This tremendous volume offers the most detailed explication of how a movie is made that I have ever read. But Glenn Frankel’s book is much more than the story of a landmark film from 1969. Its many pleasures include a splendid cultural history of mid-20th-century Britain and New York, a concise account of the Hollywood blacklist and a brilliant double biography of the two closeted gay men most responsible for the creative energy of the movie, which is not just Frankel’s subject, but his inspiration.
James Herlihy wrote the 1965 novel, which created two memorable characters. Joe Buck, a “handsome but not overly bright dishwasher from Texas”, buys a cowboy costume and boards a bus to Manhattan, filled with dreams of fancy women on Park Avenue he’s sure will pay for his body. Rico “Ratso” Rizzo is a conman from the Bronx who becomes Joe’s only reliable companion in the twisted canyons of late-60s Manhattan.
After brief service in the navy at the end of the second world war, Herlihy was rescued by the GI bill and a stint at Black Mountain College, a unique institution devoted to the arts and founded in 1933 outside Asheville, North Carolina. Faculty and students included an extraordinary number of American iconoclasts, among them John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Robert Motherwell and Anaïs Nin, Herlihy’s first important friend and muse.
Apart from being “seemingly guilt-free” but still closeted gay men of the same generation – they were born a year apart – the darkly handsome Herlihy could hardly have been more different from the director John Schlesinger, whose weight, the Englishman observed, went “up and down like a whore’s drawers”. While Herlihy had a lower-middle-class upbringing brightened by the Book of the Month Club, Schlesinger was the first son of a fancy Jewish family in Hampstead who grew up nurtured by a bevy of servants and a deep love of Shakespeare, Wagner and Brahms.
Schlesinger said his life revolved around “the three Fs: films, fucks and food”, but “not necessarily in that order”, according to his nephew, Ian Buruma.
Midnight Cowboy is an often humorous but mostly depressing tale of a Texas hustler and a Bronx bum. Frankel is almost certainly right that it could only have been made during the “brief but fertile interregnum between the eclipse of the old studio system and the rise of a new one, a time when original, risk-taking movies flourished, old rules were shattered and a new breed of film-makers took on adult themes and characters that had never been see in mainstream movies before”.
Dustin Hoffman, who played Rizzo, was already a star from The Graduate but no one recognized the lead, Jon Voight, on the street. The screenwriter, Waldo Salt, had been blacklisted for years because of an enthusiasm for communism which lasted until Kruschev’s famous speech of 1956 revealed the truth of Stalinism. All this contributed to the film’s Cinderella story, which culminated in box office success and Oscars for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.
Schlesinger had made a splash directing Darling with Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde, a movie that was groundbreaking for reasons including the character Malcolm, “perhaps the first unapologetic, sexually active gay man in a mainstream movie”. But his most recent film was Far From the Madding Crowd, a big-budget flop that threatened to throttle his career before his 40th birthday. That only increased the pressure to make this most unlikely property a hit.
Frankel is especially powerful about gay life in Britain and the US before the gay liberation movement was born in the Stonewall riots of 1969. He describes a period when the New York Times, Time, CBS News and even the New York Review of Books routinely reinforced fear and hatred of gay people – and made sure people like Schlesinger and Herlihy never spoke publicly about their gay lives, even as they lived them openly in front of many straight friends.
The fear of homosexuals was still so ingrained in 1969 that Arthur Krim, the co-chairman of United Artists, decided to reject the Motion Picture Association’s R rating for Midnight Cowboy and demand an X rating instead, to protect children from the film’s gay content. Krim was a great liberal, a close friend and strong supporter of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and probably the most enlightened movie executive of his generation. And yet on this subject he allowed himself to be influenced by his friend Aaron Stern, a Columbia psychiatrist who said the movie’s “homosexual frame of reference” could be a danger to America’s youth.
The irony was that the movie’s depiction of gay characters was so relentlessly homophobic, the only shots that might possibly have pushed any undecided moviegoer across a gay Rubicon were the ones of Voight’s very hot naked body.
When Frankel praises Schlesinger for his “natural curiosity, humor” and “keen eye for quirky stories and intriguing characters”, he could be talking about himself. A Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Washington Post and the author of books about High Noon and The Searchers, he is a tireless researcher and a thoughtful analyst, two qualities essential for good nonfiction. But what takes this book from good to great is his graceful writing and the intelligence he brings to everything he examines.
Frankel is the kind of writer who can capture the zeitgeist of 60s Britain in a single sentence: “The drab gray suits, bowler hats and buttoned-up-cardigan austerity of Britain’s postwar era were being kicked aside by rich, bold clashing paisley colors, bellbottoms, wide lapels, long hair and newfound sexual freedom.”
That kind of energy and perspicacity makes this book much more than a page-turner. It’s the first essential work of cultural history of the new decade.