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The Oscars

'Midnight Cowboy' and the very dark horse its makers rode in on

With its down-and-nearly-out crew, quirky casting and X rating, no one expected mainstream Hollywood's seal of approval.

February 27, 2005|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

The director was coming off a flop and coming out of the closet. The producer's wife had taken the kids and left him. The screenwriter, whose career had been ruined by the blacklist, was scraping by writing second-rate schlock. The lead actors seemed all wrong for their roles. The Polish cinematographer had never shot a feature before and was learning English as fast as he could. By the time the movie finished shooting, the studio chiefs were so mad at the filmmakers for going over budget that they were barely speaking to them.

Sometimes it takes a bunch of misfits to make a masterpiece, which is what happened 35 years ago when "Midnight Cowboy" became a Hollywood sensation, not to mention the only X-rated movie to win the Oscar for best picture. "Midnight Cowboy" was more than an underdog; it was the longshot of a lifetime -- John Schlesinger, the film's director, was so convinced it would be ignored on Oscar night that he didn't even bother to show up. A cautious institution even in the best of times, the Academy Awards at the end of the 1960s was only dimly aware of the ferment that was transforming the culture outside Hollywood. The year before "Midnight Cowboy" won, the best picture had gone to "Oliver!"

Though 1969 spawned a host of daring breakthrough films, including "The Wild Bunch," "Easy Rider," "Medium Cool" and "Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice," none qualified as best picture nominees, an honor reserved for more traditional fare, such as "Hello, Dolly!" and "Anne of the Thousand Days." The odds-on favorite for best picture was "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Early on awards night, "Butch Cassidy" director George Roy Hill put his arm around "Midnight Cowboy" producer Jerome Hellman. "Don't feel bad," Hill told him, feeling gracious. "My people tell me we're going to win, but I want to congratulate you anyway. You made a good little movie."

By night's end, "Midnight Cowboy" had not only won the grand prize, but a best director Oscar for Schlesinger and a best adapted screenplay Oscar for Waldo Salt. "I was so sure we weren't going to win I didn't even prepare a speech," Hellman recalls. "I probably only said 10 words. It must've been the shortest speech in the history of the Oscars. I didn't thank John [Schlesinger] or the actors or my mother or father. All I remember is going to the Governors Ball and seeing [screenwriter] Ernie Lehman, who ran up to me and said, 'Tonight, you're the king.' It was just one of those special times when the academy somehow recognizes greatness."

Coming in the same year that saw Woodstock, the Manson murders, Altamont and the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, "Midnight Cowboy's" box-office success and subsequent Oscar triumph signaled the stirrings of a generational upheaval in Hollywood. Seen from the vantage point of today's risk-averse studio system, "Midnight Cowboy" seems more exotic than ever, a film that symbolizes the burst of creative energy that brought Hollywood into a tumultuous new era.

Cult circuit to cinema classic

Published in 1965, James Leo Herlihy's "Midnight Cowboy" was an obscure novel about the unlikely friendship between a New York street hustler, Ratso Rizzo, and a Texas dishwasher, Joe Buck, who'd come to the Big Apple to make a killing as a stud servicing sex-starved society women. It hardly seemed like movie material, even though the book had become something of a cult item -- Jon Voight recalls reading it when he was doing summer stock and, most importantly, Schlesinger was a huge fan.

Schlesinger's interest gave the book a special cachet. In the mid-1960s, the English filmmaker was at the cusp of greatness, having directed two much-praised pictures, "Billy Liar" and "Darling," that made Julie Christie a star and captured the new spirit of pop Britannia. So when Schlesinger phoned Hellman and asked if he'd produce, Hellman jumped at the chance.

"The book had a lot of things against it too, especially the sequences of very direct homo-eroticism, but it was a very powerful story," Hellman recalls. "John and I had a very candid conversation -- I knew he was gay, but hadn't come out -- and he made it clear he didn't want to make a gay movie out of it, that he saw it as an oddball love story."

Hellman bought the book rights and took them to United Artists, where he'd made a film previously. United Artists was a shrewd choice for a difficult project. The Miramax of its day, having made projects including James Bond films, Bergman movies and the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," it was a studio renowned for its willingness to work with gifted artists on risky material. Like Hellman, UA's production chief, David Picker, was a Schlesinger fan. He flew to London, met with the director and put up $1 million to make the picture.

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