Hollywood Flashback: ‘Midnight Cowboy’ Rode to Success Despite Its X Rating

Hollywood Flashback: ‘Midnight Cowboy’ Rode to Success Despite Its X Rating

Ira Sachs’ Passages (released Aug. 4) — a love triangle involving a gay couple (Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski) and a woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos) — drew a rare NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association. “The censorship of queer images exists from top to bottom,” Sachs said in protest, while the MPA countered that “sexual orientation … is not considered” in their deliberations.

Back in 1969, another film with gay themes drew the board’s most restrictive rating, then known as “X.” It was John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, an adaptation of the 1965 James Leo Herlihy novel about a handsome young Texan (Jon Voight) who hops a bus to New York City to try to make it as a gigolo. There, he meets a street grifter with a limp (Dustin Hoffman), who takes him under his wing.

Produced by United Artists — which, after the success of 1967’s The Graduate (also starring Hoffman), was looking to take artistic risks — the film was initially rated R by the board.

“However, the folks at United Artists were nervous about this movie — especially the gay sex,” says Glenn Frankel, author of Shooting Midnight Cowboy. “United Artists head Arthur Krim consulted with a psychiatrist and he rated it ‘X’ himself.” The rating fueled curiosity and Midnight Cowboy went on to gross $45 million ($374 million today) on a $3 million budget. It also won best picture at the 1970 Oscars — the only X-rated film to date to do so — and in 1971 was re-rated R.