The day an X-rated walk on the dark side called ‘Midnight Cowboy’ won the Oscar for best picture, a new generation came to power in Hollywood

In this rare behind the scenes photograph by Steve Schapiro we find actors Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Midnight Cowboy with filmmaker John Schlesinger. Still is from a private collection, courtesy of Museum of Cinema

John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy is one of those films that linger around our minds, that we get a sentimental grip on and treasure it fondly for decades after the experience of watching it. It’s a story undeniably formed around two splendid characters under the spotlight, grandly played by our heroes Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. These two put their hearts and souls into the project, making it really easy for us to consider their on-screen partnership as one of the most haunting match-ups to date. A great deal of the film’s appeal, therefore, lies in screenwriter Waldo Salt’s skill at forming the story and shaping the characters. Based on James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel of the same name, Midnight Cowboy is charming, captivating, emotionally stirring. It’s unsettling and outright depressing at times, but during all those moments the greatness of performances shines uninhibited, as John Barry’s musical score sets the mood, further enhanced by Harry Nilsson’s Grammy-winning version of Everybody’s Talkin, the song which sheds additional light on the emotional state of the protagonists, exceeding the expectations of a simply decorating, mood-setting role a lesser song might have played. The bleak portrayal of urban life in the States can also be ascribed to Polish cinematographer Adam Holender’s work, which is even more impressive considering the fact it was his debut project as a director of photography. Midnight Cowboy is a deeply captivating story perfected by the talent of its stars, containing honest, pure sentiments that easily found their way to our hearts. As the notes of Nilsson’s song echo through the busy streets of New York, pushing the desperate, lonely people on, we found ourselves faced with the harsh, uncompromising reality of life, of failed expectations, crushed dreams and beautiful excitements of self-discovery.

Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Waldo Salt’s screenplay for Midnight Cowboy [PDF]. We also recommend you to listen out-of-print Laserdisc commentary with director John Schlesinger & producer Jerome Hellman [MP3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

The day an X-rated walk on the dark side called Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for best picture, a new generation came to power in Hollywood. Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, and others remember how they helped director John Schlesinger rewrite the rules on a project that was every bit as risky as its subject matter. —Midnight Revolution

A short excerpt from a documentary on the making of Midnight Cowboy.

Open YouTube video

Midnight Cowboy Cinematographer, Adam Holender, speaks at the New York Film Academy in Union Square, NYC.

Open YouTube video

John Schlesinger: The Hollywood interview.

Tell us about how Midnight Cowboy came about.
A friend of mine, an American painter living in London, had read the book and suggested that I look at it. I read it and thought ‘If I’m going to make a film in America, then this is the one that I want to do.’ David Picker of United Artists had issued a kind of blanket invitation, saying “When you find something you want to do, do bring it to us.” So Jerry Hellman, who was a producer I knew, and I brought the book to David, who agreed to do it if we could keep the budget low enough.

Parts of it were improvised, right? Like Hoffman’s famous “I’m walkin’ here!” bit.
I don’t know that that was improvised. I think we got an extra inside a cab and did it. I can’t swear to the fact that it was in the script or not, but I don’t think that was improvised.

Waldo Salt, who did the screenplay for Midnight Cowboy, was a fascinating character. Talk about a man who could have been embittered (from the Blacklist).
He never was. Never was. He chose to be amused by the memories of it all. He was great to work with and I loved him dearly. He also did Day of the Locust for us. —John Schlesinger

“Back then there was no language of hits or indies. We were just trying to make a movie, and stay true to it, and naturalistic. Those were good days. We were experiencing the residue of the New Waves. The French, the Italian, the British, were all coming into the Thalia, the other New York theaters.” —Dustin Hoffman


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