Wednesday, May 17, 2023

SIFF 2023 Dispatch #4: Nancy Buirski Explores Midnight Cowboy in Desperate Souls

In this dispatch, I'll be looking at Desperate Souls. Click here for dispatch #1 (Other People's Children), here for dispatch #2 (Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes), and here for dispatch #3 (The Eight Mountains and Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair). 

(Nancy Buirski, USA, 2022, 101 minutes) 

British director John Schlesinger (A Kind of Loving) made history with 1969's Midnight Cowboy, breaking a few taboos along the way to a best picture win for an X-rated movie about a male hustler made by a gay filmmaker. 

Inspired by Glenn Frankel's 2021 book Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, and the Making of a Dark Classic, writer-director Nancy Buirski (By Sidney Lumet) starts with Jon Voight's 1968 screen test. At this stage in his life, it's easiest to see the physical similarity with his estranged daughter, Angelina Jolie. She may not share his current political views--which weren't as reactionary at the time--but she definitely inherited his good looks, from his height to his swagger to his full lips (her Mad Max-like entrance in 1996's Foxfire isn't all that different from his entrance in Midnight Cowboy). 

In addition to Voight, Buirski speaks with Bob Balaban, who talks about the film's unromantic view of New York, something uncommon in mainstream movies at the time. To writer Lucy Sante (Low Life), the film, which was shot by DP Adam Holender (The Panic in Needle Park), "could be an advertisement for anti-glamour."

John Schlesinger's nephew, writer/editor Ian Buruma, is the first to mention the director's sexual orientation. Though Schlesinger's parents knew he was gay and supported him, homosexuality in the UK was illegal prior to 1967. Making a film about a male sex worker was a commercially risky move, and yet Schlesinger believed that James Leo Herlihy's 1965 novel would make a great movie. To Voight, "the story was about loneliness." Schlesinger, who had felt marginalized in his youth, could relate. Since he passed away in 2003, Buirski includes his voice via archival material. She does the same with Holender, Herlihy, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Waldo Salt, who would reunite with Voight nine years later for Hal Ashby's Coming Home, resulting in Oscar wins for both (Voight lost in 1970 to, um, John Wayne).

Dustin Hoffman also contributes to the oral history through archival material, including an interview conducted by Frankel. Since Hoffman is alive and well, I'm not certain why he didn't sit for a new one. In any case, he could also relate to the story, especially the character of Ratso Rizzo, Joe Buck's constant companion. Phenomenal success of 1967's The Graduate aside, Hoffman remained as insecure about his looks as ever, still thinking of himself as the awkward, pimply adolescent of yore. 

To Jennifer Salt, who plays Crazy Annie, her father's screenplay went beyond adaptation into more personal territory, since Waldo, who passed away in 1987, drew from his own experiences as the product of a difficult home life and as a screenwriter blacklisted for years due to communist affiliation. 

Despite Schlesinger's early successes, like 1965's Darling, his 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd was a flop--though it's better than its reputation suggests--so there was a lot riding on his first American picture, but not only was Midnight Cowboy a hit, it eased the way for him to make a film featuring an unambiguously gay character, Sunday Bloody Sunday, two years later, something that would have been nearly impossible prior to 1969, even as he had dealt with unplanned pregnancy, abortion, and other controversial topics in his earlier features. 

Other speakers include author Edmund White, actress Brenda Vaccaro, film historian J. Hoberman, photographer--and Schlesinger partner--Michael Childers, and Brian De Palma (via Zoom with big, noise-canceling headphones), who talk about the influence of westerns and Andy Warhol's Factory. 

For all that, though, there's no discussion of the Grammy-winning score from composer John Barry and haunting theme song from Harry Nilsson, Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'." In the documentary, Buirski uses Neil's version of the song, so it's possible she couldn't clear the rights, though Nilsson's music has become more prevalent on screen in recent years. There is, otherwise, a lot of great material here, and Buirski lets a few speakers go long, particularly Sante and Hoberman, who always have insightful things to say, particularly about pre-Disneyfied New York and Vietnam-era America.

Desperate Souls plays the Uptown on Thursday, May 18. The sole Midnight Cowboy screening has passed, but the film can be streamed, for free (with ads) or for pay (without), on multiple platforms. For more information, please see the festival site. Images: Screen Daily via Claudia Tomassini + Associates (Jon Voight), IMDb (Voight and Bob Balaban), Entertainment Weekly via Everett Collection (Dustin Hoffman), and The Wrap via United Artists (Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday).  

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