Schlesinger’s classic is the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book. The film features stand out performances from Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman, as well as introducing an iconic (and improvised) piece of dialogue and one of my favorite Harry Nilsson songs, Everybody’s Talking.
Voigt is Joe Buck, a naïve, poorly educated, mid-American hustler, with a tendency to dress and craft himself as a cowboy, travelling to New York City to pursue his dreams of working as a gigolo and servicing the rich women of the city. He pairs up with Hoffman’s Ratso, a bit of a rough around the edges, and filthy looking character.
The pair form an unlikely friendship and business relationship, as Joe’s illusions about his success and dreams shatter against the grey, sharp reality of the concrete-edged city. Nothing is what he expected; the city, and its people don’t seem to care about him at all, and he learns pretty quickly to get the money first.
Hoffman embodies his character perfectly. Ratso is a little bigoted, increasingly ill cripple and a bit of a conman, and he even screws over Joe on their first meeting, yet the two of them become inextricable from one another.
The use of flashbacks to Joe’s youth are troubling, revealing the moments and people that shaped him, and created the person he is today, whether it be his grandmother (Ruth White) and her proclivities, or his encounters with the bible belt as a child, also informs the audience of how he makes his current decisions.
Very much a product of its time, the film is trapped in its era, a time capsule of a time of change in America, but the performances lift it up into something that has endured to this day.
It also, in its own way, examines the enduring concept of the pursuit of the American Dream in one form or another. The Dream versus the harsh reality of the world. Ratso wants his Dream, to move to Florida, Joe wants sex and money, and if he can do both together, so much the better.
Both of their Dreams are explored and destroyed through imaginings and nightmares both real and imagined, as they huddle in the condemned, gritty apartment that Ratso calls home.
Walking home with three Oscars at that year’s Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, this is an incredibly strong film, with layered and nuanced performances (as well as the notion, and suggestion that both Ratzo and Joe are repressed and may be in love with one another), which earned both Hoffman and Voigt nominations.
The film remains a classic, capturing a time, and a moment that is now lost, but whose ideas, the pursuit of hopes and dreams, no matter what they are, continue to resonate. Solid, strong, and a surprisingly emotional ending.