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In 1970, director John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy took home the Oscar for best picture at the 42nd Academy Awards, beating big box office winner Butch Cassidy and becoming the first X-rated film to win the coveted award. Two years ago the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight celebrated its 50th anniversary and now Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Glenn Frankel is ready to examine “the story of a modern classic that, by all accounts, should never have become one in the first place” in his new book, Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
In his upcoming book, out March 16, Frankel dives into the making of Schlesinger’s adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel of the same name, chronicling the unlikely friendship between a hustler who moves to New York and a con man. Starring Hoffman and Voight as “Ratso”Rizzo and Joe Buck, Schlesinger’s film debuted in cinemas in 1969 — at the height of the countercultural movement — and became one of the top grossing movies of the year. The buddy drama film garnered attention for its boundary-pushing subject matter, shooting in a time amid social unrest and major world events including the Stonewall riots. The film has since been ranked on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.
Offering behind-the-scenes anecdotes and featuring interviews with Hoffman and Voight, Frankel not only explores the origins of Schlesinger’s work and the people who created it but offers insight into how the classic film ultimately signaled a historical shift in American cinema.
Below, The Hollywood Reporter shares an excerpt.
Ever since the first Academy Awards presentation, on May 16, 1929, at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood, the annual ceremony has been a ritual of self-esteem and self-congratulation performed by people far wealthier and more glamorous than the rest of us. But the 42nd Academy Awards, on April 7, 1970, had more than wealth and glamour on its mind. An invisible cloud of anxiety hung over the event, which was watched on television by some 60 million Americans and 250 million international viewers in 40 countries via a live-feed satellite and videotape. No bombs went off, but in keeping with the times the limousines of the 3,000 begowned and dinner-jacketed guests had to navigate around some 50 protesters denouncing Hollywood stereotypes of Mexican Americans with placards pledging “Power to the Chicanos!”
After welcoming everyone to “the most star-studded and surprise-packed Academy show of all,” Gregory Peck, the tall, distinguished, leading-man-handsome president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, got straight to the point. “Most of us these days areasking ourselves these questions,” he intoned. “What is the meaning of the new freedom of the screen? Is it something to be feared? Should the screen be censored?”
There followed a six-and-a-half minute documentary film offering answers from a pantheon of nine of the world’s most respected directors, all men, including Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Mike Nichols, and Billy Wilder. In interviews edited down to two or three sentences each, most offered heartfelt banalities about censorship, nudity, liberty, and culture. But then came John Schlesinger, a relative newcomer, who used his brief moment to beseech young people coming into the movie business to insist on artistic freedom. “It’s terribly important for them that they fight with all the energy they have and never, ever take no for an answer,” he declared.
Schlesinger was included because Midnight Cowboy had been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the first (and last) X-rated film ever to be so honored, Best Director, plus three awards for acting (Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor and Sylvia Miles for Best Supporting Actress), as well as Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt) and Best Editing (Hugh A. Robertson). Few had high expectations that a ground-breaking X-rated movie about an aspiring male prostitute made in New York by a predominately East Coast crew of artists and craftsmen would do well at the Hollywood-centric Oscars. Still, in the conversation about liberty and license, Schlesinger had captured a seat at the table.
He himself was in London on the day of the ceremony, shooting Sunday Bloody Sunday, a drama about a gay doctor, a businesswoman and the young male artist they both loved. United Artists, sensing a possible upset, had pleaded with him to suspend the film shoot for a few days to fly to L.A. But Schlesinger, the emperor of anxiety, refused to make the trip. “He was so pessimistic about our chances,” recalls Michael Childers, the director’s longtime companion. “He couldn’t bear the embarrassment of coming all that way and then losing.”
Producer Jerome Hellman was at the Oscars, looking glum in a tight-fitting tuxedo, his curly brown locks pouring over his ears like a British rock star. “I really didn’t think that we had a chance,” he recalled.
Onstage, things turned from sanctimonious to sneering after Bob Hope took the podium and launched his annual monologue with a shot of homophobic disdain. “This is the night the Oscars separate the men from The Boys in the Band,” he told the audience, referring to Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking gay comedy-drama, which had been playing off-Broadway in New York for two years. The film version directed by William Friedkin had opened two months earlier.
“It’s been quite a year for movies,” Hope went on. Alluding to Richard Burton’s Oscar-nominated performance as Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days and as a gay hairdresser in Staircase, Hope asked, “Did you ever think you’d see Richard Burton play both a king and a queen?”
Hope was just getting started. “This will go down in history as the cinema season which proved that crime doesn’t pay but there’s a fortune in adultery, incest, and homosexuality,” he declared.
The camera panned the audience, which laughed uneasily.
On paper, the leading candidates to win big on Oscar night were Anne of the Thousand Days, which led the field with ten nominations, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which had nine. Anne was a worthy but lumbering Henry VIII Tudor epic—”one of those almost unbearably classic movies, like A Man for All Seasons and Becket,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who knew he was supposed to like those kinds of films but couldn’t quite manage it. They Shoot Horses, a Depression-era melodrama starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin, was livelier and grittier, and made more money, but its utterly bleak subject matter—the desperate attempts of poor couples to win a marathon dance contest with a prize of 1,500 gold dollars—had limited its popularity.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, by contrast, was lively, cheeky, and fun, thanks to a sparkling original screenplay by William Goldman, for which he had reportedly been paid a record $400,000, and deft performances by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the lead roles. When it came to Best Picture, Butch Cassidy and Midnight Cowboy were the quality candidates. Both movies were archetypal buddy pictures. But Butch Cassidy was a contemporary romantic comedy masquerading as a western—what it lacked in authenticity it made up for in charm, craft, and charisma—whereas Midnight Cowboy was a weighty drama with a lot more on its mind and two lead performances that more than matched Newman’s and Redford’s. Butch Cassidy was the big box office winner of the year, eventually grossing $102 million, while Midnight Cowboy was a distant second.
John Schlesinger had lost for Best Director for Darling in 1965, but three of the last seven Oscars had gone to British directors. Hollywood loved a British accent—it connoted class and seriousness, two qualities that the motion picture business always seemed a bit short of.
Gabe Sumner at United Artists and his West Coast publicist, Lloyd Leipzig, had a minuscule budget for Oscar promotion—no money for the lavish events that Universal and 20th Century-Fox hosted for Anne and Hello Dolly (which also received seven nominations). Universal, which hadn’t won an Oscar in any major category in the seven years since the studio had been bought by MCA, had served up a dinner of three-inch-thick prime rib, beef stroganoff, and imported champagne before a special screening of Anne even before nominations were announced. “We were really hurting and we decided that this was going to be our year,” an unnamed employee told The New York Times.
Still, Sumner and Leipzig came up with a modest but effective ad campaign for Midnight Cowboy that featured striking sepia-toned stills from the movie. “We used a different image with every full-page ad,” Sumner recalls. “If it didn’t catch your eye on Wednesday, maybe it did on Thursday. It was a terrific movie. We didn’t need anyone to stand up and give a speech. We knew what we had.”
Unlike the bloated Oscars shows of modern times, the 1970 program ran a svelte two hours and 25 minutes. Butch Cassidy won the most awards—four altogether, two of them for its songs and score, the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But it was Midnight Cowboy that captured the most attention.
In one of the earliest awards, Voight and actress Katharine Ross announced Waldo Salt as winner for Best Adapted Screenplay. The writer, who was blacklisted for more than a decade for his membership in the Communist Party, vaulted up to the stage in a dark tuxedo, round sunglasses, and pixie-ish bangs curling like question marks over his forehead. There was much he could have said about the betrayals by employers and friends, and the hard years of struggle and despair. Instead, after exchanging an affectionate hug with Voight, he took the enigmatic high road. “It’s very exciting,” Salt declared. “I want to thank all of the beautiful people who helped to make Midnight Cowboy. Most of all, I want to thank all the people who are going to see it. May their number increase.”
As expected, John Wayne beat out both Voight and Hoffman for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role. The award, officially for his performance as the one-eyed Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, was in truth in honor of many fine performances over a 40-year film career spent mostly in the saddle. In an interview the following year with Playboy magazine — notorious because he attacked African Americans and Native Americans as inferior to white people — Wayne called Midnight Cowboy “perverted . . . a story about two fags.” Still, he expressed a grudging respect for the two leads. “Damn, Hoffman and Voight were good,” he told friends. “Both of them. More than good—great. That is acting.”
John Schlesinger was up against three of America’s most respected directors—George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant, and Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses. But the British magic held. Voight went up again, this time to collect for the director he so deeply admired. Voight explained that John was in London shooting his next picture—Bloody Sunday, as Voight mistakenly called it, leaving the audience to imagine it was a British crime thriller. Voight’s brief acceptance speech included a small grace note acknowledging James Leo Herlihy, who wrote the novel the movie was based on.
After that, the big prize for Best Picture was no real surprise. The presenter was Elizabeth Taylor, who had been poured into a low-cut blue gown, her perfect pearl-shaped face wreathed in floating dark curls and a $1.5 million diamond necklace that sparkled every time she moved her lips. Her eyes opened wide as she announced the winner. “It was certainly a shock to Elizabeth Taylor,” Jerry Hellman later recalled. “I felt she didn’t know what it was, or who I was, or how we got there.”
Hellman looked as stunned as Liz, but he was a model of brevity onstage. “I’d like to thank you all very much on behalf of everyone connected with the making of the film,” he said, “with a particular thank-you to David Picker and United Artists, who made it all possible.” And off he went, clutching the Oscar like a cat burglar who had just pulled off an incredible caper and was hoping to escape before anyone noticed.
Bob Hope sprang back up for some closing remarks. This time he discarded the homophobia but overplayed the self-celebration. Reading glassily from cue cards, America’s greatest comedian solemnly declared that “Hollywood peddles not only dreams but truths. The figures on the screen are not just shadows but living, breathing people who try to solve their problems as their conscience dictates. Never again will Hollywood be accused of showing a lollipop world.
To demonstrate Hollywood’s new social consciousness, Hope noted that two weeks earlier, 1,000 movie theaters had shown a tribute film about the late Dr. Martin Luther King and donated all the proceeds to a fund in King’s name “to help solve America’s racial problems in a nonviolent way, the Martin Luther King way.”
But whatever else might have been demonstrated that evening, it was painfully obvious that Hollywood was incapable of leading a deeply divided and rancorous America anywhere at all. Shirley MacLaine, who was watching the show at an Oscars party with a collection of fellow Hollywood liberals—including Lee Marvin, Jack Cassidy, and Shirley Jones—got the last word, telling the TV screen, “Oh, shut up, Bob Hope.”
Adapted from SHOOTING MIDNIGHT COWBOY: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel. To be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on March 16. Copyright © 2021 by Glenn Frankel. All rights reserved.
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