland for gays, Big Spring.   Written by James Leo Herlihy, the novel “Midnight Cowboy” is a bildungsroman about Texas hustler Joe Buck and his journey of self-discovery in Sixties New York.  “Shooting Midnight Cowboy” is a book about the movie, but so much more— Frankel excavates a searing historical moment of gay life on the early outskirts of Stonewall in Key West and New York.  He does this with a full appreciation for Schlesinger the gay man and London celebrity film director of the breakthrough hit “Darling” introducing the “fresh and irrepressible” Julie Christie.  Frankel served as the “Washington Post” bureau chief in London and well recounts the British film explosion of an earlier era.  

“Shooting “Midnight Cowboy” is “brilliant” as Brits say… and also true.  Most everyone here is leading double lives of some sort or hiding for dollars; no one will admit they are making a “gay movie” or even admit that Herlihy’s book was a gay novel.  Just a dark “buddy film”. Much new insight is revealed by one of Frankel’s sources Michael Childers who was Schlesinger’s loving partner for many years.  It was not a happy set.  But fascinating, the moreso because Frankel uncovers nuggets like how “Midnight Cowboy” got its famous “X” rating.  A flaming anti-gay, Charles Socarides-like New York psychiatrist actually convinced United Artists chairman Arthur Krim (1910-1994) that “‘Midnight Cowboy’ might cause young men to become gay”!  Krim caved, but it mattered not or may even have helped the film’s marketing and haul of Oscars in 1969 for “Best Picture”, “Best Director” and “Best Adapted Screenplay”.       

Time travel “Shooting Midnight Cowboy” as an archival document in our interview (37 minutes) with Pulitzer Prize winning author Glenn Frankel. And be inspired by what it took to put an honest queer story up on the screen in the “bad old days” before liberation.  “One month and two days after “Midnight Cowboy” opened”, Frankel writes, “a new kind of revolution took place…in the heart of Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn.”

Glenn Frankel, author of “Shooting Midnight Cowboy” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)