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Angels in America/Midnight Cowboy

New York City has been featured in a number of films, however, it is only in a handful that it can be counted as a character. Both Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy require the microcosm that is New York City in order to fully tell their stories. The films deal with themes of isolation, denial, and finding the strongest of bonds in the strangest of places. At their core these representations of “The Greatest City in the World” seem to undermine just that notion. Midnight Cowboy exposes its protagonist Joe Buck to the harsh winter and the even colder manners of strangers, in the rough streets of New York Buck is left to fend for himself. In a similar fashion, Angels in America revolves around the difficulties of the mid-80’s AIDs epidemic that ravaged the city’s gay community and left many for dead. Upon discovering his illness, the films “prophet,” Prior Walter, is deserted by his lover and filled with feelings of desperation and abandonment. New York City becomes an arena in which these unlikely heroes must continue to soldier on and come to terms with their situations.

Angels in America is an episodic tale that connects a variety of New York residents from very different walks of life. Each of the characters reflect the various dimensions of the political, social, and cultural implications of the AIDs crisis in 1985. Questions of sexuality, religion and devotion come into play as relationships are formed and their lives interweave. It is only in New York that religious and sexual realities could collide in such drastically polarized ways. Louis, the inept ex-lover of Prior Walter, is also a Jew who seems to unerringly question his own religious and political identity whilst trying to balance his own ability to love. He finds himself in bed with Joe Pitt, who is not only a Republican, but also a Mormon. These two traits both shock and attract Louis, who allows the confused Pitt to stay with him for a number weeks while he hides out. Beliefs about homosexuality are challenged and transgressed from a religious standpoint that, for the time period and location, was extremely important. New York’s great diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds were a very real backdrop to these very real events in human history. The politics of homosexuality are also stressed in the film. The ever controversial Roy Cohn is a featured character in Kushner’s script. Cohn, who was mostly known for his 1953 conviction and execution of Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and legacy of staunch conservativism, is an ailing victim of AIDs who is in denial of his own sexuality. Though his homosexuality has never been proved, it has been highly speculated about. In Kushner’s tale Roy Cohn is gay, and has a secret relationship with his subordinate and fellow closeted gay man, Joe Pitt. The well-connected Cohn, played by Al Pacino, is keen to do a favor for Pitt in return for his discretion regarding their covert relationship.

Pacino plays a very quick-witted and outgoing New Yorker in his version of Kushner’s Cohn. He is one vindictive son of a bitch, whose aggravated denial of his own homosexuality makes him a loathsome character. He is matched only by Belize, his smooth talking nurse and also close friend of Prior, played by Jeffrey Wright. Belize and Cohn’s back and forth is incredibly biting and potent. They swap insulting remarks having to do with the opposition between living one’s life in the closet or out in the open for others to see. Their attitudes are distinct to and informed by lives led among the diversity of New York and its inevitable personal clashes of identity and opinion.

The struggle between identity and social capital is very apparent in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) cockiness is only matched by his ignorance and he lands himself in plenty of debt and trouble before long. He finds an unusual companionship in Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who is a disabled street hustler left to fend for himself. Both characters are isolated personalities cut-off from their roots and families. New York exposes these men to an overwhelming level of discomfort and misfortune. Ratso’s sharp and weasely demeanor is very similar to that of Pacino’s Roy Cohn. As a long-time resident of the city he is able to alleviate some of Buck’s shock and inability to survive in a city that has left him hopeless.

Schlesinger, a native Brit, depicts the crime-ridden and wholly unclean New York of the late 1960’s with a brilliant accuracy. It has been said by many critics that it is likely that it took someone not from New York in order to truly and fairly describe it. He does nothing to dress the city up or portray a softer side to its populace. He would rather have his audience grimace at the mere sight of Ratso’s hovel or Joe Buck’s desperate maneuvors for whatever money he can get his hands on. The film debunks the glory Buck initially saw in street hustling. His foray into New York was a painful failure and it left him cold and hungry and willing to do anything for anyone. His cowboy persona helps to portray his ignorance and a level of outsiderness, both of which constantly preclude him from finding the success and wealth he imagined himself to have in the big city. Ratso and Joe seem to bump into all walks of life during their struggles to gain a foothold. There are their fellow street hustlers; the tricks, cowboys, pimps and queens, the wealthy upper class whites of Park Avenue and uptown, the artists and the law. Amongst their gritty and deplorable environs both Ratso and Joe seem to mutually find their first true friend. It takes the harsh reality of New York City in the wintertime for these two to let down their guard and allow one another in. Their vulnerabilities are exposed for a time and they finally find comfort in the least likely of places.

Both films deal with entirely different eras of the rapidly evolving New York. Differences between the late 60’s and mid 80’s somehow seem astronomical. Obviously, the two films inevitably deal with issues of modernity, however, the terms upon which they do this are about as different as can be. There is something to be said for this dissonance that may have something to do with the pace of this city, which is always on the move towards the new and improved. In many ways the downtrodden street hustlers of Midnight Cowboy relate to the AIDs plagued characters of Angel in America in just how they are both left behind by this pace and by the social paradigms beset upon them in their respective time periods. Sooner or later all find salvation within one another and are able to establish terms and motivations for their own survival. The city of New York does not wait up for them, but it does however hold all the keys to their dreams and they must survive its obstacles if they are to experience its rewards.

Bibliography

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993. Print.

Schlesinger, John, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, and James Leo. Herlihy. Midnight Cowboy. [S.l.]: MGM, 2001. Print.

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