American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Long after it was first released, "Midnight Cowboy" remains one of a handful of films that stay in our memory after the others have evaporated. Its love story between two drifters, the naïve Joe Buck and the street-savvy Ratso Rizzo, is a reference point for other films. Some of its moments, like the one where Ratso pounds on a nudging taxi and shouts, "I'm walking here!" have entered into the folklore.
And yet, and yet … a 1994 viewing of the film confirms my original opinion, expressed in 1969, that the movie as a whole doesn't live up to its parts. And that Joe and Ratso rise above the material, taking on a reality of their own while the screenplay detours into the fashionable New York demimonde. "Midnight Cowboy" is a good movie with a masterpiece inside, struggling to break free.
The best thing in the movie is the acting, by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as a simple-minded Texas drifter and a cynical Broadway street operator. This was the movie that established Voight's career, and proved that Hoffman, after the triumph of "The Graduate," had many more notes inside of him -- and was destined to become one of the great character actors of his time. Voight and Hoffman both won Oscar nominations as best actor. Over their shoulders, we could see a real world, the world of Times Square in the 1960s, which at the time seemed bleak and dangerous -- but in the less innocent 1990s seems positioned half-way between our current despair and lingering myths of Damon Runyon.
The characters and their immediate world are absolutely right, then. But the director, John Schlesinger, was not willing to tell their story with the simplicity I think it required. He took those two magnificent performances and dropped them into a trendy, gimmick-ridden exercise in fashionable cinema. The ghost of the Swinging Sixties haunts "Midnight Cowboy," and robs it of the timelessness it should possess.