Midnight Cowboy, all these years later

August 4, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Where were you when you first saw Midnight Cowboy? What do you remember about the movie?

I was spending a Saturday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, the last stop before going to Washington, D.C. It was late February 1971, and I was on two weeks’ leave in the Navy. I had just finished boot camp and was on my way to my first duty assignment at the Bureau of Naval Personnel. I checked in at a small motel for the night, bought a newspaper, and found that Midnight Cowboy was playing at a local theater.

The movie had been out for two years by then and had won a ton of awards and accolades, but my life at that point had not allowed for much movie-going. So, with an evening to kill and an uncertain future that I didn’t want to think about, I figured out where the theater was and made it there for an early evening showing.

And, to this day, I remember so much: Jon Voight’s faux-cowboy outfit, Dustin Hoffman’s off-putting but comforting manner, the theme song, the New York City shots, the loneliness of the main characters. The memories have stuck and been revisited in my mind many times.

Keith Hopper plays the what-do-you-remember game in a recent Times Literary Supplement essay on a book about the making of Midnight Cowboy. The book is Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, sex, loneliness, liberation, and the making of a dark classic by Glenn Frankel.

Here’s part of what Hopper says:

Remembering – and misremembering – movies is all part of the ontological allure of the cinema, where dream and reality creatively blur. The doyenne of New York film critics, Pauline Kael, claimed that she never watched a film twice, preferring a more experiential approach which conveyed the visceral immediacy of the cinematic event.
Hopper’s essay is well worth reading (a subscription may be required), not only for what it says about this particular movie but also for the insights it gives us into our own memories. Movies, books, and other pieces of art that have an impact on us become intertwined with our personal feelings and experiences.
We may misremember — or remember with our much accuracy — the art itself, the act of remember revives and deepens our experience. A book like Frankel’s and an essay like Hopper’s is a good reminder of that.

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