GLENN FRANKEL worked for many years at the Washington Post, where he served as bureau chief in London, Jerusalem and Southern Africa, winning a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1989. He taught journalism at Sanford University and the University of Texas at Austin, where he directed the School of Journalism. He has won the National Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His books on the making of The Searchers and High Noon were bestsellers that have won critical acclaim, and he is a Motion Picture Academy Film Scholar for his new book, SHOOTING MIDNIGHT COWBOY: ART, SEX, LONELINESS, Liberation, AND THE MAKING OF A DARK MASTERPIECE, which is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He and his wife live in Arlington, Virginia. We spoke about Midnight Cowboy, how the film is emblematic of the time, its enduring legacy, and the cinematic moment that encapsulates the movie.
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Dave Watson: Congratulations on a new book. Midnight Cowboy is now over fifty years old yet holds up today. Why?
Glenn Frankel: Dave, First off, thanks for having me back to discuss my new book.
For me, the movie holds up largely because of the incredibly talented people who made it, starting with novelist James Leo Herlihy, who created the characters and the story. Director John Schlesinger was at the height of his powers; he and producer Jerry Hellman recruited Waldo Salt, a brilliant but troubled screenwriter; lead actors Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight put together one of the finest collaborative performances in cinematic history, and all of the supporting actors were superb, as were the costumes, music and cinematography. But perhaps most important, the movie’s themes and meaning---the struggle to survive in the face of poverty and loneliness, the coming together of two “marginal” people who forge a partnership out of desperation---resonated with audiences then and now.
DW: Would you say the film is even more relevant today? Any periods more than others between now and 1969?
GF: The movie’s themes and style are enduring and universal. Its scenes of sexuality and violence, cutting-edge in 1969, feel less shocking today. It offers a documentary-style vision of New York in that era. But it still speaks to us because of the recognizable humanity of its desperate characters.
DW: What does your book explore? This is a film that seems to recur in people’s memories and consciences.
GF: My books are about the making of a great film in the context of the historical era it reflects. I use each to illuminate the other. This book begins with the lives of two gifted gay men---James Leo Herlihy in Detroit and John Schlesinger in London---traces their development as artists in the 1950s and 60s---Schlesinger as a filmmaker, Herlihy as a novelist, actor and playwright---until their paths cross in 1960s New York. Herlihy writes his bleak, seriocomic novel about a male hustler in Times Square and Schlesinger turns it into an iconic and groundbreaking movie.
DW: Was the movie an expression of or cumulative reflection of the ‘60s?
GF: A little of both, I believe. The '60s was a time of cultural and political upheaval, and audiences were ready for something daring and new in movies and art in general. Midnight Cowboy followed the path blazed by unconventional films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, books like like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and John Updike’s Couples and plays like Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf? and The Boys in the Band. The movie fed off the restless hunger of its era and fed it as well.
DW: You also had a foreign director in John Schlesinger. Do you think foreign directors see America more clearly than natives at times? I’m thinking of Milos Forman, another British director in Michael Apted, even Roman Polanski.
GF: Schlesinger was a keen and critical observer of social mores and human relations in every place he lived and worked in. He was endlessly fascinated by New York in the late '60s: its blatant energy, its crushing poverty, the yawning gap between rich and poor, and the often predatory nature of interactions among its jaded inhabitants. He brought a fresh set of eyes to all of it, as did Adam Holender, his Polish-born cinematographer. Surely there were American filmmakers who might have made Midnight Cowboy; Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola come to mind, But Schlesinger brought a newcomer’s enthusiasm. In that sense, he could identify with Joe Buck’s quest to survive and make sense of what was the world’s most exciting and challenging city.
DW: It was also the first X-rated film to win Best Picture. Why and how do you think this happened? Did audiences or the Academy, or both, see through the content to the skill involved? Identify with it in some ways?
GF: As my book explains, the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America originally gave Midnight Cowboy an R, meaning children under 16 would not be permitted into theaters without a parent or guardian. But Seymour Krim, head of United Artists, wasn’t comfortable with the sex scenes, both hetero and homosexual in the movie, and self-rated it as an X. UA then launched a very clever ad campaign, centered around the theme, “Whatever You Hear About Midnight Cowboy Is True!” The controversy over the X rating made the movie more enticing to an audience that was primed and ready for films that broke through old barriers and took risks. And it impressed members of the Motion Picture Academy, many of whom were also restless with old-fashioned forms and ready for something new and original.
DW: What’s next for you?
GF: Not sure. I had originally planned for a book about the making of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, one of my all-time favorite films, at the dawn of the modern women’s liberation movement. But to do that book I need to be able to travel to do research, and the pandemic put a halt to that notion. I’ll get back to it someday, but meanwhile I’m pondering several other interesting but half-baked ideas.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment? Is there one in Midnight Cowboy?
GF: Being an old softie, my favorite moment in Midnight Cowboy is when Joe Buck, running out of money and hope, aimlessly roams the streets around Times Square, passing other hollow young men hovering on street corners and under movie-house marquees. Days and nights pass, while a lonesome harmonica wails the movie’s melancholy theme. With a few deft visual strokes, director Schlesinger evokes the loneliness, desperation and fear descending on Joe.
Clip: Midnight Cowboy
Dave Watson, founder and editor of Movies Matter, is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.