Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic

by Glenn Frankel 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review by Lee Sobel
5 out of 5 stars

Midnight Cowboy is recognized as one of the greatest movies ever made, but for me it has particular significance. It's set in the New York City I grew up in. John Voight as protagonist Joe Buck, a male hustler dressed in a cowboy costume working the Deuce, hooks up with someone in the balcony of a rundown 42nd Street grindhouse movie theater that could be the one my dad took me to see Clint Eastwood's The Enforcer in summer of 1976 where I was convinced we were going to get mugged by the sketchy crowd in attendance (we weren't). Voight hangs out in a Times Square arcade that could be the one my grandfather took me to play Skee-Ball when I was a little kid around the time they were shooting Midnight Cowboy. So I know those locations and the shady people that dwelled in them and of course that version of New York City is long gone, erased by gentrification and Disneyfication of Times Square.

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Midnight Cowboy opened on May 25, 1969 and that is a time I have numerous freeze frame memories of. That is the summer I turned from 6 to 7 years old and went to sleepaway camp for the first time where one night all the campers were roused from our bunkbeds to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on a TV set. That's the year the Amazin' Mets won the world series, significant since they had started out as one of the worst teams in baseball. Speaking for myself, having grown up in Greenwich Village, the New York City of my childhood years when Midnight Cowboy was made, loom large in my memory and imagination. My mother was an actress and the year after Midnight Cowboy was released I would accompany her to an audition for Kurt Vonnegut's play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, in which my mother would be cast in a role and remain with the show when it moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway and then to Hollywood when it was made into a movie. My father worked for progressive book publisher Grove Press and my parents gave and attended fairly wild parties with people like groovy poet Allen Ginsberg hanging out. Midnight Cowboy has a wild Andy Warhol style party scene that could have been one my parents went to. Watching the movie and reading this wonderful book about it is, for me, a bit like time traveling back to that time but seeing it now through adult eyes and not the kid I was at the time, totally oblivious to the adult world that the movie captured.

1969, the year that Midnight Cowboy came out and later received seven Academy Award nominations and won best picture, was a pivotal year in the motion picture industry. It was the year of Easy Rider and the floodgates opening for younger filmmakers to storm the gates of Hollywood and make more personal movies. In this age of studio blockbusters today, I truly miss those gritty low budget movies that were about underdogs and the wilder side of human existence. A book about Midnight Cowboy is as much a celebration of the kinds of movies that are not made today and, sadly, may never come again. It is my hope that the next generation of movie makers will discover movies like Midnight Cowboy and get films like this made again. I can dream, can't I?

Author Glenn Frankel has done an amazing job of leaving no stone unturned in his deep, deep dive into everything to do with this amazing movie. I could start listing all the fascinating aspects of this movie that his book uncovers but why ruin it for you? Just buy this book -- it is highly recommended.