John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy begins on a blank screen, only its audio discernible to the viewer. Hollers and war cries can be made out clearly, stacked over the sounds of stampeding horses in the midst of some Great Plains battle like Custer’s Last Stand. As the camera zooms out and these noises of combat fade, the screen reveals itself as a magnified section of drive-in movie theater screen, situated in the midst of the Texas desert. A set of oppositions immediately emerges: the Wild West has been conquered and replaced by modernity; John Wayne movies now play on the theater’s screen where once the real thing took place. It is not yet dark out and the lot is abandoned except for a young boy sporting a cowboy hat. He is mounted on an aluminum rocking horse underneath the screen, its rusted squeaks replacing the fading sounds of thudding hooves and battle cries. In the distance, a small herd of actual horses graze resignedly inside a pen.
These juxtapositions between real and copy, authentic and inauthentic, appear throughout the film, which follows protagonist Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) journey from the small-town Southwest to New York City in hopes of escaping a troubled past and making a better future for himself. Buck, who even in Manhattan dresses exclusively in leather fringe jackets and traditional cowboy boots, is repeatedly asked over the course of the movie if he is “really” a cowboy, to which he somehow ambivalently replies “I ain’t a for-real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud.” Such a question as Buck is faced with here would seem to many, both at the time and in retrospect, especially urgent in the 1960s and 1970s. A growing counter-culture coalition of hippies, beatniks, and punks were increasingly challenging the conformity of 1950s nuclear-family America; Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam, meanwhile, were becoming symbols of artificiality, deception, and dishonesty to an electorate which saw modern society as inauthentic and stifling. Contemporary critic John Roderick would write caustically in the Seattle Weekly on how these sentiments helped rocket Bob Dylan’s career to such critical and commercial heights: “Dylan got lifted by a postwar world desperate to have the simple truth be the solution to modern problems. Race riots? Nuclear Armageddon? Thank God we found this sneering kid from the Midwest to straighten it all out for us.”
Midnight Cowboy addresses this collective search for meaning and truth from its opening sequences, even beyond its initial shot of the abandoned theater. In the last seconds of said scene, while the camera sits fixated on our final glimpse of the drive-in lot, Buck’s voice can begin to be heard in melody, singing the folk number “Get Along Little Dogies”. At first these vocals sound neither diegetic nor amateur, and the audience is given no hint they’re being sung by the film’s yet-to-be-unveiled protagonist — Voight’s voice is professionally produced, run through equalizers and attached with rich reverb and echo, sounding like an a cappella record on the soundtrack. But as the camera cuts, the viewer is shown Buck singing in the shower, and its audio changes accordingly. Reverb immediately drops out, as does some of the equalization, and it becomes very clear sonically that the singing is being done in a bathroom rather than a studio, by an untrained voice rather than a professional. Once again, for the second time within a half-minute of the film’s open, the audio has proven deceptive: its visual contradiction reveals only a shoddy replica of the actual — a mere layman’s attempt at the real thing.
For attentive viewers and listeners, Schlesinger’s mastery of indirection signifies even further. The song choice itself engages our perception of replica versus real — “Get Along Little Dogies” is a canonized folk standard, recorded by dozens of singers and acts in the early and mid-twentieth century and taught to many children of the era in school. The track is typically sung with an introductory verse which states that the narrator, a singer, has not written the song but is conveying to his audience lyrics overheard on his travels from a Western cowboy. From that first stanza:
As I was out riding one morning for pleasure
I spied a young cowboy a-riding along
His hat was throw’d back and his spurs were jingling
And as he was riding he was singing this song:
The line which follow, then, are meant to have been initially sung by this cowboy and relayed to the audience by the singer-narrator. In Midnight Cowboy’s introduction, however, Voight’s vocals begin immediately after this introductory stanza, as if Buck were not the singer-narrator but the “young cowboy” who initially sang the verse. The contemporary moviegoers out in the “real world” of the film’s 1969 release would have known the lyrics were not actually his own, that Buck would’ve picked up the popular song either in school, from watching television, or by listening to the radio as a young child, a dynamic which creates an irony between his determined self-representation and the external, contradictory “truth” of the scene.
It’s only by the film’s end that Buck has fully given up trying to be a cowboy and, in doing so, may finally make the transition into adulthood. A link between childhood and imitation drawn at the start of the film with the drive-in theater and rocking horse imagery is thus re-established at its close; adulthood, one gathers, is instead the process of becoming one’s self, of shedding pretend play and impossible dreams in exchange for a fuller sense of self-recognition. The cowskin suitcase which Buck so treasures is forfeited to a motel holding policy. He is forced to pawn off his childhood transistor radio for small cash. He has switched roles from being housed and shown the ropes by good friend and roommate Rico (Dustin Hoffman) to caring for Rico and planning to find a job in Florida. In the final few minutes of the film, he buys a yellow short-sleeve button-up and khaki slacks, tossing his boots, hat, and leather-fringe coat into the trash like a outgrown costume. And when a cashier at a diner asks where he’s from, he finally answers New York rather than Texas (though his accent is still thick and recognizable). Questions of authenticity in Midnight Cowboy are ultimately revealed to be fuzzy, hard to parse out: while it seemed at the start of the film that his cowboy act was Buck “faking it,” such definitions of “faking it” and “keeping it real” are harder to discern by the film’s end. Is Buck actually a Texan or New Yorker, and is it important that there’s a disparity between his “actual” Texan heritage and his self-representation as a New Yorker? Are the new clothes he buys at an outlet blowout sale simply another costume, or a surrender of his previous dress-up charade?
A version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” recorded by Harry Nilsson, plays during these final moments. We’ve heard the track before in the film, most notably during the optimistic opening credits, but here it takes on an additional weight. A melancholy harmonica line has been added into the mix, giving the song a bittersweetness which tempers its hopeful tone.
The song itself is a cover, a replica of the original song written by Fred Neil, and chosen by the producers over Nilsson’s own “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City.” While the tone and subject matter of both songs are similar—a longing for flight, escape, salvation—one difference between the two is critical. While “The Lord Must Be In New York City” seeks this salvation in the Big Apple, “Everybody’s Talkin” is very much a song about flight from the city rather than to it. The Rock Snob’s Dictionary described “Everybody’s Talkin’” as an “anti-urban plaint,” and David Browne in a 2006 profile of the song for the New York Times similarly noted that it “taps into a sense of freedom and taking a journey,” a sentiment of escape in an era when many young Americans headed for the hills, forming alternative communities rather than attempting to fight against the mainstream. Neil also wrote the song while desperate to leave Los Angeles for his home in Miami; if the placement of “Everybody’s Talkin’” over the scenes of Buck’s new clothes and new identity has any commentary on authenticity, then, it might be on Florida as a sort of homecoming for Buck, a move closer to self-recognition rather than further away from it.
Yet this apparent optimism, though read by many critics as Buck’s successful escape out of a New York that was slowly killing him (and had already killed Rico), seems tempered by the inclusion of now-melancholy “Everybody’s Talkin’” — even if the song’s “real-world” roots indicate optimistic intentions. When the song played in the opening credits, Buck had been smiling, making big plans for his success in New York; now he is mourning his death of his friend and surrogate parent: self-recognition, it follows, comes not only with a realization of one’s abilities and self but also of one’s limitations — what one is not. There is a trade-off in maturation, in authenticity instead of make-believe, and the track elegizes that which is lost. For a film from its era, it has a quietly revolutionary outlook: where the Flower Generation celebrated children due to some alleged innocent honesty, Schlesinger recognizes that what makes youth so special is not a lack of deceit but a love of it — an embracing of inauthenticity, of no personal limitations or grounding. Yet the melancholy tug of his film comes from his recognition that the outgrowing of such youthful selfhoods is both necessary and inevitable.