Midnight Cowboy | 1969
It’s no surprise to discover that most of the run-down locations for John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winning 1969 drama have been either demolished or renovated.
The film is set largely in a scuzzy, pre-clean-up New York but opens in the West Texas town of Big Spring, where Joe Buck (Jon Voight) dreams of transforming himself into a cowboy stud to escape his dreary life as a dishwasher.
Big Spring was one of the railroad towns which sprang up as the Texas and Pacific Railroad pushed west in the 1880s. Standing on I-20 between Midland and Abilene at the junction with Highway 87, its main landmark today is the 13-story Hotel Settles, built in 1930 following the boom of the Twenties. Since then, the town has been hit by the Great Depression and the gradual decline of the railways.
Most of the film locations were to the north near the rail line but the town’s heart seems to have drifted south, now lining Highway 87, so there’s little left to see of Joe Buck’s Big Spring.
The ‘Big Tex’ drive-in of the opening shot, originally the Sahara Drive-in Theater, stood at 5714 I-20 Frontage Road, west of town but there’s no trace of it today.
Likewise, the Big Spring Hotel, out of which Joe strides with his cowhide suitcase to a better future. This used to stand at the southeast corner of East 3rd Street and Donley Street, now a vacant lot. In the film, you can glimpse the tower of the Hotel Settles in the distance along 3rd Street.
Joe is off to hand in his notice at Miller’s Restaurant, which stood about four blocks west on the southwest corner of 3rd Street at Austin Street. Though it is now an empty plot, you can for the moment make out the building alongside, which then housed a Pontiac dealership.
The Rio cinema which, judging by the jumble of letters left on the marquee, closed after a final showing of John Wayne’s The Alamo, stood at 309 Northwest 4th Street. It had served Big Spring since 1947, but now that entire block has gone.
Joe crosses the road in front of the old freight station which once dominated the northern end of South Main Street. It’s gone but, even though the names have changed, you’ll still recognise the stores which led up to it on either side of the street.
And finally, it’s on East 3rd Street in front of the coffee shop of Hotel Settles itself that Joe boards the bus to take him to a new life in the big city.
Before we leave Texas, there are a couple more spots.
At the time of filming, it was decrepit and apparently overrun with rattlers but has since been restored as a historic monument.
Behind Joe’s Grandma’s (Ruth White) house, you can glimpse Stanton’s old courthouse which, yes, has been demolished.
East of the town, the nightmare baptism flashback seen later in the movie was filmed near Moss Creek Lake, an artificial reservoir built in 1938.
Arriving in New York, Buck stays at the now-gone 16-story Hotel Claridge, which stood at 160 West 44th Street on Broadway, overlooking the grubby old lo-tech Times Square.
Opened in 1911, the Claridge was demolished in 1972 with the extensive redevelopment of the Square, making way for the glossy 33-story tower that houses the Times Square Studios.
Gone, too, is the department store Joe walks past as he explores the crowded, unwelcoming metropolis. It was Best & Co, which stood on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets, and hung on just long enough to be seen in The Godfather before being demolished.
Still there, though, is Tiffany & Co, 727 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, outside which Joe Buck is disturbed by the sight of an inert body, ignored as it lies face down on the sidewalk. New York seemed so much pleasanter in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which seems to belong to a much more innocent age. Look out for that film’s Tiffany salesman in a very different role later.
Lost in the crowds, Joe eventually makes his way to the classy East Side in search of the wealthy, bored ladies he dreams of. It’s while crossing Park Avenue at East 68th Street, with that view down to the MetLife Building, that he awkwardly asks for directions to the Statue of Liberty from the smart woman he sees as a potential ‘client’ for his studly services
Joe’s sunny optimism begins to crumble as his first approach to a smart uptown lady evaporates in fantasy outside her townhouse, which is a little to the north at 117 East 70th Street at Park Avenue.
Two blocks north, things just get worse at the “real damn penthouse” of gorgeous chick Cass (the wonderfully scene stealing Sylvia Miles), 114 East 72nd Street, two blocks further north. The daytime quickie ends in tears when Joe clumsily asks Cass for money.
Cass’s apartment, like many of the film’s interiors, was built at the (now gone) Filmways Studios, 246 East 127th Street in East Harlem.
The bar with zodiac signs above the bar, where Joe gets chatting to the apparently friendly Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) was real enough. It was Club 45, a bit of a dive bar enlivened with topless dancers, which stood at 150 West 45th Street across from the Lyceum Theatre. Again it’s long gone, and the property currently seems to be vacant.
Rico helpfully suggests that Joe could benefit from the services of a Mr O’Daniel, who he claims runs New York’s biggest stable of studs.
As they leave the bar, with Rico offering to facilitate an introduction, there comes one of the movie’s most famous moments – referenced in films as diverse as Forrest Gump and Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and Forrest Gump – as Rico confronts an intrusive cab driver with “I’m walkin’ here...” as he the pair cross 58th Street at Sixth Avenue.
On the DVD commentary, director John Schlesinger punctures the popular myth of Hoffman improvising the line off the cuff by revealing that the episode was planned in advance with that yellow cab arriving right in cue.
Joe and Rico continue north towards Central Park, past the (now gone) terrace cafe of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where Rico greets ‘Brucie’ – supposedly one of Mr O’Daniel’s army of successful gigolos, and they turn right onto Central Park South.
It’s on Grand Army Plaza, alongside the famous Plaza Hotel at 59th Street, where Rico distractedly looks for unused coins in the phonebooths as he agrees to set up an appointment. The Plaza is a New York screen regular, featuring more substantially in North By Northwest, Crocodile Dundee, Barefoot In The Park, Network, Sleepless In Seattle, 1974's The Great Gatsby, The Way We Were, Home Alone II, The Cotton Club, Funny Girl, King of New York and Plaza Suite, naturally.
Mr O’Daniel (John McGiver – recognise him as the jewellery store assistant from Breakfast At Tiffany’s?), with that delightful illuminated shrine in his bathroom, stays at what was the Hotel Hargrave, 106-112 West 72nd Street at Columbus Avenue on the West Side – just along from the Dakota Building.
The once-luxurious hotel was built in 1902 in the fashionably elaborate French style, with striking green copper bay windows. Sadly, tastes change and with the arrival of jazzy art deco, the hotel began to look hopelessly dated and its fortunes waned. The stars and the celebs moved on although, in 1951, an unknown young hopeful called James Dean stayed here with his then girlfriend.
It’s now, naturally, been converted into condominiums.
The bizarre encounter with O’Daniel reveals that Rico wasn’t quite the kindly benefactor he appeared and Joe finds himself wandering along the then-notorious 42nd Street, with its strip joints and porno cinemas, where he sees the cowboy hustlers appealing to a solely male clientele.
He passes one of the city’s irreplaceable old oddities, Hubert’s Museum, a “freak show” which stood at 234 West 42nd Street alongside the Amsterdam Theatre. Since 1925 Hubert’s had been displaying bearded ladies, tattooed men, the human caterpillar (hopefully not a centipede) and a for-real flea circus, though by 1969, the establishment had just closed. The building itself was demolished in the 90s.
Thrown out of the Claridge for not paying his bills, Joe passes the night with nothing more than a coffee and a packet of crackers in the Gold Cup, another long-gone hangout on 42nd Street. It’s here he sees the crazy side of the city’s nightlife, the distracted woman with a toy mouse, and ends up with ketchup all over his pants.
Running out of options, Joe resigns himself to working 42nd Street, but proves no better at making money from men than he was from women.
About to hit rock bottom, he spots Rico again, at Twin Donuts, 2120 Broadway at West 74th Street up on the West Side. The old diner is gone, replaced by a smart wine and spirits store.
Resisting the urge to strangle the devious Rico, Joe comes to an uneasy truce with the only face he knows in the city.
As Joe and Rico round the corner from the cafe onto 74th Street you can see what was the Hotel Kimberly, and another little showbiz footnote. In 1931, a young Lucille Ball stayed here. It’s now called The Fitzgerald, 201 West 74th Street, but is – all together! – condominiums.
Homeless, Joe Buck has no option but to form an unlikely partnership and finds himself a houseguest with the streetwise Rico in a vacant tenement block scheduled for demolition.
This was 64-66 Suffolk Street just south of Delancey Street down on the Lower East Side. The film used the building’s stairwell and corridors but Rico’s room was meticulously recreated in the studio. The block was indeed demolished but nothing has replaced it in the intervening years. This section of Suffolk Street remains no more than a stretch of cobbles dividing two vacant lots.
The ever-resourceful Rico homes in on ‘The Perfect Gentleman Escort Service’, an upscale operation operating out of 22 East 66th Street, near Central Park on the swanky East Side. Sadly, that rather nice bay window has been replaced.
Rico contrives to lift the address of the destination from an unwitting escort as he leaves for his next appointment, and Joe is sent in his place.
Arriving at their destination, Joe and Rico seem to have hit the jackpot – the ‘Berkeley Hotel for Women’, which is apparently teeming with eager clients. Predictably, things don’t turn out quite so well.
The hotel was actually called the Gotham Hotel. It was gutted and refurbished in the Eighties but the ostentatious pillared entrance is still recognisable, now the Peninsula New York, 700 Fifth Avenue at 55th Street.
Rico’s wild but short-lived fantasy of luxury in the sun was filmed at the Diplomat, 3555 South Ocean Drive in Hollywood – that’s the Hollywood in Florida, about 20 miles north of Miami. The Westin Diplomat Resort is still in business on the site, but it’s no longer the hotel seen in the movie. That was demolished in 1998.
There’s no trace of the pawn shop – opposite the enticing sounding ‘Shalom Beauty Salon’ – where Joe Buck finally hands over his treasured radio. Standing at 605 Amsterdam Avenue at West 89th Street, this was a real pawn shop and the xylophone on which Rico idly plays simply happened to be there. That one was a bit of improvisation
As a kind of resentful affection grows between the two outcasts, Joe glumly accompanies Rizzo to pay respects at his father’s grave in the First Calvary Cemetery, Greenpoint Avenue in Queens. You can see that it was then overlooked by the old Kosciuszko Bridge, carrying the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway across Newton Creek. It’s since been replaced by a sleeker cable bridge, but you can see the old girder bridge onscreen again when Don Corleone is laid to rest here in The Godfather.
Events take an unpredictable turn as Joe gets an invite from a couple of weird avant-garde filmmakers to a ’Witches’ Sabbath’ party at “Broadway and Harmony Lane” (yes, if you’re wondering, that’s a fictitious address).
The crazy Warholian party, where Joe hooks up with the adventurous Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) was obviously filmed in the studio (New York lofts on screen are always so vast), but the exterior is 112 Mercer Street, near Spring Street, in SoHo.
Shirley’s place is also a studio set, its design based on an apartment in the Dakota Building.
But just as Joe’s fortunes seem to be turning, Rizzo’s health deteriorates dramatically and Joe is driven to desperate measures for money.
He picks up guilt-ridden, out-of-town businessman Towny (Barnard Hughes) in an amusement arcade and they walk back to Towny’s hotel past the old Colony Record Store which, in those days, stood at 223 West 52nd Street at Broadway. In 1970, the store moved to the famous Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, but inevitably that too has since closed.
A disturbing act of violence finally sees Joe get enough money to get them to Florida.
Their bus journey to the sunny south briefly stops at Hollywood, Florida, where Joe buys new outfits and dumps their old clothes into a bin in front of the old Grand Southern Hotel, 1800 Hollywood Boulevard at 19th Avenue on the west side of Young Circle Park. Yet another grand old hotel fallen on hard times, it’s closed, but the historic frontage has been preserved, even if in a rather shabby state.
The bus finally crosses from Miami, via I-195 and the Julia Tuttle Causeway, to Miami Beach, where the ailing Rico finally expires.
The final poignant shot sees the palm trees and the art-deco hotels of Miami Beach's Collins Avenue reflected in the bus window as they travel north on Collins, from what is now the Mimosa Condominiums, 4747 Collins Avenue, to the Miami Beach Resort & Spa, 4833 Collins Avenue – the intervening hotels having since been rebuilt.
Nowadays, that shot would probably have been achieved digitally, but those are real reflections captured by a camera mounted on a platform attached to the side of the bus.
• Many thanks to Dave Talbert for help and corrections for this section.