LIKE THE LEGENDARY FILM it inventories, Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic is, above all else, a story about disillusionment. Below the surface of Jon Voight’s stint as a faux wrangler escort thwarted by Big Apple indifference in John Schlesinger’s 1969 picture, there remain countless untold tales of the production’s key players that Frankel has generously compiled.
There is Jamie — formerly James — Herlihy, the novelist and Anaïs Nin protégé who never escaped the shadows of his queer literary masterwork or his mentor. There is Waldo Salt, the House Un-American Activities Committee casualty and cannabis aficionado, whose redemption came in the form of an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for this very movie in 1970. There’s Dustin Hoffman, the actor’s actor who fought tooth-and-nail for the movie’s supporting role as the ailing Italian American grifter “Ratso” Rizzo — only to be disappointed as Voight’s star outshone his own in the final cut. There is Marion Dougherty, the astute casting agent who gifted Midnight Cowboy its iconic physiques and profiles, only for Schlesinger to refuse her request for a title card bearing her name. Their locking of horns would cost her Hollywood legitimacy for decades. In 2021, a West Side Story remake is already being extolled for its honest casting; though some critics are more preoccupied with whether or not Steven Spielberg can come close to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s original 1961 effort, and rightfully so. In any event, West Side Story’s brave new world can make a little cowpoke movie like Midnight Cowboy seem a little jaundiced in comparison; whiter than Lena Dunham’s Girls, even. However, several anecdotes from the picture’s history and its imprinters are anything but. While filming, Dustin Hoffman requested that his character perform a racist gesture to render the Italian greaser more authentic. Schlesinger, never one for the reactionary, was quick to rebuff the supporting actor’s idea. There’s also Hugh A. Robertson, the Black Brooklyn-born movie editor who slagged on the British director’s creative interpretation of New York City throughout post-production. These racial tensions do not undermine the experience of Midnight Cowboy. If anything, they make this genuine 1960s gem seem all the more authentic. For every film-worker listed here, there are a dozen others mentioned in Shooting Midnight Cowboy’s pages, each with their own bittersweet tale to spin. Frankel shies away from none of these behind-the-scenes tensions, allowing the overarching theme of great art requiring hard work and hard feelings to flourish across the many tales told.
Midnight Cowboy’s narrative arc of optimism, unlikely friendship, and loss in a liminal place is one that Frankel has studied under magnification. It is mirrored in his book, which opens with an idealism rivaling Voight’s Joe Buck as he hums “Git Along, Little Dogies” in the film’s initial shots. For the first dozen or so of the book’s 22 chapters, the author firmly pivots between Schlesinger and Herlihy, the two buddies whose fraught relationship provides the narrative tension. Residing in disparate but influential cities in the postwar era, both men broke their necks to make art worth experiencing: Schlesinger climbing the professional ladder in documentary production, Herlihy savoring the literary inspiration afforded him by the Village’s creative class and Times Square’s tawdry delights — namely, well-endowed boys for hire.
Shooting Midnight Cowboy’s queer context is not all sock-stuffed denim crotches, spurs, and cruising, though those affects of gay metropolitan history are most plentiful. Instead of narrowly celebrating sex for sex’s sake, Frankel mines New York’s paper of record, no more aggressively than in Shooting Midnight Cowboy’s fifth chapter, “The Gay Metropolis.” By illustrating the city’s homophobic bent in the years leading up to and following Midnight Cowboy’s release, the author also depicts why the most enduring queer marriage will always be between our nelly art and the underground. Frankel references Edmund White’s memoir City Boy to show how queers located one another in a world that Charles Kaiser, a 17-year-old at the time, found “in complete denial […] that homosexuality even existed”: Back then people glanced back over their shoulders … Then we had to look back or we’d spend the night alone.
As with today’s politically engineered debates over trans existence, the real cultural hostility did not reside on 42nd Street’s darkest alleyways or within its watering holes, but in the mainstream cultural current. Today, these antiquated notions seem as pollutant as the chemicals General Electric dumped into the Hudson River during their time. Frankel revisits this dominant “intensely antigay” attitude with Robert C. Doty’s 1963 The New York Times article, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern,” where the writer found “overwhelming evidence” that queers were merely products of amoral rearing and lifestyle. It was a position that noted author Gay Talese would later celebrate in The Kingdom and the Power, his 1969 historiography of The New York Times, writing that Doty had penned a “superb article that was, by old Times standards, quite revolutionary.” This antipathy also ran amok through arts criticism. In 1961, Howard Taubman — also of The New York Times — declared that it was “time to speak openly and candidly of the increasing incidence and influence of homosexuality on New York’s stage — and, indeed, in the other arts as well.”
This panic-stricken reporting, paired with a ballooning budget and the ill temper of a heavy-drinking Irish Catholic lighting crew, did not deter Midnight Cowboy’s impressive dent in the city at the turn of the decade. The film opened in New York on Sunday, May 25, 1969, just one month shy of the Stonewall Uprising, to unprecedented long ticket lines. Many a pearl-clutching critic left the theater with at least one positive anecdote worth writing; but it was the queers — unaccustomed to seeing themselves in such a glaring light, or any light at all — who were starstruck by, though skeptical of, the picture’s efficacy in promoting the respectable gay liberation cause. That wasn’t something either Herlihy or Schlesinger had set out to accomplish when they first began working on the film; for them, it was fey high art or bust.
Unlike such exceptional biographers as Joan Schenkar or Jenn Shapland, Frankel doesn’t rely on imagination to guide the story he tells with a mastered, Pulitzer-earning succinctness. The enviably straightforward writing style he puts to such great use in Shooting Midnight Cowboy makes sense when one considers his roots: like Rizzo, he’s a Bronx boy, born into a working-class family in the wake of World War II. While Frankel fared better than his fictional shoe-shining film sibling, graduating from Columbia University in 1971, both still boast the same learned understanding and appreciation for New York City’s rogue economies and their geographies. He too, it seems, could recommend what to order from Veselka after a night of spinning tall tales at Julius’.
As a result, Frankel makes for the most trustworthy of narrators. Even if it seldom shows in his research-rich chapters, one gets the sense that his interest in this unlikely blockbuster came with, at minimum, a hearty dose of homegrown empathy and curiosity — a dying breed of a combination. Schlesinger inevitably acknowledged his sexuality publicly, though he continued to resist the “gay filmmaker” scarlet letter and the burgeoning New York queer arts and activism scene that came with it. Despite this resistance, his impact on queer cinema remains: each year, Provincetown International Film Festival bestows two first-time directors whose work honors Schlesinger’s legacy with an award in his name; New York’s own LGBTQ film festival, NewFest, has shown a number of Schlesinger’s films in its repertory program over the years. Perhaps this serves as the greatest disillusionment of all for that era’s organizers and today’s unapologetic queer artists alike: one’s queer idol sometimes rebuffs queer idolatry, even in death. Schlesinger’s stubborn stance is one many minorities in art have taken in LGBTQ history: at times to steal a seat at a table otherwise denied to them; at others, to evade the liberal marketing algorithm that remains endlessly obsessed with queers, their subcultures, and their stories. This reviewer holds compassion for both motives.
In the years following Midnight Cowboy’s release, screen culture has thumb-twiddled about how much skin to show in movies, how to show it, and when to show it despite the fact that less than two percent of today’s films feature sex scenes. These conversations only intensify when discussing the comparably nascent queer image. One of the biggest legends ascribed to Midnight Cowboy can help us cut through the discursive clutter to find approaches that can avoid inciting another MPAA moral panic over sex in cinema. Those presently championing the rights to creative expression for a new young Buck — Lil Nas X sliding down a stripper pole for a lap dance with the Dark Prince that, in equal measure, thrills queer folx and horrifies the empty piety of the pearl-clutchers — will surely appreciate the details of how Midnight Cowboy came to receive an X rating. And just as that hasn’t hampered Lil Nas X’s album sales and YouTube views, neither did the X rating foil Midnight Cowboy’s Academy Awards campaign for Best Picture. In a later chapter titled “The X Rating,” Frankel parses out this scandalous, all-too-New-York mythology. If any passage from Shooting Midnight Cowboy makes its way into film studies courses across the country, this should be the one. After all, it wasn’t the MPAA who looked down their noses at Schlesinger’s American opus. In reality, the MPAA gave Midnight Cowboy an R rating. Instead, it was Arthur Krim, the co-chairman of the filmmaker’s production company (the late, deplorable D. W. Griffith’s United Artists), who desperately wanted a second opinion and sought out Dr. Aaron Stern, a Great Neck, Long Island–based psychiatrist and Columbia University faculty member, to reclassify the film as X-rated.
Here’s how Frankel recounts that tale:
[Stern] clung to the conventional wisdom that homosexuality was a deviant lifestyle choice that children needed to be protected from at all times. Homosexuals, he argued, were narcissists who chose to be gay because they could only love people exactly like themselves. “Theirs was a choice born of fear,” he would later write. “They withdraw from the frightening demands of someone of the opposite sex and move into relationships with others who mirror themselves.” None of these sweeping generalizations were verified by actual research. They were merely Aaron Stern’s deeply cherished, fact-free opinions.
It was Midnight Cowboy’s “homosexual frame of reference,” Stern would explain in a 1971 radio interview, that caused him the most concern. “That’s no problem for an adult. If you choose the homosexual life, that’s fine. But before you make that choice, you should understand what homosexuality stands for. If you’re a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old, and you’ve never had intercourse with a woman that is gentle, tender, communicative, sensitive, and if the way in which it’s depicted by John Schlesinger in the film is your only criterion for evaluating intercourse — and if you recall the scene with Brenda Vaccaro, they get into a power struggle over who’s on top, and the next day she then says, ‘You’re one of the greatest I’ve ever had, and I’m telling my girlfriend about you.’ To a kid in the audience who’s never known a more meaningful interaction, he could completely distort this and be stripped away of his opportunity for meaningful choice.”
If Stern’s argument sounds familiar, that’s because the very same rhetoric is being delivered in dozens of lawsuits and legislative measures across the United States today to deny trans kids the rights to health care and the playing field. And it’s the same rhetoric deployed to malign the queer and benevolently queersploitative creative expression of popular artists like Lil Nas X and Cardi B. Krim ate out of Stern’s palm and self-assigned Midnight Cowboy an X rating. According to Frankel, Stern would go on to become a consultant for the MPAA before becoming a member, applying his psychoanalytic, anti-auteur posture to every film that crossed his desk — from Disney kid’s fare to evidently adult dramas — for several years.
Frankel spares us Midnight Cowboy’s greatest disillusionment for last: little has changed since the late 1960s. We queer artists remain Joe Bucks, optimistically singing It’s your misfortune and none of my own as we wash up and head out into a culture still keen on skinning us alive.
Sarah Fonseca is a publicly educated film writer and essayist from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, cléo: a journal of film and feminism, IndieWire, and the Lambda Literary Review, among others.