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Cult Vault #4: Tom Dicillo on Midnight Cowboy

Tom Dicillo feels inspired by Voigt and Hoffman’s gritty NYC classic

Taken from the July 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused:

Tom DiCillo cut his teeth as a cinematographer on Jim Jarmusch’s first two films, going on to direct a string of critically acclaimed indies – he directed a young Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede, Michael Pitt in Delirious, Sam Rockwell in A Box of Moonlight and Steve Buscemi in Living in Oblivion. For his latest project, the elegiac Doors documentary When You’re Strange, DiCillo asked Johnny Depp to narrate. Here, the director recommends cult classic Midnight Cowboy. 

“Of all the movies I saw when my head was first cracked open to the idea of film as something more than just a Saturday afternoon popcorn fest, the one that stands out the most is Midnight Cowboy. I was 18 and all I knew was that this film presented a human experience that was both intensely real and gorgeously exaggerated. It blows my mind to this day that the film was even made, let alone that it won an Academy Award. And for a film directed by an Englishman it’s one of the most accurately American that I’ve ever seen. 

It’s a deeply human film, yet one that uses humour to more completely portray the pathos. For years, I sided with the great wave of enthusiasts marvelling at Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of homeless hustler Ratso Rizzo. But, after my fourth viewing I realised my greatest admiration was for Jon Voigt and what he brought to Joe Buck. He created a man with a limited view of himself and made those limitations so revealing that they almost make you wince in embarrassment. Almost. One of my favourite scenes is when Joe Buck is standing in front of a mirror talking to himself about his pending move to the Big Apple. He’s wearing a new cowboy outfit he’s bought to prepare himself for his great success as a male prostitute. “You’re Joe Buck!” he exclaims. “Look at you! Every woman in New York City is just gonna fall down on their knees and say ‘Oh God, please love me you big hunk of stuff!’.” He’s wearing a cowboy hat two sizes too small for him, making him look like he’s wearing a little boy’s cowboy outfit. And in fact, mentally and emotionally at that point he is like a 10-year-old kid. The scene is hilarious and heartwrenching. 

One connection to my Doors film When You’re Strange is a scene from Morrison’s own film HWY. In one sequence he comes upon a family in the California desert and dances spontaneously with a small cluster of children. At that moment, he looks no older than the eight-year-old kid he’s dancing with, and I felt him for the first time as a real human being.”