To some, John Schlesinger's Oscar-winning 1969 street-hustler drama Midnight Cowboy stands beside Easy Rider and Bonnie And Clyde as one of the edgy '60s movies that proved how an American New Wave could be financially viable. To others, it's one of the final, fatal examples of how '60s Hollywood tried to co-opt youth culture. Granted, the story—which has Jon Voight as a Texas stud who comes to New York to seduce rich women, and ends up in a condemned building with a diseased Dustin Hoffman—is seamier than anything the studios had previously cooked up. But from the pop soundtrack to the psychedelic montages, Midnight Cowboy puts a modernist gloss on the legitimately daring work being done in the cinematic underground. The movie has too much in common with the groovy '60s comedies that Hollywood pumped out in the wake of the British Invasion, and even Schlesinger's every-shot-a-masterpiece style recalls The Graduate in the way it seems oppressively overdetermined.
But the pro-Cowboy faction has a lot on its side, starting with lean, improvisatory performances by Voight and Hoffman, who bicker and goof with each other like college boyfriends. And unlike a lot of the montage-for-montage's-sake movies of the late '60s, Midnight Cowboy is legitimately expressive. Credit Schlesinger's excellent use of real New York and Texas locations—he captures the time and the place with more honesty than any obsessively set-dressed hippie-era cash-in could. Credit also Schlesinger's visual wit, which mocks Voight's studly delusions by having him chat with a little girl while she clutches a Wonder Woman comic. Nearly every scene in Midnight Cowboy contains layers of symbolism.
All of it is in service of a vision of a privileged world just out of reach. What Midnight Cowboy most has in common with the American masterpieces that followed over the next five or six years is a mastery of subtle emotions, like loneliness, exclusion, and a yearning for something elusive. Even at its most overbearing, the movie never loses sight of what it's like to want something and have no idea how to get it. Midnight Cowboy bleeds with that feeling, and though it may not be the best film of its era, it's at least the best Best Picture.
Key features: Three comprehensive featurettes and a good commentary track by producer Jerome Hellman, though it's a shame MGM couldn't have included the late Schlesinger's old laserdisc commentary.