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Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy

In 1970, "Midnight Cowboy," starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Two years after the beloved classic family musical "The Sound of Music" won, how does an X-rated film about a man who aspires to be a male prostitute with rich women, but ends up developing a tender relationship with another downtrodden man, suddenly become an Oscar darling? The documentary "Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of the Midnight Cowboy" attempts to investigate the film's origins and explain how and why this movie resonated with the world the way it did.

Wrapped loosely in the packaging of a documentary, "Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of the Midnight Cowboy," is written and directed by Nancy Buirski. It features Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Brian de Palma, Charles Kaiser, Lucy Sante, Brenda Vaccaro, the voice of John Schlesinger, and many others who either were in "Midnight Cowboy," involved in its production, or were admirers of the film.

When the documentary opens with a closeup of Jon Voight, recalling an existential crisis by director John Schlesinger after the completion of "Midnight Cowboy," the film almost implicitly states that it will be about the creation of that film. Yet, "Desperate Souls" only lightly touches on the creation of "Cowboy." Instead, this film spends most of its time investigating the era during which it was made. "Midnight Cowboy" lived at the nexus of a war, the civil rights movement, and the early beginnings of the gay rights movement.

The first examination in the film is how the Vietnam War framed it. The war is cited as the major factor in turning the world from the happy-go-lucky land of movie musicals to gritty reality-based films like "Midnight Cowboy" that did not flinch from portraying the city of New York in its reality. Schlesinger began in Europe and was exposed to the work of other creatives like John Richardson, who used a certain reality in making their films, a style Schlesinger adopted.

When the film abruptly shifts gears to speaking about John’s homosexuality and the impact of the world upon him, we begin to understand the motivations that he and writer Waldo Salt had in creating the relationship between the movie's stars. Schlesinger, a closeted homosexual who flirted with communism and was nearly banned by Hollywood, was buoyed by the confidence he received with "Midnight Cowboy" would later release "Sunday Bloody Sunday," a story that depicts what was called one of the most open and honest on-screen portrayals of homosexuality.

The documentary then shifts to a discussion of the civil rights movement, starting with the death of JFK. In one scene, Charles Kaiser notes that the gay pride movement “co-opted” the ideals and used them “unfortunately, better than the civil rights movement” in furthering their agenda.

If this review seems a little scattered and clumsy, it is because it is an intentional recreation of the tone and direction of "Desperate Souls." The movie’s direction is not unfocused but is very non-linear in its presentation, allowing it to meander from subject to subject with loose connections. One of the interviewees, Lucy Sante, even audibly wonders how she got on a certain train of thought as she is relating a story.

The film takes only a moment to discuss the success of its source material. In fact, it is only at the end of the movie that "Desperate Souls" reveals that "Midnight Cowboy" won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Instead, the documentary spends too much time looking at the world around Schlesinger's drama. Certainly, Schlesinger, Salt, and James Leo Herlihy (the author of the sourcebook) are the desperate souls, and New York is the dark city, and both are thoroughly investigated here. However, when you use the words “The Legend of Midnight Cowboy” in a film's title, it only seems logical that more time should be spent on the movie itself.

Now playing in select theaters. 

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Film Credits

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy movie poster

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy (2023)

101 minutes


Bob Balaban as Self

Ian Buruma as Self

Michael Childers as Self

Brian De Palma as Self

James Hoberman as Self

Adam Holender as Self

Charles Kaiser as Self

Jennifer Salt as Self

Lucy Sante as Self

Brenda Vaccaro as Self

Jon Voight as Self

Edmund White as Self




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