Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): **** 1/2
Was John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) the most unlikely Hollywood film to ever be nominated for – let alone win – the Oscar for Best Picture? A cursory scroll through the Best Picture Wikipedia entry seems to make it a definite outlier (I don’t really care enough about the Oscars to dig too deep into proving this hypothesis).
Schlesinger’s film (written by Waldo Salt and based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy) is a gutter’s eye view of New York in the sixties, a catalog of lost hopes, broken dreams, and dying cultural mores. Midnight Cowboy plays like a dramatization of a Velvet Underground song: a casual, neutral depiction of what was then extremely boundary-pushing behavior (the MPAA gave the film an X-rating and it remains the only Best Picture to receive that appellation).
Sandwiched as it is between Oliver! (1968) and Patton (1970), Midnight Cowboy is certainly an odd wrinkle in an otherwise predictable (and “respectable”) pattern of winners. I can only imagine people watching the 1970 ceremony and thinking that it represented a paradigm shift in the type of film the Academy would christen going forward. Not really the case.
I bring all this up because Schlesinger’s follow-up, 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, failed to rate a Best Picture nod (it was beat out by the likes of Love Story and Airport). But without the success – financial and critical – of Midnight Cowboy, this intensely personal, completely idiosyncratic film would probably not have had much of a chance to get seen (or even made). The film can enjoy a new rennaisance now that it has received the Criterion treatment.
The film tracks the romantic relationship between an older doctor, Daniel (Peter Finch), and an up-and-coming visual artist, Bob (Murray Head), who is simultaneously involved in a passionate romance with Alex (Glenda Jackson), a recently divorced, discontented thirty-something. Both Daniel and Alex are aware of each other’s existence; Bob has made it clear that he does not intend to be monogamous. The film follows the convoluted couplings over the course of a week, building toward an inevitable emotional catharsis that is bound to leave someone – if not all three of them – disappointed.
Despite Sunday Bloody Sunday’s reputation as yet another Schlesinger taboo-breaker (its nonchalant, depoliticized depiction of Daniel and Bob’s homosexual relationship and Bob’s bisexuality was a bit of a bold move for a major studio), the film lacks any sort of lurid, “look-at-me” iconoclasm. The ménage-a-trois isn’t exploited for its prurient potential. Instead, Schlesinger and his screenwriter (Penelope Gilliatt) meander through the three characters’ lives, exposing the difficulties of their particular arrangement while making insightful observations about relationships in general.
The fact is, Bob is an aloof cad but both Daniel and Alex are too wrapped up in love/lust to spare themselves, perhaps because he is so damned unavailable. This is a fact Alex recognizes but, in the tradition of doomed love, it’s also a fact she resigns herself to. “Because I loved you,” Alex tells him. “I bought your terms and they were rotten terms... There are times when nothing has to be better than anything.”
Daniel, on the other hand, is happy to have “half a loaf” in his relationship with Bob. Finch brings an immediate soulfulness to Daniel, and it says quite a lot about the film that this might be his best performance. When Finch is on the phone at the open of the film, you know from a slight gleam in his piercing blue eyes that he’s talking to a lover. The film is a helluva showcase for both Finch and Jackson. Murray Head’s Bob is a less immediate, more shadowy character. He breezes in and out of both his lovers’ lives and is almost intentionally two-dimensional.
Schlesinger’s instincts were never better. He called Sunday Bloody Sunday “chamber music” and it is a nuanced, microscopic piece. The early seventies London setting is underscored by gentle reminders of the economic and political climate of the time but the film isn’t a mere time capsule. The relational truths are transcendent of any time or place.
Criterion’s well-appointed disc of the film features a host of interviews that elucidate the genesis of this remarkable film. Among the revelations: the relationship between Schlesinger and Gilliatt was a troubled one, made more so by Gilliatt’s refusal to live in London during the shoot. Ian Bannen originally had the role of Daniel but when he balked at the idea of kissing a man onscreen, the part went to Finch. Beyond the making-of details, there are two particularly fascinating interviews – one with Schlesinger’s biographer and one with Schlesinger himself – that delve deeper into Schlesinger’s career and personal life.
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