A half century ago, the 42nd Academy Awards was at a cultural crossroads as the ’60s came to a close, judging by its list of nominees and winners plucked from the year 1969. The members finally decided to give one of Hollywood’s most enduring legends, John Wayne, a Best Actor prize — basically, a career achievement honor — for his role as cowboy Rooster Cogburn, an aging gun for hire, in “True Grit.”
For some reason, the Duke never was cited for any of his iconic frontier characters including Ethan Edwards in 1956’s “The Searchers” or as Davy Crockett in 1960’s “The Alamo” — although he did compete as a producer for the year’s Best Picture prize that year. Wayne’s only other nomination as a male lead was in the 1949 war epic “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Meanwhile, a different kind of shoot-’em-up was also in the running in the form of a revisionist Western about two real-life outlaws, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a buddy pic starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Initially, critics didn’t quite get William Goldman‘s nominated script as a determined posse pursue the pair after they pull off a series of train robberies and run off to Bolivia. But audiences ate up the anti-hero wisecracks (“Who are those guys?”) and the handsome though less-than-perfect examples of male machismo. The movie would claim four Oscars for cinematography, original score, song (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”) and original screenplay.
But “Butch Cassidy” would face defeat in the Best Picture category against an altogether different portrait of an American archetype, a down-on-his-luck Texas dishwasher turned gigolo named Joe Buck who takes his chances on the dark, dirty and dangerous streets of Manhattan in “Midnight Cowboy.” It was the first and only X-rated film to ever win Oscar’s most coveted trophy — although it would later be reduced to an R without any cuts in later on. Watch above as a ravishing Elizabeth Taylor presents tproducer Jerome Hellman with the Best Picture statuette.
As a film critic and reporter at USA Today, I interviewed both director John Schlesinger, a stalwart of the British New Wave of filmmakers (1965’s “Darling,” 1971’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”), as well as star Jon Voight when the film was re-released in 1994 for its 25th anniversary. The movie, which would also win for directing and adapted screenplay, launched a cinematic sexual revolution as the first major studio release to bear an X rating. It would be spiffed up with a new print and enhanced sound in Dolby stereo — the better to enjoy hearing Harry Nilsson‘s mournful rendition of the urban drama’s catchy theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin.’ ”
Frank sexuality, gay encounters, rampant drug taking, male and female nudity, raw language (however, no F-words), the very nature of Joe’s chosen profession — that was pretty heady stuff back in the day. But in the post-“Basic Instinct” era, perhaps not as much. “I’m still amazed how we managed to get away with it,” Schlesinger told me. “But we felt unfettered, free. United Artists was a very good company to work for. No one interfered.” While some movie houses refused to show it and ads were pulled, the $3.2 million-budgeted movie grossed $14 million and became one of 1969’s biggest hits.
Like “Butch Cassidy,” it was a buddy pic, too, but with a downer of a backdrop featuring then-newcomer Voight as over-confident Times Square stud-for-hire Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as the decrepit and homeless Ratso Rizzo. As Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar,” observed, “The late ’60s and early ’70s was a battleground between old Hollywood and new.” Consider that its competition included a glitzy Broadway musical adaptation (“Hello, Dolly!) and a sumptuous royal costume drama (“Anne of the Thousand Days”). But as Bona noted about the ground-breaking winner, “Even though it was rated X, it still contained the old-fashioned humanism the academy usually falls for,” referring to Joe’s unwavering loyalty to his sick and surly buddy Ratso.
When it first opened, New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised “Midnight Cowboy” for its ability to capture the rancid ambience of 42nd Street, but he also predicted, “It’s not a movie for the ages.” In a way, he was right as it often comes off as a trippy ’60s time capsule, especially during the wild party scene populated with such Andy Warhol notables as Viva and Ultra Violet.
Schlesinger acknowledged that “details are dated,” including the hallucinatory light-show effects. “If I am at all critical of it, it’s that I wouldn’t have been so flashy with the cutting. But it did work in its time.”
That clash of old and new was deeply felt when Voight and Hoffman were pitted against Wayne, nearly everyone’s sentimental choice, in the lead actor category. “Even I was rooting for him that night,” Voight told me.
The depiction of gay characters as being pathetic certainly wouldn’t hold up today, either. As cult film expert Danny Peary observed back when the movie was re-released, “There would be complaints that it’s dishonest not having Dustin and Jon in bed together.” But as Voight said, “The film placed us in the shoes of the homeless.” In fact, he himself became an advocate for the cause. “It’s easy to have affluence and disregard the problems of the unfortunate. But Ratso and Joe represent all of us, two guys just barely scraping by.”
Schlesinger, who died at age 77 in 2003, hoped that audiences 25 years hence would take away this message: “The need for a meaningful relationship, as strange as it may be.” That bromantic viewpoint is just as timely 50 years later.
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