Midnight Cowboy: The controversy that divided a nation

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Celebrating 50 years since it’s release, Midnight Cowboy is still a film that hits you at your core.

The film follows the unlikely friendship of a conman (Dustin Hoffman) and a very naive male prostitute (Jon Voight), as they hustle their way through the seedy underbelly of New York.

This moving, gritty and often bleak story still holds a place in the American Film Institutes top 100 films, but it wasn’t without its controversy.

With themes of drug abuse, homosexuality and prostitution many questioned whether the film was actually going to be a good idea, with the director himself saying “Who’s going to see a movie about a cowboy who turns tricks on 42nd Street?”

Set for realise the film faced its biggest hurdle, it’s classification.

Initially the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated the film R, meaning in the US at the time, under 16s require an accompanying parent or adult guardian to see the film. However this was changed to X rated, the harshest rating possible, that at this period had only been done twice before.


The decision was made for a number of reasons. The President of the MPAA and the creator of the classification system Jack Valenti, wasn’t comfortable with particular scenes in the film that depicted sexual acts between two men, and wasn’t pleased as a Texas native with the story of a cowboy gigolo from his state.

We found out later in the book, United Artists Volume 2, 1951-1978: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, written by Tino Balio’s, that the theme of homosexuality was in fact a big reason for the change in classification. It’s said that the board didn’t like its “homosexual frame of reference”. There was concern that the handsome cowboys sexual exploits would sway young adults, the boards final decision came when they were advised by a Columbia University psychiatrist that the “homosexual scenes could have an adverse effect on youngsters.”

When the classification became known, Dustin Hoffman expressed that everyone thought this could ruin their career, and he was right to think so.

Although an X rating could cause some exciting buzz for young rebels, it came with big problems in the 60s. Over half of cinemas in the US refused to show X rated films, and many newspapers wouldn’t run advertisements. It also meant that no TV show would allow the films stars as guests in order to plug the film.

“grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America” Pauline Kael - The New Yorker

“grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America” Pauline Kael - The New Yorker

Early screenings of the film were met with audiences walking out and bad reviews, Pauline Kael, the influential critic for The New Yorker, said that it relied on “grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America” to tell its story.

However, it seems like New York liked seeing its authentic self on screen. After an exclusive opening at the Coronet Theatre, a buzz was created. The film was met with stunned silence and standing ovations, and soon people were cueing around streets just to see it.

The films popularity saw it gain a limited release across America, and although it still received mixed reviews, the film was recognised for its true brilliance when it was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning 3 for, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is still to this day the only film with an X rating to win a Oscar.

It’s legacy continues as it forced the MPAA to reassess how it classified films, with Midnight Cowboy itself later being reclassified back to R, but not before it was the first X rated film to be shown in the White House, well the first official one.

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Midnight Cowboy showing at The Whitaker

Friday 6th September: 7:30pm

Ticket Cost: £6.50pp (pre booking essential)

Why not make an evening of it? Dine before the film with a 2 course dinner influenced by the food and culture of 1960s New York.

To book please select film & food when you book your ticket.

More details and reviews for the film here