Joe Buck ain’t a for-real cowboy, but he is one helluva stud! Blond, baby-faced, and sporting a toothy grin, Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his dishwashing job in Texas, grabs his transistor radio and cowboy hat, and takes off for New York City in pursuit of a bright future in hustling. “There’s a lot of rich women back there,” he tells a fellow dishwasher before he departs. “Begging for it. Paying for it too.”
So begins Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), which follows Buck in his pursuit of a new life for himself. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite according to plan. Rather than being the utopia that Buck imagines, New York turns out to be hostile and unforgiving. The work he seeks is hard to come by, and sundry instances of bad luck — including being scammed by Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled conman he meets in a bar — soon leave Buck jobless, homeless, and alone.
This is a lonely film; it captures the sensation of loneliness with terrifying acuity. There are many affecting shots of Buck walking the streets, surrounded by swarms of anonymous people, listening to his transistor radio for company. When he and Ratso run into each other again, Buck quickly forgets his anger and an unlikely friendship develops between the two of them, forged by that desperate need for companionship.
They make a peculiar pair: Buck in his neat, button-down shirts and cowboy boots, Ratso with his greasy hair and limping gait. Hoffman’s performance as Ratso is the highlight of the film. He somehow manages to be disgusting and charismatic at the same time — small and filthy, but also genial and conversational, with a grating, nasal voice.
As a character Buck is a little more mysterious. He’s almost childlike in his cheerfulness and naiveté, but we discover a darker side of him through the fragmented (and, quite frankly, confusing) flashbacks from his life in Texas — that he was raised by his neglectful grandmother, and that he and his girlfriend were raped, causing her to be institutionalized and earning her the moniker “Crazy Annie.” The reveal of these traumatic events puts a dark spin on Buck’s excitement about moving to New York; he is clearly hoping to leave his past behind, to find an escape.
But if this film does anything, it refutes that idea of an escape, a utopia. Buck’s moving to New York does nothing but create more problems for him, and once there, Ratso just tries to convince him to leave, insisting that Florida is where life is actually worth living. There’s a sense that nowhere in the country actually offers a better quality of life than anywhere else; life is painful, and escape is a myth. Needless to say, Midnight Cowboy provides a bleak outlook. With the exception of movingly real performances from Hoffman and Voight, the film is hard to love. The narrative is a little too tortuous and abstract, and the sense of loneliness that pervades the entire film is a little too real — it starts to get under your skin.
Similarly dark but easier to digest is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which features Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who, plagued by insomnia, works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City. Travis prides himself in being willing to drive “anytime, anywhere,” but during his nocturnal exploits he develops a loathing for the scum he sees walking the streets. His misanthropy is made worse when the one person whom he hopes might be a kindred spirit — Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a young campaign volunteer — turns out to be “just like the rest of them… cold and distant.” Eventually, driven by depression and frustration, Travis’s thoughts turn violent.
This is a film in which the city is almost a character itself, thanks in no small part to Scorsese’s artful cinematography. The film opens with a sting of dissonant brass and a burst of white smoke from a manhole, and Travis’s taxi emerges like a boat slogging through hell. Through the lens of Travis’s perspective, all of New York’s worst qualities are accentuated. The neon signs are lurid, the streets filthy, the pedestrians swarming. Travis writes in his journal about feeling lost and alienated, and we sympathize with him.
When a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) climbs frantically into Travis’s taxi only to be dragged out again by her pimp, Travis feels compelled to rescue her. Foster is mesmerizing even in the brief amount of screen-time she occupies. Both in looks and in mannerisms she is an uncanny combination of adult and childlike: her clothes are scanty, revealing her undeveloped body, and her demeanor is matter-of-fact but peppered with petulant eye-rolls and smirks. Iris is the ultimate symbol of what Travis sees as the degeneracy New York — something pure and innocent that’s been sullied — and her appearance in his taxi is just the motivation he needs for his violent plans to take shape.
Despite his extremism, however, Travis is not a villain but an antihero, a man whose radical actions stem from loneliness and delusion. Indeed, so much of what makes the film so compelling is Travis’s complexity. There’s something immediately likeable about him — he’s good-looking, candid, and reflective, and his frustration with his surroundings is understandable. But to like Travis is to follow him down the rabbit hole into a world of terrifying volatility, bordering on madness. Gripping, unsettling, and bizarrely beautiful, it’s no wonder Taxi Driver has become part of the canon of great American films.
Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of its portrayal of New York: like so many of Allen’s movies, it is a love story to a city.
The film opens with a series of shots of New York — the skyline, the crowded streets, the flashing lights in Times Square — set to Allen’s voiceover as he writes the beginning of a novel. He describes the city’s many different personalities, including “a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin” — and this description is carried throughout the film, the black and white scenes scored exclusively by Gershwin classics. Out of all the versions of the city, this is the one in which the film takes place: a New York that’s old, beautiful, and seen through the rosy lens of nostalgia.
Allen stars as Isaac, a middle-aged divorcé who ends his relationship with his teenage girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in order to begin an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his best friend. These characters are affluent and educated: Isaac is a television writer and an aspiring novelist, and Mary is a loquacious cultural snob. From this perspective, New York becomes a completely different city from the anonymous, filthy New York featured in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver — the scenes take place in museums, restaurants, and stylish apartments, and the problems the characters face are social, rather than issues of survival.
And certainly, there is something silly, almost farcical, about the film: the characters fumble around, dating each other, cheating on each other. Mary is neurotic and self-conscious, going back and forth between Isaac and his best friend Yale. Isaac is funny and likeable but also something of a buffoon, and he blunders through his interactions with the women in his life (including a hilariously stoic Meryl Streep as his ex-wife, now dating a woman and publishing a book about her marriage with Isaac). Indeed, the most mature character in the film turns out to be Tracy, who — despite Isaac’s repeated insistence that she’s just a kid — is poised and self-assured, calmly saying to Isaac, “I’ve told you before, I think I’m in love with you.” This role-reversal is one of the film’s most delightful quirks: while the adults of the film act like children, the seventeen-year-old acts like an adult.
In the film’s penultimate scene, Isaac brainstorms ideas for his novel by talking into a tape recorder, and he comes up with the concept of “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these unnecessary problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” This is, of course, not unlike the George Gershwin line in the opening scene — a metaficitonal wink at the audience, an acknowledgement of just how unnecessary and silly Isaac’s and Mary’s problems are. But at the same time there’s a strange poignancy to that line, perhaps because there’s something universally human about focusing on day-to-day drama instead of facing those bigger questions.
That balance of humor and substance is what makes this film so marvelous. The writing is smart and heartfelt, and while the characters might be deeply flawed, they are undeniably lovable. And, more than anything, there is that tremendous sense of place — present (and yet completely different) in all three of these films — that is not simply a backdrop for the narrative, but living part of it.