Wise: Happy New Year, Werth!
Werth: The New Year is all about new beginnings, and some of the best movies are about characters who start new lives as new people.
Wise: Are we talking about identity theft? Because my parents are obsessed with that.
Werth: Not exactly, although theft and identity are part of my "new beginnings" classic, 1969's Midnight Cowboy. John Schlesinger's controversial film starts off with a shot of a mostly deserted Texas drive-in with the prairie and the sky stretching off into the distance. It's the perfect image for Joe Buck's (Jon Voight) Hollywood-style fantasy of moving out of his one-horse town to New York City to become a successful gigolo.
Wise: It must have been a much more glamorous career path before the advent of Craig's List.
Werth: Dressed in his fringe jacket, green shirt and black cowboy hat and boots, Joe Buck packs up his cowhide suitcase with western shirts and a picture of Paul Newman from the movie Hud and rides a Greyhound to New York City only to find his new beginning as a "stud" is fraught with wake-up calls.
After being swindled by a blousy penthouse-frau (don't-ask-me-why Academy Award-nominated Sylvia Miles), Joe meets skanky cripple Rico "Ratso" Rizzo (a post-Graduate Dustin Hoffman) and these two outsiders forge an uncomfortable, yet touching bond.
They hatch scheme after scheme, exhausting themselves and the chances around them, until they have no other choice but to leave New York City for good. Sadly, as Nilsson croons "Everybody's Talkin'", we know that the movie-inspired dreams of these luckless scavengers are doomed whether they are in a condemned apartment building in Manhattan or on the sunny beaches of Florida.
Wise: At least the fresh orange juice will keep scurvy at bay.
Werth: Many film-folk like to point to Easy Rider (1969) as the movie that ushered in a new era for Hollywood, but I think a better case can be made for Midnight Cowboy dragging Tinseltown into the '70's.
Even with an initial X-Rating due to the nudity, sex, drag queens, drug use and a gay blowjob courtesy of a young Bob Balaban, Midnight Cowboy earned seven Academy Award noms and won three—including Best Picture and Best Director.
It was the first time that the Old Guard handed its highest accolade to such edgy, raw material. Schelsinger's use of montage editing was fresh and impactful in visualizing the crossroads of daydreams, nightmares, and real life—and helped define a cinematic style, making Midnight Cowboy a new beginning for Hollywood film.
Wise: In Now, Voyager (1942), Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a dowdy Boston spinster suffering under her dictatorial mother (Gladys Cooper who made a career of playing judgmental society matrons). A kind psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) admits her to his sanitarium where Charlotte transforms into a self-possessed woman; fearing relapse if she returns to her mother's house, Charlotte instead embarks on a cruise to South America where she meets a handsome (and married) stranger Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid).
Werth: Stuck together in a cabin after their Portugese taxi driver nearly takes them off a mountain cliff is reason enough for anyone to fall in love.
Wise: Unwilling to break up her lover's marriage, Charlotte returns to Boston heartbroken, but full of a strength she never knew she had. She takes control of her relationship with her mother and gets engaged to a handsome widower from one of the most prominent Boston Brahmin families, but when a fierce argument with her mother results in her mother's sudden death, Charlotte returns to the sanitarium where she attempts to forge a new life for the second time.
Werth: The scene of Charlotte sassing her mother to death is one of my all-time favorites.
Wise: Davis, who had always struggled against the confines of the studio system, found new independence in Now, Voyager both onscreen and off. Because producer Hal B. Wallace developed the film as an independent production within Warner Bros., Davis was able to exert her influence on costumes, casting, and even her director Irving Rapper who found the collaboration both rewarding and exhausting.
But it's onscreen that Davis makes her biggest transformation, not just within the film by trading dowdy foulard dresses for sleek Orry-Kelly designs, but by putting aside the snarling independence of her earlier roles and taking on a new fortitude grounded in moral certainty. It's shocking to see Davis this tender, yet just as ferocious as she had ever been.
Werth: And even more shocking to see her with those eyebrows.
Wise: Tune in to next week's Film Gab when we pluck out more classic films!