Movie fans line up outside The Directors Guild Theater. (Photo: copyright Lee Pfeiffer/Cinema Retro)
Alumni of a classic reunite: (L to R) John Barry, David V. Picker, Sylvia Miles, Jerome Hellman, Ann Roth and Adam Holender. (Photo: copyright Lee Pfeiffer/Cinema Retro)
By Lee Pfeiffer
Last night New York City became Hollywood-on-the-Hudson when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a 40th anniversary screening of Midnight Cowboy at The Directors Guild Theater. It was an extraordinary evening on every level. The program is part of the Monday Nights with Oscar series, which was created by Patrick Harrison of A.M.P.A.S. For years, Harrison has presented some of the most unique and memorable classic movie events the city has seen - and last evening was no exception. For the Midnight Cowboy tribute, some key members of the creative production team were reunited for an on-stage discussion hosted by David V. Picker, the legendary producer and former United Artists executive who oversaw the studio during its glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. Arriving at the theater, it was clear this was to be the hottest movie in town. Fans lined up for more than an hour with a separate line formed for a wait-list of movie lovers who were desperate to obtain a ticket - a scenario almost unheard of for a film that was first released in 1969. Prior to the movie, I was invited for a "meet-and-greet" with the participants immediately prior to the screening. Attendees were David Picker, producer Jerome Hellman, actress Sylvia Miles, cinematographer Adam Holender, costume designer Ann Roth and music supervisor John Barry. Unfortunately, Barry could not stay for the panel discussion after the film but he seemed delighted to be among his colleagues from Midnight Cowboy. We did chat a few minutes about our respect for our mutual friend Cubby Broccoli, who Barry said he missed tremendously.
Sylvia Miles, still a mainstay of New York's social scene. (Photo: copyright Lee Pfeiffer/Cinema Retro)
We then walked into the theater, where A.M.P.A.S. had been showing a superb slide program of rare stills from the film, set to the original soundtrack. David Picker made some brief introductory remarks and advised the audience there would be a discussion about the making of the film after the screening. The print shown was the restored version done for the 25th anniversary of the film. If you haven't seen Midnight Cowboy on the big screen, you can't truly appreciate the artistry behind it. I've always had a fondness for films that reflect the seamier side of New York and this movie captured Gotham during a period of extensive decline that began in the mid 1960s and lasted through the early 1990s. It now seems like a different world, but Adam Holender's brilliant cinematography provides us with a time capsule of this bygone era of grind house theaters, male hustlers strutting their wares on 42nd street, grimy luncheonettes, ancient arcades and foreboding subway stations. To paraphrase Woody Allen, the era was horrible, upsetting and very frightening - and it was all over much too quickly. Each time I see the film, I learn to appreciate a new aspect. In this case, I looked beyond the superb performances of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight and appreciated the quality of the supporting actors, the most underrated being John McGiver's brief but classic turn as a religious fanatic who Joe Buck is hoodwinked into believing is actually the owner of a male escort service. The sequence manages to be as unnerving as it is hilarious.The use of rock music along with John Barry's immortal original themes also resonated more impressively than ever. As David Picker points out, in a properly made film, every nuance of every scene is the result of painstaking planning and debating.
John Barry had a long and rich history with United Artists prior to his superb work on Midnight Cowboy. (Photo: copyright Lee Pfeiffer/Cinema Retro)
Following the screening, the members of the panel discussion were greeted with rapturous applause as they walked on stage. Picker moderated the discussion, which unveiled a wealth of fascinating anecdotes. For the record, it should be said that, had it not been for Picker, the film would never had been made. During his tenure at United Artists, Picker and his uncle Arnold prided themselves on supporting filmmakers who had offbeat scenarios for motion pictures. Although modest by nature, Picker was the man who urged UA to produce the James Bond series, release the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Dollars trilogy in America and sign The Beatles for A Hard Day's Night. We won't get into other "minor" achievements such as giving approval for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. As hard as it is to believe in this era of studio micro-management, once UA gave the green light to a film, they never interfered with the creative process. Indeed, Picker said the first time UA brass saw any footage from Midnight Cowboy was at a screening when the finished film was presented. He said that Arnold Picker, who was an admittedly tough man to please, sat quietly with the rest of the brass in total silence at the end of the film, as director John Schlesinger and Jerome Hellman nervously awaited his response. Arnold simply stood up and said, "It's a masterpiece. Let's go to lunch."
The panel discussion proved to be contentious at times as participant's had different memories of certain events. Sylvia Miles, ever the gadfly, told an entire story about how she won the part in the film - only to have Jerome Hellman (who had hired her) tell her that her story was so far off from what had really happened, that it appeared they were on two different continents. Hellman also challenged Adam Holender about certain recollections of the production, but Picker diffused these minor quibbles with deft, statesman-like abilities that would have made Henry Kissinger envious. Picker also had to humorously contend with Miles' attempts to monopolize the discussion and remind everyone that she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar although only on screen for six minutes. It's safe to say that this woman loves the spotlight so much, she probably strikes a pose every time she opens the refrigerator door. Still, her quirkiness brought a great deal of laughter to the evening. Costume designer Ann Roth downplayed her own contributions, saying no one is ever interested in the costume design - a misstatement challenged by the audience. She went to say how there was great debate over aspects of Jon Voight's cowboy duds - and he had to be convinced to wear a black hat instead of a white one.
Much of the discussion centered on John Schlesinger, about whom nary a negative word was said. It was clear he was a most extraordinary man. Hellman explained that Schlesinger had agreed to do a film with him when he was red-hot following the release of Billy Liar and Darling. However, Schlesinger's big budget MGM production of Far From the Madding Crowd had bombed and suddenly the offers dried up. Schlesinger was determined to prove he had another winner in him and it was he who suggested to Hellman that they adapt James Leo Herlihy's novel Midnight Cowboy to the screen. The script went through several unsuccessful incarnations before Waldo Salt submitted an unsolicited script. Salt was a writer on the fringe of suicide and this was his last attempt to get a meaningful story to the screen. With Hellman and Picker's backing, Midnight Cowboy not only saved his career, but his life. Hellman also related that he had cast Dustin Hoffman as Ratso after seeing him in a one-man off-Broadway production in which he simply darted around the stage pushing a broom! Hoffman was completely unknown, but by the time Midnight Cowboy went into production, he was already a hot property due to The Graduate - a film he was reluctant to test for out of fear it might conflict with Hellman's production.
David Picker also afforded the audience a surprise treat by showing vintage clips from the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony in which the film was awarded Oscars for Best Picture, director and screenplay. Watching these clips from so long ago was a movie lover's delight. Schlesinger was not able to attend the ceremony because he was shooting Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Voight accepted his Oscar. What struck me was how low-key the Oscar ceremonies used to be and how brief and gracious the acceptance speeches were, as opposed to today when you would think the winners were getting paid by minute. Many people have pondered how Dustin Hoffman failed to get the Best Actor award. My own theory is that he had to compete with fellow nominee Jon Voight, so they probably cut into each other's votes. Not helping matters was that, after forty years in the business, John Wayne gave the performance of his career in True Grit and was the popular and sentimental favorite.
In all, it was remarkable to witness these talented individuals recall the making of a masterpiece. If you've never seen Midnight Cowboy, I almost envy you for having that experience to look forward to. It was film made by giants both in front of and behind the cameras. As Norma Desmond might point out, there are still great movies being made today - it's just the people who make them who seem smaller.
(Thanks to Christina Colon, Harvey Bolgla and Matthew Calderone for their assistance in coverage of this event).
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