Based on James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel of the same name, Midnight Cowboy follows Texas native Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as he boards a bus for New York City. He leaves behind the grandmother who raised him, now deceased, and a pack of bad memories, which rear up throughout the film, often in jagged black-and-white. Joe's purpose is to get rich as a stud for hire to all the bored, wealthy older women in Manhattan. It's unclear why Joe thinks this is a sound business plan, but hints emerge from his recollected past, in which a local girl named Annie (Jennifer Salt) figures prominently. Joe checks into a cheap Times Square hotel and goes trawling for trade in full cowboy regalia. He quickly discovers that he has no idea what he's doing, especially after an encounter with one Park Avenue resident (Sylvia Miles). As Joe walks along 42nd Street, it slowly dawns on him that all the clients patronizing guys dressed as cowboys are gay men. Then Joe meets Enrico 'Ratso' Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a filthy vagrant with a bad leg and a foul mouth. Their relationship is the core of the film. The first thing Ratso does is teach Joe a lesson in trust (the sequence involves a remarkable performance by John McGiver in a role best left for the viewer to discover). Later, when they cross paths again, Joe is on a downward spiral, broke and locked out of his hotel. Ratso takes him in and lets Joe stay in the squalid tenement that Ratso inhabits rent-free, hoping to keep one step ahead of the wrecking ball. Using all the petty cons he's mastered over the years, Ratso tries to connect Joe with prospective clients and dreams of becoming wealthy off Joe's skills and retiring to Florida. But the dreams are short-lived, and the two roommates quickly have nothing but each other as they face a long, cold winter with no money and no prospects.
Midnight Cowboy was released on May 25th, 1969, where on a budget of $3.2 million, it managed to gross over $44,000,000 worldwide, making it one of the highest-grossing films of that year. Midnight Cowboy also made Jon Voight a star and Dustin Hoffman was prevented from being typecast after The Graduate. On April 7th, 1970, the film won 3 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (John Schlesinger), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt). Screenwriter Salt, a formerly blacklisted writer, received the sweet vindication of an Oscar for adapting James Leo Herlihy's novel. Director Schlesinger, making his first film in America, was so certain he had no chance of winning, that he stayed in London and had to learn by telephone that he'd been named Best Director. Producer Jerome Hellman was there to pick up the statue for Best Picture, the only one ever awarded to a film rated X, due to its sexual frankness (the MPAA later relented, though not without a fight). Without even having anything changed nor removed, the film was given a new R rating in 1971.