Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Near Masterpiece

"The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did you know that? That's a fact. In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got 'em in the gas stations over there. And ladies? You know that in Miami, you got — you listenin' to me? — you got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita on a given day, there's probably 300 of 'em on the beach. In fact, you can't even scratch yourself without gettin' a belly button up the old kazoo there."

Ratso (Dustin Hoffman)

"Midnight Cowboy," which premiered on this day in 1969, was "one of a handful of films that stay in our memory after the others have evaporated," wrote Roger Ebert 25 years after its debut.

But, after apparently taking the opportunity to revisit it after a quarter of a century, Ebert asserted that it was "a good movie with a masterpiece inside, struggling to break free."

When the movie was in the theaters in 1969, Ebert wrote that it "comes heartbreakingly close to being the movie we want it to be."

Perhaps there is a subtle nuance or two that I am missing, but it sounds to me like he had pretty much the same reaction to the movie in 1994 that he had in 1969.

It was a near masterpiece, I guess you could say. The American Film Institute ranked it 43rd on its list of the top 100 movies of all time — and AFI chose Ratso's iconic line, "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" as its #27 movie quote (just ahead of "Play it, Sam" from "Casablanca").

It may be something of an urban legend that Hoffman improvised that line. The producer disputed that account in the movie's two–DVD package.

While that point may be up for debate, there is no debating this: "Midnight Cowboy" holds the distinction of being the only X–rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Two other X–rated movies — also from the early days of movie ratings — were nominated for Oscars but did not win ("A Clockwork Orange" and "Last Tango in Paris").

Given the considerable changes in both the public's perception of and the requirements for an X rating, I feel pretty safe in asserting that an X–rated movie will never be nominated for — let alone win — an Oscar again.

"Midnight Cowboy" did not remain an X–rated movie. It was re–evaluated and given an R rating, which is more appropriate, on its reissue a few years later.

It did have a pretty strong sexual content (and most people probably would agree that sex is a must in the modern definition of X–rated filmmaking), but the sex was rather tame compared to today's movies. I have seen more explicit nudity in PG–rated movies than I saw in "Midnight Cowboy."

True, one of the characters, Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight), was a gigolo, and some of the story was about his adventures (and misadventures) in New York. But the sexual content that led to the X rating had more to do with the implication that Voight's character might have been homosexual.

That is the important distinction. In 1969, an X rating was treated like a legitimate film rating, which it was. It meant that the content definitely was not suitable for children, because of either extreme violence or extreme sexual activity, and that they could not be allowed to see such a movie, even if accompanied by an adult.

In those days, people who were at least 16 could watch an R–rated movie without an adult.

Then the adult film industry latched onto the X rating; over time, it ceased to be recognized as a legitimate movie rating. It became code for pornographic movie. Mainstream commercial theaters stopped showing X–rated movies, and reputable actors stopped appearing in them.

And the bar was raised on R–rated movies. The Motion Picture Association of America raised the minimum age for admission without an adult to 17.

But sex wasn't the only consideration in 1969. The rating also was the result of the gritty, realistic depiction of New York street life in those days.

Ultimately, the R rating, as I say, was the most appropriate one for "Midnight Cowboy." The material wasn't anywhere near mild enough for a PG rating, but X was too extreme.

The acting really was impressive. Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Oscars but lost to John Wayne (for "True Grit").