Monday, 14 September 2015

Midnight Cowboy - James Leo Herlihy


'Classic' is a term that might be bandied about liberally but in the case of Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight there's no other word for it. It's one of those rare films where everything comes together perfectly: the script, the casting, the photography, and not least, the music. It may well even be the case that the theme music and the theme song for Midnight Cowboy is better known than the film? I suspect, however, that far less known is the book that the film is based upon.
Written by James Leo Herlihy in 1965, I would argue that whether you know the film or not, the book is just as good if perhaps even better. It's impossible when reading it to not envisage Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as the main characters even though their descriptions don't quite match - the Dustin Hoffman character in the book, for example, is described as being blonde - but this is because their performances are so good. Such a good job both actors did in the film, in fact, that picturing them when reading the book simply adds to it.

The first third of the book centres totally upon Joe Buck (the character as played by Jon Voight) and his life before he sets off for New York in his quest to be a hustler selling his wares to rich women in need of a Texan cowboy. This is the bedrock of the whole story and explains exactly who Joe is and what has led him into being a 'midnight cowboy'. Not only this but it firmly establishes what the story is actually about, that being essentially a tale of loneliness and isolation.

In all, it's an incredibly sad story made all the more sadder by the fact that Joe is inarticulate and naive. He's an innocent thrown into a world where it seems that everyone apart from him is privy to all kinds of secrets and special knowledge. As a child he never knows who his true mother is, let alone his father. Everyone else seems to but not him.
As a boy growing up he doesn't know the girl who takes a shine to him is having sex with almost every other boy in town. Such an innocent is he that he's easy prey to those with more darker agendas and so even ends up as a victim of male rape and it's this incident that's the catalyst for him to head off to New York. All these experiences (or lack of) go to making him the person he is with even the idea of New York being the place to go coming from the mother who assisted her son in raping Joe.

On arriving in New York, Joe is totally out of his depth. In a city of millions he's just another lonely person among a million other lonely people except they're more worldly than him, more street-wise, and more crazy.
He meets Ratso Rizzo, of course (the character as played by Dustin Hoffman), who immediately cons him out of his money. It turns out, however, that Ratso is just as beaten down by the world as Joe is, the difference being that Ratso's a survivor - or so it would seem.
A potted history of who Ratso is and where he's from is given in the book which isn't given in the film and though Hoffman's performance is masterly, his background story goes to make the character more fully-rounded.

Joe and Ratso become buddies and according to Ratso, the State of Florida is where the answer to all their problems can be found. A place where the sun always shines meaning they'd never be cold and where coconuts fall freely from all the palm trees, meaning they'd never go hungry. So that's where they head off to in the end on a Greyhound bus though when they get there it leaves Joe even more lonelier and more scared than he's ever been before...

Midnight Cowboy - meaning the book - is surprisingly good. It's extremely well written and deals with adult themes that for its time I suspect was rarely being touched upon. How it was ever made into a Hollywood film, I don't know, but I hope James Leo Herlihy (who committed suicide in 1993) was paid sufficiently for it.
Reading it nowadays after some fifty years since first being published, it's lost none of its power, none of its significance, and none of its poignancy.

It's a classic.
John Serpico

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