Everybody Was Talking: The Making Of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

The Arts

In 1947 Anaïs Nin arrived at Black Mountain College, Eden Lake, North Carolina – this was years before her notorious diaries – and met the handsome 20 year-old writer James Leo Herlihy. The college was experimental (and sounds rather wonderful). Herlihy would go on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’. He and Nin were instantly fascinated by one another, not sexually but intellectually. Herlihy’s circle of acquaintances expanded to include Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood.

Earlier, at the start of World War II, several flatmates got together to rent a peculiar-looking house in Brooklyn. They included WH Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee. Salvador Dali sometimes called by. The house became a bohemian centre as well as a drop-in for local sailors.

Looking back, one has to ask why any of this was possible. I vaguely recall that Lorca, Dali and BunÅ«el went on a booze-run in Mexico. How did so many creative people find each other? Why were Yves Saint Laurent and Paloma Picasso hanging out in restaurants with Andy Warhol’s talentless needle-sharing entourage? And why, in a modern world where inter-connectivity is valued above everything else, doesn’t that sort of thing happen anymore?

Perhaps it does, but in a more businesslike way. The critic Brooks Atkinson once described the cocktail party as ‘the etiquette of whoring’, so maybe it was more about social networking than the attraction of like minds. Certainly, not all such coteries were welcome. The Bloomsbury set were a pretty threadbare bunch built around the genuine originality of Lytton Strachey, EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, and too many of the Americans in 1920s Paris still come across as deeply annoying arrivistes. Is it simply that celebrity attracts coattail-hangers, and that some of them turn out to be talented?

In modern Britain the dividing line of class ensures that Oxbridge graduates only meet writers and artists from their own background. Freedom of movement in the US ensures that everyone is from somewhere else, which must level the playing field and bring in new blood.

James Herlihy was a sometime actor/playwright who showed up with youth, looks, charm and an interestingly bleak worldview. His novel is superb, but in terms of networking, his youth counted most. John Schlesinger was clearly drawn to the book after making very British films because its Americana fascinated him.

Glenn Frankel’s excellent book ‘Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, sex, loneliness, liberation and the making of a dark classic’ takes a deep dive into the creative process and shows how so many talented artists came to work together on the film version of Herlihy’s book.

What shines through is how everyone, including the author, was dedicated to improving upon the source material. The project, like so many from that period, was a labour of love. Midnight Cowboy’s boundary-pushing subject matter was treated artistically; nobody on the creative side was remotely concerned about whether it would make money. The novel had already flopped, and although the film’s cost doubled it was still cheap to make with unknown talent, thus less of a risk. But risk was a barely considered element. Now it’s everything.

I’m rubbish at networking or even meeting readers (someone gave me a scarf at the signing above and I felt compelled to wear it). I’ve met plenty of British writers who are far better at networking than prose. Knowing they posses very little talent, they hustle at literary festivals and parties, campaign tirelessly to win awards, cosy up to editors and blank writers who aren’t useful to them.

American writers are more appreciated at home than we could ever be; in my experience they’re respected and rewarded, and treated with deference. They’re certainly more diligent and disciplined. I was disappointed never to be offered a US tour, and now that the algorithm is king the days of signing trips are over.

I remember being amazed when fans waited for me in Frankfurt for autographs – I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening in the UK, where it’s considered vulgar to even bother acknowledging that you read. One British lady getting her book signed told me; ‘I’ve been meaning to write something like this, but I’ve been far too busy.’ 

Creative people are treated dismissively in the UK, so it’s no wonder they seek the company of their peers. Few British writers know each other. I can count the authors I’m friendly with on one hand. We don’t get together and come up with new ideas. Instead of hothousing we try to appeal to Netflix, which hoovers up unsold shows and targets viewers who’ll watch anything involving supernatural powers.

The idea of being artistic is still frowned upon in a country that barely managed to produce any decent art or music for centuries after the Reformation. I count myself rich for knowing a number of women and men who have spent their lives challenging the doubters. The generous creative sharing involved in the production of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ shows how the process should work. 

‘Shooting Midnight Cowboy’ is published by FSG Books, price $30. I buy all of the books I review.



26 comments on “Everybody Was Talking: The Making Of ‘Midnight Cowboy’”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    If you define “decent” above I could probably give you examples of post Reformation music and art, although “striking” and “memorable” in the definition might provide difficulties.
    You’re correct about American writers. It is a huge country with millions and millions of people so it doesn’t have to care anything about outsiders unless it chooses to. The American value system is expected in books so those with other systems are considered difficult and rejected. There’s a Ken Burns/Lynn Novack film on Hemingway coming next week and my husband says he has absolutely no interest in watching it. He only read as much of him as he had to for English 100 and hasn’t touched him since. I read him in my twenties but wasn’t terribly impressed. He is almost worshipped in the US. That doesn’t mean the Americans are wrong, just that we two are outside the accepted framework of American lit.
    I seem to be a little dyspeptic today.

  2. Brooke says:

    The grass on the other side (of the pond) always looks greener, But it’s not. Hemingway worshipped and writers treated with deference in the US? Oh, really? Which US would this be…certainly not the one I live in.

  3. Brooke says:

    P.s. Shooting Midnight Cowboy received glowing reviews in WaPo book club.

  4. Andrew Holme says:

    I’ve just finished ‘The Fountains of Silence’ by Ruta Sepetys. My Year 7s are reading it for Carnegie Shadowing. So much better and more nuanced about Franco’s Spain and bull fighting and the social impact of the Civil War than Hemingway’s writings. Highly recommended. The Great White American Novelist! Oh dear, where to start? I’ve just read a review of a huge new Philip Roth biography, and I got that old sinking feeling about these guys. Not for me.To be honest I’ve never really got the fanboy (it’s always male) worship of Ernie, Mailer, Bellow, Updike, Roth etc. Give me Charlotte Bronte any day.
    Having said all that, ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is sublime, and when we’re told the asteroid is going to hit in three hours time, it might be the book I re-read for my last moments on earth!

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke, I think part of my problem is that non-American books often are left outside when the revues come in. How many Australian books make it onto US best seller lists? (Except for New York Times Best Sellers, of course) Sorry, I really must be dyspeptic today.

  6. Peter T says:

    “… you don’t have to be a good copper rise up the ranks; being a good politician counts for more.”

    “Life is NOT fair. Don’t make things harder for yourself by worrying about it. Just do the best you can.”

    “The grass is always …”

    Now for the dividing line of class and Oxbridge graduates and their own background: my background is one of iron and steel workers, one shoemaker and the odd pub owner followed by six years of Oxbridge. None of this has influenced who I meet as much as my Aspie nature.

    So my conclusion is: stuff the politics and cocktail parties and keep your integrity. And KBO.

  7. Brooke says:

    Dear Helen, I’ve found that widening my sources brings in more gold nugget reading. E.g. In Australia I found Richard Flanagan by following the ley lines of the Economist and the International Booker Prize long list. An elderly black woman, I intentionally look for non-European, non-white male voices; fortunately, other voices are no longer as hard to find.

    Sorry about the dyspepsia. As the pandemic continues, we’re all feeling some stomach churn, from mental and physical causes. Take care of yourself.

  8. Jonah says:

    Thank you for bringing “Shooting Midnight Cowboy” to our attention. The film captures the bleak cold apathetic Manhattan of the time, as well as its ugly sleazy side. An unsentimental “dreams deferred” corrective to “If I can make it there” optimism which stresses the “can” and elides the big “if”.
    I lived in NYC in the early 1980s, over a decade later, and Manhattan hadn’t changed much, except Punk culture embracing the grimy sleaziness had arrived. In Times Square next to the family restaurant Howard Johnson’s was a male stripper theater. The movie has its humor although it, too, is bitter: the movie’s sequence in which Joe thinks he’s found a client but afterwards finds out she’s a hooker expecting payment from him. After seeing the movie a famous actress whose name l can’t remember praised the film for its realism, and thought they had even got an actual hooker to play that part, until she was informed it was the actress Sylvia Miles.

  9. Jonah says:

    The same year 1969 of “Midnight Cowboy”, the movie version of the musical “Sweet Charity” was released. Another look at Manhattan including its seamy side. A midtown dance hall is its main setting, with the “Big Spender” number, with its female dancers gyrating, bumping and grinding, soliciting a job from a face-unseen man, its showpiece. The stage musical soft-pedaled the profession of Charity and her co-workers, who were prostitutes in its source Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria”.
    The TV series “Fosse/Version” had director Bob Fosse self-chastising for cleaning up Charity’s Manhattan, turning it into Disneyland. That’s an exaggeration although Charity’s song “I’m a Brass Band” was became an overblown marching band parade more appropriate to “The Music Man”. In the series Gwen Version consoles Fosse by saying he gave the studio what it wanted.
    Three years later without big studio backing and meddling, Fosse succeeded in giving us the divinely decadent “Cabaret”, and two years later the even seedier night club milieu of “Lenny”. Makes me think of what “Sweet Charity” might have been. Surprisingly, last night the actress Cynthia Erivo as a guest judge “RuPaul’s Drag Race” claimed that “Sweet Charity” is one of her favorite movie musicals. Sorry, got way off-topic.

  10. Jo W says:

    That lady who had been far too busy to write a book like yours,I read that with Tony Hancocks voice in my head. “you a doctor then?” “No,I never really bothered.”

  11. admin says:

    Jonah, getting way off topic is what we do here.

  12. Brooke says:

    Off-topic: Black Mountain (North Caroline) was rather wonderful–Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, etc. were there at varying times. Perhaps there are times and places that are just right and ripe for creativity to flourish.

  13. Diane Worth says:

    James Leo Herlihy also wrote All Fall Down, a great book I discovered in the library of my all girls boarding school.

  14. Jonah says:

    Admin, thanks for the OK for going off-topic. At least “Midnight Cowboy” and “Sweet Charity” share a midtown Manhattan setting and release year. In 1969 the MPAA rating system was in its infancy and very inconsistent. “Midnight Cowboy” was rated X (later modified to R), but big-budget Universal Studios’ “Sweet Charity” was rated G for general audiences, although hardly a family film, maybe because the dance hall girls’ sideline activities are not explicitly mentioned.
    When I saw the movie as a 13 year old I didn’t understand why Charity’s fiance made such a fuss and dumped her when finding out she was a dance hall hostess. I must have thought it was something like an Arthur Murray dance instructor.
    Eek, I just noticed Spellcheck “corrected” my mentioning of Gwen Verdon to “Gwen Version”, and the series “Fosse/Verdon” to “Fosse/Version”! Hope this doesn’t happen this time.
    To see Fosse’s original simpler staging of “I’m a Brass Band”, check out a clip from “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Only Verdon and 8 male dancers. Sensational! It wouldn’t have worked in the movie but it’s much better than the screen version.
    About 5 months later, Verdon performed another “Sweet Charity” number “If They Could See Me Now” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (also available on YouTube) but here Verdon looks like she’s been doing the show for over a year (which she had been), and she isn’t “pulling out the stops”. For a fresher performance of the number, see the original London Charity, Juliet Prowse, over a decade later, from a TV special. Simply terrific!

  15. admin says:

    Welcome to the blog, a home for obsessives everywhere.

    My two takeaways from ‘Sweet Charity’ are:
    It’s the only show/film I can think of that has two entirely different tunes for its title track and;
    Harold from Harold & Made is in it – Bud Cort turned up at the end as a hippie.

  16. Roger says:

    There were a few years around 1970 when film studios didn’t know what would make money and were wise enough to recognise it and honest enough to admit it, so they let people make the films they wanted and hoped for the best. That’s how Richard Lester explained why he could make the wonderful, deranged (and unprofitable) The Bed-Sitting Room.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    I’ve just been checking to see what Leslie Halliwell says about “Sweet Charity” You may remember him as the UK film buff equivalent to USA’s Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin, although unlike the last two, he was a film buff who never actually seemed to like films. At least, nothing made after about 1950. Anyway, I quote-“A revue-type musical bowdlerized from Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria accords ill with real New York locations, especially as its threads of plot come to nothing: but behind the camera are sufficient stylists to ensure striking success within individual numbers.” Also in his summery he quotes Rex Reed “The kind of clinker designed to send audiences flying towards the safety of their television sets.” I must admit that until I read the review, I could have sworn it starred Barbra Streisand and not Shirley MacLaine. I get it confused with “Funny Girl” released the same year-1969.

    I may be confusing “Funny Girl” with “Sweat Charity”, but I think it is “Sweet Charity” that the afore mentioned Halliwell points out the goof of the audience being able to see the reflection of the camera crew through a shop window.

    1969 again and “The Bed-Sitting Room”. I have to confess, Roger, that to me this must be one of the worst films I have ever sat through. Though I admit that I have never found nuclear war funny, and even less, anything Spike Milligan has ever had a hand in. I can’t believe that the financiers thought it could ever make money.

    Whilst we’re banging on about 1969 releases, I would like to draw attention to the brilliant but harrowing “They Shot Horses, Don’t They?” about those tawdry dance marathons that went through a phase in 1920s USA. Jane Fonda and Susannah York were superb in it, and Gig Young won that year’s Oscar. Even Halliwell, like it, though with reservations.

    Finally, talking of obsessives, I would like to mention another British film book I have acquired for my collection- “Cheer Up! British Musical Films 1929-1945” by Adrian Wright. It used to be joked that if anyone ever wrote a book about British musical films it would probably be one of the shortest books ever written. Another book about British film musicals- “The British Musical Film” by John Mundy came out a few years ago and I mentioned it on here. At the time Admin showed an interest in the book, so I mention this new one as it is well worth getting. It mentions each film in date order of release -in the way Denis Gifford’s “British Film Catalogue” does. It’s a cracking read!

  18. Roger says:

    “Sweat Charity”
    I hope you’ve copyrighted or trademarked or done whatever people do to own titles, Brian Evans.

  19. Brian Evans says:

    Well done you Roger. As Captain Mainwaring used to say, I wondered who be the first to spot my deliberate mistake. It’s heartening to see how observant you are. Put it this way, they may well have been a bit sweaty due to all the dancing they did.

  20. Paul C says:

    If you enjoy books on old British films try ‘Shepperton Babylon’ by Matthew Sweet – superb. His first book ‘Inventing the Victorians’ is a gem too. He often appears on Radio 4 with shows about peculiar byways of films and books.

  21. Brian Evans says:

    Paul C- Thanks. I do have both these books and read them ages ago. Since you have mentioned them it has reminded me to re-read them. As you say, superb. I watched his documentary about British Quota Quickies and B pictures on Youtube the other day. I think it was made about 10 years ago. It is excellent.

  22. Paul C says:

    Cheers, Brian – I’ll track down that documentary. Sweet’s last two books (on posh hotels in WW2 and US exiles in Scandinavia) were very disappointing. I hope he returns to top form with his next volume.

  23. Peter Dixon says:

    Midnight Cowboy – excellent theme tune and soundtrack. They just don’t write ’em like that anymore.

  24. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for the tip, Peter. I looked up the 2 books you mentioned on Amazon, but think I’ll give them a miss.

    He is a man I really like watching and listening to. He has a very pleasing style and delivery.

  25. Jonah says:

    Not quite the same thing as the title song of “Sweet Charity” having the identical lyric and two different tunes for stage and film, but Stephen Sondheim wrote almost two totally different songs called “The Glamorous Life” for the stage and screen “A Little Night Music”. Both versions open with the introductory verse sung by the actress Desiree’s young daughter, but the stage song continues with an epistolary section sung by Desiree and then into a refrain performed by the ubiquitous quintet/Greek chorus contrasting the supposedly glamorous life of the theater with its reality. The movie cut the musical’s commenting quintet, and the rewritten “Glamorous Life” is now a solo for the daughter, romanticizing her mother’s career and her difference from stay-at-home “ordinary mothers”, but yearning for her ever-touring mother’s return.

  26. admin says:

    I feel a Musicals Sidebar coming on…
    I saw ‘Road Show’ here in London and got very confused by its surviving songs from ‘Bounce’. Like ‘Parade’ it jettisoned some of its finest parts in the reworking. Writers sometimes need their work taken away from them. I guess the problem with ‘Road Show’ is that the Mizners are not likeable people.

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