Episode 410: “Midnight Cowboy,” Tom Scharpling, Jim Jarmusch, and Dating App Dread

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Jon Voight as Joe Buck in "Midnight Cowboy"
Courtesy of Michael Childers

Author Glenn Frankel on the groundbreaking movie, “Midnight Cowboy.” Also, author and filmmaker Nancy Jo Sales reveals the darker side of dating apps. Plus comedian Tom Scharpling on his touching memoir and a look at the indie film maestro Jim Jarmusch.

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  • How 'Midnight Cowboy', The Only X-Rated Movie To Win A Best Picture Oscar, Changed Cinema

    Glenn Frankel has carved out a unique niche for himself with his film biographies. He’s the author of meticulously-researched books that explore the creation of two legendary Westerns, “High Noon” and “The Searchers.” Frankel’s latest book is called “Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic.”

    “Midnight Cowboy” was a daring and different kind of film.

    Based on James Herlihy’s novel of the same name, the movie focuses on Joe Buck (Jon Voight) who moves from Texas to New York City to seek his fortune as a male prostitute. Buck meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a con man with a disability. The film’s director John Schlesinger wasn’t afraid to push boundaries by exploring such subjects as homosexuality, prostitution and sexual assault.

    “‘Midnight Cowboy’ was filmed in 1968. It came out in 1969,” Frankel told WPR’s “BETA.” “That’s an era rich in conflict, anxiety, cultural change. And it just obviously it was going to be rich, complicated terrain.”

    Hollywood studios became interested in Schlesinger after his 1965 British drama romance movie, “Darling,” was a big success. Julie Christie won the Academy Award for best actress and the film was nominated for best picture and best director.

    “He’s interested in coming to the States,” Frankel explained. “He was looking for a movie, though, looking for a story about New York and a story about outsiders coming to New York as he is coming to New York as an outsider. So he gloms on to ‘Midnight Cowboy.’”

    Many people at the studios had read Herlihy’s novel and rejected it. Schlesinger joined forces with Jerry Hellman, an independent New York producer. Hellman didn’t love the novel either but he really wanted to work with Schlesinger.

    “And so the two of them get together and set out to find a studio and they end up with United Artists, a very small but unconventional studio from that era,” Frankel said. “And for a very minimal budget, United Artists is willing to do this film. So John gets to make the film he wants to make, but he’s got very little money and he’s got to rely on people he hardly knows to get this thing organized and started.”

    Schlesinger originally didn’t want either Jon Voight or Dustin Hoffman for the lead roles of Joe Buck or Ratso Rizzo.

    “Yeah, it’s ironic, isn’t it? Because they’re so wonderful in the movie and he (Schlesinger) comes to understand that,” Frankel said.

    One of Schlesinger’s concerns about Hoffman was that he’d become an overnight movie star after the release of Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” in 1967.

    “And Schlesinger doesn’t want a big movie star messing with his little movie,” Frankel explained. “Hoffman convinces him though by basically dressing in a dirty raincoat, learning how to do the limp, meeting Schlesinger at midnight in the automat in Times Square and then dragging him around Times Square for several hours and wearing down his resistance.”

    Spending time with Hoffman convinced Schlesinger that he was at true character actor. Jon Voight had never been in a major movie and Schlesinger couldn’t visualize the blond Voight playing Buck because in the novel, he is dark-haired. Schlesinger considered the French-Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin. They decided to go ahead with him but Sarrazin had already signed with another film company which wanted a lot of money to loan him out to United Artists.

    It was the casting director Marion Dougherty who convinced Schlesinger that Voight was right for the part of Joe Buck.

    “She believes Voight has the right sense of vulnerability and a little bit of violence in his soul that he can play Joe Buck with all his weaknesses and his strengths,” Frankel said. “And she pushes hard for him later on. John Schlesinger admits in many interviews that he’s so lucky to get these two guys. They’re both New York trained actors. They work together beautifully and he wasn’t responsible for casting Jon Voight. It was Marion Dougherty.”

    One of the most famous scenes in “Midnight Cowboy” was filmed at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 57th Street in New York City.

    Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo are walking through the middle of the crosswalk when suddenly a taxi cab almost mows them down in an effort to beat the light.

    “And so he (Hoffman) slams his hand on the taxicab, says ‘I’m walkin’ here! I’m walking here!’ It’s a classic New York moment where he asserts himself,” Frankel explained.

    It was an improvised moment with a real taxi cab and a real driver. Or was it?

    “It’s probably the most famous line in the movie because it so epitomizes this New York attitude of pride and anger,” Frankel said. “Well, the problem is that six months before, in a draft script from December 1967, the taxi cab is coming through the crosswalk and Ratso is slamming his hand on the hood of the car.”

    But as Frankel writes in his book: “Hoffman improvised the words that give the scene the indelible punch line and provide a key to Ratso’s character.”

    The Motion Picture Association of America originally gave “Midnight Cowboy” an R rating. This meant that children under the age of 16 (changed to 17 in 1970) could not be admitted unless they were accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

    “I interviewed someone who was on the ratings board at the time,” Frankel said. “The movie depicts both gay and straight sex and the sex scenes, though there’s no nudity, there’s no romantic sex. These are transactional moments between a male hustler and his potential clients, and it made people uncomfortable.”

    This was at a time when homophobia was quite common and depictions of gay people in films portrayed them as being troubled and suicidal.

    “And so the head of United Artists, a guy named Arthur Krim, was uncomfortable with this,” Frankel said.

    Krim showed the film to an eminent psychiatrist who suggested that young people should not be exposed to gay sex scenes because they might be influenced to become gay themselves.

    They thought of homosexuality in that era as sort of like COVID-19, an infectious disease,” Frankel explained. “And so under the advice of this eminent psychic psychiatrist, Arthur himself rated the movie. He didn’t tell anybody that the movie was rated X.”

    “But when the movie gets nominated for seven Academy Awards, which surprised everyone and gets wonderful reviews and even starts doing well at the box office, which no one had expected, United Artists has a change of heart. And after it wins best picture, the only X-rated movie ever to be nominated, ever to win the best picture Oscar, United Artists comes back to the ratings board and asked to get an R in. The ratings board doesn’t even think twice about it, they give the movie an R.”

    Frankel says that “Midnight Cowboy” paved the way for “a decade of grittier New York movies, movies like ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Taxi Driver.’ It’s very influential on those kinds of films. And ‘Taxi Driver’ is really the ultimate dark New York film. And ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is the first.”

    “And its success opens the door not only to moviemakers like Martin Scorsese, but also to movie stars following in Dustin Hoffman’s footsteps. You get Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfuss, guys who never would have been movie stars in the 50s and 60s. They do not look like Cary Grant or Tab Hunter. But I think in a bigger sense, the barrier breaking about sexuality, about what a movie can be about, is where ‘Midnight Cowboy’ really breaks the ground. It is the first of its kind.”

  • Swiped Out: The Darker Side Of Dating Apps

    Journalist Nancy Jo Sales has long been the foremost authority on how the advent of online life has impacted our dating one.

    In addition to her New York Times bestselling book, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” Sales directed the 2018 companion documentary film for HBO, “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.”

    The film was a fascinating exploration of how the accessibility and prominence of dating apps is rewiring our cultural approach to sex and dating. It also critiqued the more nefarious motives behind a lot of these apps in how they turn a search for love into a profitable addiction.

    “It’s designed to be addictive almost immediately when you start using the app. And I did an interview with Jonathan Badeen, who’s one of the co-founders of Tinder, and he spoke very openly and almost proudly about the fact that it was very addictive and that they designed it to be addictive,” Sales told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Sales herself knows firsthand.

    Her latest book on the subject turns inward and reflects on her own journey through the emotional gauntlet of dating apps. It’s called, “Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno.”

    “I did get addicted,” Sales admitted. “But, that’s really no different from anyone who uses the app. And that’s kind of the point I was trying to make. You might not even notice that you are or realize that you are, but what do you call it when you are swiping on an app for hours a day or at least hours a week? I mean, one survey said that people ages 18 to 35 swipe on dating apps up to 10 hours a week.”

    In most cases, the only relationship a user ends up finding is the one with the app itself. Sales says that’s the business model.

    “The actual business model is to get you to engage perpetually and as often as possible with the app itself,” she said. “Use and usage is what drives these companies and in all of social media, actually. The numbers! They need to get more and more and more and more numbers, which leaves less time for actually meeting people, talking to people, engaging with people in person.”

    The addictive properties of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge is just the beginning. There’s also something more sinister at play.

    “I think one of the biggest concerns is that it’s a bad faith proposition in terms of the companies,” Sales said. “What they’re marketing to people is different from what the apps are doing to people who use them. And they know this. I mean, they’re the ones who designed them.”

    Sales says these companies horde loads of data from internal surveys and app usage reports. Additionally, there’s outside information compiled by the like of Pew Research. She says it highlights the dichotomy of the promise versus the reality of these apps.

    “We know that the majority of women on dating apps will see an unsolicited nude image, and that’s something that women have already been conditioned to be accepting of as part of dating. But it’s outrageous and it’s actually a crime in many places,” Sales said. “There’s a huge problem with dating apps and sexual assault that is so under discussed.

    Furthermore, these apps and their algorithms strongly tend to reinforce racial and other biases.

    “The algorithms are your matchmaker. What the algorithms do is if you swipe on certain people, they show you more people like that. They tend to reinforce racism, racial preferences in dating,” Sales said.

    Additionally, there’s very little monitoring of user profiles that can contain racist, ableist and shaming content that potential match users can’t block.

    “A person of color can go on a dating app and see in the profile of someone who might come up in their feed, something racist. People also are ableist on these apps and they are fat shaming. So that’s the non-algorithmic way that this goes down,” Sales said.

    “The biggest problem is that it’s not safe and yet it’s become somehow something people agree to put up with; and I don’t think we should agree to put up with it, because there’s so much that the dating apps can do to change that,” argued Sales.

    Sales isn’t overly optimistic that these apps will evolve out of altruism. She does point out that there was a congressional investigation into the age checking on these apps, which they don’t have. Sales feels political influence will likely be the only motivator for real, substantive change in these companies.

    “I don’t think they’re going to change until there’s real pressure on them to change. I really think that politicians have to get involved,” she said. “There needs to be a serious investigation of this industry. And politicians need to act to protect users because the dating apps will not do it.”

  • Comedian Tom Scharpling On Being Funny And Battling Mental Illness

    Tom Scharpling has hosted the popular radio show “The Best Show with Tom Scharpling” for 18 years. His fans include John Oliver, Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt.

    He also served as executive producer and writer for the comedy/drama TV series, “Monk,” starring Green Bay’s own Tony Shalhoub as a detective diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and various phobias.

    But despite his uncanny ability to make people laugh, Scharpling has dealt with mental illness for most of his life.

    He opens up about his battles with depression, guilt and shame in a candid memoir called “It Never Ends: A Memoir with Nice Memories!” Scharpling is able to find the good in his life and encourages his readers to do the same.

    One of his book’s many revelations is that his name isn’t really Tom Scharpling. It’s Tom Giuliano. So why did he change his last name?

    “It was just kind of a mishmash of some people I liked,” Scharpling told WPR’s “BETA.” “Garry Shandling, Al Sharpton, Mel Sharples from ‘Alice.’ There was just a little bit of everything thrown in there, most of them all together and came up with Scharpling.”

    Scharpling said this name change gave him an avenue for self-expression.

    “It just gave me a chance to be me,” he said. “If anything, I’d like to be the actual person, not still live in the past with some inherited baggage. It really was a way to just move forward.”

    Scharpling found the courage to write about some cringeworthy experiences he’s had in his life. A perfect example is his elevator encounter with singer/songwriter Patti Smith.

    In 2015, he and his comedy partner Jon Wurster were in San Francisco for the annual comedy festival SF Sketchfest. They kept spotting Smith in the lobby. After a few days, Scharpling realized that she was staying in the same hotel. By the fourth sighting, he knew that he had to say something to her, so he followed her into the elevator.

    “I said, ‘Hey, how are your shows going over at the Fillmore?’” he recalled. “And she’s like, ‘Oh, they’re good.’”

    Scharpling tried to come up with an interesting question to ask.

    “And so I asked her if she ever saw Humble Pie back in the day. That’s how I phrased it, which is not exactly how I talk. I don’t know why I said it that way. But I did. And she immediately was not into it. And yeah, I totally ate it in that moment and it was pretty bleak. And I think she got off at a floor that wasn’t her floor. Perhaps just to get away from the guy talking about Humble Pie. Yeah, it was one of the many dumb things that’s happened to me.”

    He confessed in his memoir that he actually said no when he was originally asked to write this kind of book because he was afraid.

    “Your past can be very difficult to wrestle with,” Scharpling said. “I was definitely feeling that. And so much of it was just fear of the past — a lot of shame, a lot of guilt just inherited from stuff. It wasn’t like I did anything wrong. That’s what mental illness can do to you.”

    In his late teens, Scharpling underwent electroconvulsive therapy. He said that it helped him; however, it also erased large portions of his memories.

    Scharpling is probably best know for his very popular radio show, “The Best Show with Tom Scharpling” — “three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem.” Listeners have the opportunity to answer such questions as, “What’s the worst moment you’ve heard a cell phone go off?” and “Do you have an idea for a movie or TV sequel or reboot?”

    “It’s a weekly call-in comedy show, and it’s just the most satisfying thing I’ve been a part of creatively,” he said. “It’s a fun space to work within, to just be able to fill it up however I want. I get to do stuff with Jon Wurster every week and take calls and just go wherever it goes. It’s very, very liberating to have a creative platform that can just take on whatever shape I want it to take on.”

    In the final chapter of “It Never Ends,” Scharpling writes: “This is not a book about writing a book, but rather a book about the hurdles I needed to overcome to realize who I actually am.”

    Does this mean that writing this memoir has changed how Scharpling thinks of himself?

    “I don’t know if it’s changed me, but it’s definitely given me some perspective on myself. It’s hard to say. It’s like I wrote the book, and then one minute after I wrote that sentence, I was back into the real world again. And it’s not always easy to be so incredibly self-reflective about things in the moment.”

    “So it was a special thing to have an opportunity to take a step back and look at the whole of my life and get to see the patterns and the things that I did over and over, the things I tried to stop doing. I’m sure that’ll just change me going forward, having that perspective on things. But It’s like I’m in a car going 100 miles an hour and I’m also reflecting on being in a car going one hundred miles an hour, trying not to crash the car. But I’m observing that I’m in the car.”

    Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Hopeline” to 741741.

  • Jim Jarmusch: The 'Godfather' Of Indie Filmmakers

    Many people believe the modern indie movie movement began with Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 Cannes Film Festival darling, “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” However, according to author Ian Haydn Smith, you have to jump back a few years to director Jim Jarmusch’s second film, “Stranger Than Paradise.”

    “The characters in ‘Stranger Than Paradise,’ these sort of loners who get together for a road trip. It’s not going to end particularly well. Each of them are idiosyncratic characters, but they are singular characters. They’re not clichés in any way whatsoever. And they’re not quirky characters. They are fully rounded human beings, but they’re just like all of us.”

    Haydn Smith is the author of “Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know.” He tells WPR’s “BETA” that Jarmusch’s ability to scratch beneath the surface of his characters is what helps make them so memorable on screen.

    “Actually, we’re all a little bit strange at heart. And I think that’s what Jarmusch mines,” said Haydn Smith.

    Jarmusch moved to New York City from Ohio as a teen and attended arts school. He began making movies in the early 1980s. Known by his live wire hair and rock star image, Haydn Smith says that Jarmusch’s films embody his own iconoclastic nature.

    The thing about Jim Jarmusch: he’s incredibly cool. Both in person when he’s talking about his career or his life or the people he loves, the music, the musicians, the novelists, the filmmakers. But also in his films. They just give off this wonderful coolness. The characters are very nonchalant,” Haydn Smith said. “What’s interesting about Jarmusch is that his films and his own persona have created this aura of someone who exists just outside the mainstream.”

    This blurring of musician and filmmaker would be somewhat of a through line in Jarmusch’s work and life. After learning the royalty payments for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” that he used in “Strangers in Paradise” didn’t get to the artist, Jarmusch tracked Hawkins down and paid him out of his own profits. The two ended up forging a lifelong friendship.

    Furthermore, Jarmusch was tapped to direct music videos for Tom Waits and the Talking Heads, the former later appearing in Jarmusch’s “Down by Law” alongside The Lounge Lizard’s, John Lurie.

    This marriage of music and film was perhaps most notably captured in Jarmusch’s seminal film, “Dead Man,” starring Johnny Depp and a one-of-a-kind improvised score from Neil Young. Haydn Smith said he believes this is Jarmusch’s finest work and one that displays his ability to constantly subvert expectations.

    “It really is an astonishing, formerly brilliant piece of filmmaking with a stunning score by Neil Young,” said Haydn Smith. “Rather than being this rural Western, it’s a Western set in industrial times. I mean, Jarmusch plays brilliantly with that film and the Western genre.”

    Haydn Smith argues that Jarmusch inverted the typical arc of a film director. Whereas most begin with a genre film to find their voice and footing and then gravitate toward character studies, Jarmusch began with character-driven films and moved into playing with different genres later in his career.

    “First of all, you get an alternate Western, a black and white Western ‘Dead Man.’ Then you go on to a samurai film, ‘Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai’ with Forest Whitaker taking on New York’s Italian mafia. Then jump forward a few years, you’ve got a vampire film with ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, who, let’s face it, is the perfect vampire,” said Haydn Smith. “And then jump forward a couple more years, and you’ve got the ‘Dead Don’t Die,’ which is a zombie movie.”

    “So, a lot of people started off making these genre films, but Jarmusch decided to, along the way, start picking up his various genres that he would play with. And each time he plays with them brilliantly,” Haydn Smith continued.

    Haydn Smith states that even though Jarmusch is creating these genre films, he still populates them with wonderful characters and does return to his offbeat character studies like 2016’s “Paterson,” starring Adam Driver as a poetic bus driver.

    “He’s probably the godfather of the modern indie movie,” said Haydn Smith. “There aren’t films that are Jarmusch-esque because I think he’s so singular that I think anyone who’s tried to copy him just never gets it right.”

    Haydn Smith will continue to join “BETA’s” Doug Gordon for more installments of the show’s “Cult Filmmakers.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Glenn Frankel Guest
  • Nancy Jo Sales Guest
  • Tom Scharpling Guest

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