Worst Best Picture: Is Midnight Cowboy Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1969 winner Midnight Cowboy. Is it better than Crash?

Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only movie rated X to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. The story of the rating system in American film history is a little absurd. I talked about that a little bit with regards to Terms of Endearment, a really brutal movie with frequent sex scenes and more frequent “adult situations,” getting a PG rating in the early 80s. Still, “X” jumps right off the page. It makes you wonder just how raw Midnight Cowboy could be.

We’re definitely in a different world in 2014. This isn’t an “X” movie, but damn it’s a tough one. Midnight Cowboy is the tale of Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) plan to leave Texas and be a male prostitute in New York City. He’s a hayseed of the highest order, but his character really shines because he has the depressing trait of “assumed street smarts.” Joe thinks he’s figured out all the angles in every situation, and that’s the worst thing to think when you haven’t at all.

He hooks up with Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, who is excellent), a conman who lives in a condemned building. Joe tries to convince people to have sex with him for money and Ratso tries to convince Joe that he’s more than he seems. Joe is immediately unsuccessful and “moves in” to Ratso’s hole-in-the-wall.

It’s a story about hope and image. Both men think they have the tools to make it in the world, they just need the shot. Ratso needs a guy like Joe that he can “manage” and Joe just needs “customers.” Ratso won’t stoop to shining shoes like his old man and Joe won’t go back to washing dishes like he did in Texas. They want more for themselves, reality be damned.

We all want a little more for ourselves, and you’ll be missing the forest if you pay too much attention to the sex in Midnight Cowboy. It’s certainly a movie about sex, but the sex doesn’t matter. The main thing going on in Midnight Cowboy happens when two people shiver and get sick in an old tenement house because they can’t swallow their pride. The main thing is that we all know that guy who could get it together “if he could just make it to Florida.”

You don’t need to go to Florida. You need something else.

The Best Part: The sadness of the lead characters is extremely hard to handle. In one scene during the “hopeful” part of the movie, Jon Voight’s character has to ask a woman for crackers that he can put ketchup on to not starve to death. It takes a dip towards the depressing after that, but it’s still on the upswing, then! I list this in the “best” because the movie isn’t a direct arc, which is interesting. It’s a risky way to tell a story, but it’s like an actual life with highs and lows rather than one constant line up or down.

The Worst Part: As much as I want to make this about a downright stupid Andy Warhol storyline (sigh), it has to be the entire handling of homosexuality. This movie is from 1969, and that’s a definitive year in gay history in America. Midnight Cowboy came out a month before Stonewall, and it’s a movie about a guy from Texas being scared of being gay. It’s tough to discuss without spoiling it, but Joe frequently finds that he can make a living in NYC as a prostitute, but he’ll have to sleep with men. He’s not willing to – which is not the problem – but the anger and the weirdness of the way they deal with it in the most explosive year in gay history in America is very strange. I can’t fully condemn a movie from more than four decades ago for not handling gay issues head-on. I can be weirded out by hearing Dustin Hoffman say a gay slur about twelve times in a row.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? We’re across the country in Midnight Cowboy, but we’ve got the same kind of “gritty city” story. The NYC of Midnight Cowboy is a sad, angry, lonely place. It’s not dissimilar to the LA that Crash wants to talk about, but this is 1969 New York City. It’s the city before they took all the porn out of Times Square. It’s the bad old days, the days talked about in really good and really bad literature. It’s a piece locked in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, and the grit is there to explain what “1969” is to the audience. Crash, as I’ve said before, exists in a mythical 2005. Racism is extremely real, but as the story of anywhere real in 2005, Crash is a bad destination movie.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Nymphomaniac is Five Hours of Lars von Trier Trying to Offend You: Should You See It?

Nymphomaniac poster

Jonathan May

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Nymphomaniac?

“Beneath the gazes, beneath the hands, beneath the sexes that defiled her, the whips that rent her, she lost herself in a delirious absence from herself which restored her to love and, perhaps, brought her to the edge of death.” —from The Story of O

Parenthesis in Greek means ‘put in beside’ so it’s only fitting that the title of Lars von Trier’s latest film includes an empty set (it’s stylized as “Nymph()maniac“), a nothing story inside a nothing story. The story operates on the frame tale level; that is, our protagonist Joe relates her tale of sexual deviance from childhood forward to the eager ears of Seligman, an older male virgin (which later becomes important) after he finds her in an alleyway, obviously beaten up.

The main problem with the film is that Joe is constantly interrupted in her telling by Seligman, an obsequious listener if there ever was one. The film must center safely back around to its frame at the end, which deflates what’s at stake for the viewer. And center around it does; this was the moment of unexpectedness though. What transpires between Joe and Seligman in those final moments completely derails the film and its message, but I will not be the one to spoil it for the reader.

What I will take umbrage with is the fact that the more “salacious” aspects of the film (the erect penises, the S&M, the graphicness of the presentation, Joe screaming “Fill all my holes”) are not nearly as “offending” (though I’m very hesitant to use this word) as the moral statements made by the director through his characters. It becomes very obvious when Joe is talking and when Lars von Trier is talking through Joe. Von Trier all but preaches about how we should not silence aspects of our vocabulary for fear that we silence ourselves; but then he launches, through Joe, into a tirade about how pedophilia is like any other sexuality and how the 96% of pedophiles who don’t act on their urges should be “given a medal” for bravely squelching their desires. I take huge insult to these claims. Pedophilia is learned behavior, not innate. Not acting on desire or lust is not commensurate to bravery. Once again, von Trier sacrifices in terms of actual filmic development to focus on his status as a provocateur. Unfortunately this game is tired and boring, especially coming in the middle of a combined five-hour romp. I feel like I was constantly being prodded into offense; luckily for me, I’m offended by very little. But I still felt like the whole story amounts to nothing more than a way for von Trier to poke a stick at his audience. What he loses in this, of course, is the sincerity of Joe and her story. She unapologetically owns her sexuality at several points throughout the film. To have her become nothing more than a soapbox is typical of von Trier’s treatment of women.

Should you see it?

If you want original story, see the film Salo by Pasolini or read its precursor, The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Or you can read The Story of O by Pauline Reage. If it’s a good Lars von Trier movie you want to see, try Melancolia or Dancer in the Dark. But you can safely pass on Nymphomaniac.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at

What the Story of Two Women and a Cheating Bastard Says About Video Games as Literature


Alex Russell

You are a real bastard.

Well, you are when you’re Vincent Brooks in Catherine, a 2011 multi-platform release that shocked the video game world. It’s a unique part-puzzle part-simulation game based on the morality of choice and what people do when no one is watching.

You play Vincent, a 30-something guy drifting through both life and an aimless relationship with a woman named Katherine. Katherine wants to get married and start a life, Vincent wants to avoid making any big decisions. Katherine wants to have long lunch dates about the future, Vincent wants to get drunk with his friends at the corner tap.

Depending on how stereotypical your life is, this may be hitting pretty close to home.

The story unfolds through cinematics where you watch Vincent and Katherine try to reach an understanding on various issues. It feels very real, even if the relationship itself feels flimsy. People really are scared to commit. In most narratives this would be where there would need to be a discussion of gender roles, but dear Vince has to be the nervous manchild here, because of what happens when he goes to sleep.

When Vincent sleeps he is forced to climb towers. These play out as incredibly hard puzzle elements which start unforgiving and somehow get even more brutal as the game goes on. Vincent must climb to escape something he fears — always something Katherine mentioned during the day — and reach the top of the tower to run away rather than facing adulthood, children, marriage, or whatever it may be that night. A good example: one is a horrific, monstrous baby that knows Vincent is the father.

It’s a strange game. Every night ends in the same bar, where Vincent recaps his day with Katherine to his buddies who are also in various states of arrested development. It gets extra complicated when Vincent wakes up with a (younger, blonder) woman also named Catherine, spelled with a C. Everything goes full cliche with the entrance of a younger temptress, but the world of Catherine the game needs these cliches to make choice seem as stark as possible.

It’s important to note that both Catherine and Katherine are full characters, and Vincent’s actions constantly reveal him to be a dipshit. “Competent woman/incompetent man” is a stock relationship in a lot of forms of narrative, but Catherine is interested in more complex interactions. If Vincent’s choices make him act like an asshole to either woman, that woman will respond in a full way. Neither of their lives revolve around Vincent, and even though the story plays out through his eyes, it isn’t a story of two damsels hoping that their prince will pick them.

Every decision made in the game influences a meter that tilts between good and evil. If you’re connected online, the game also tells you what percentage of people around the world made the same choice. This allows for a certain molding of Vincent – he can either accept Katherine and all of the joys that come with adulthood, or he can hide in youth with Catherine and escape for a little longer. The meter is clear which is the “good” choice, and to borrow a line one of the monsters you escape from screams at you: take responsibility.

These choices influence the ending. There are nine options, which mostly follow the traditional Dungeons and Dragons school of morality: neutral good, lawful good, chaotic evil, etc. Can a game with multiple endings still be literature? It’s a fair criticism that there isn’t “one” story since you can end up in a multitude of different situations with Katherine and Catherine. Without giving it away, though the game has nine endings it has but one lesson. There are variations, but the game constantly reminds you that escaping your future is only temporary. Not taking the phone call from Katherine because you think she has bad news only delays it. You have to deal with the people in your life – including yourself. Even if a sadistic otherworldly being won’t throw you in a tower with a bunch of sheep to enact metaphors every night as you fight for your life, the bell will still find a way to toll for thee.

It’s a solid narrative that is shaped by the world it exists in. It feels very Japanese at times, but it generally just feels like a world we’ve all definitely been in before. It also “reads” well because all of the gameplay is separate from the narrative structure in the bar. It’s a nice companion piece to the type of literature that people read when they first realize they aren’t a teenager. Catherine is the story of someone’s 20s. It’s about realizing that interactions with other people matter — to others and to ourselves — and it tells the tale of what happens when that falls by the wayside as well as anything could.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Destructoid