Every now and again, a film will come along that unwittingly encapsulates the zeitgeist of an era. With that in mind, it can certainly be said that very few works of art capture the sixties hedonistic slide into the seventies as well as Midnight Cowboy. There is one tale from the film’s backstory, however, that seems to crystalise the era in an almost mystically befitting sense.
Amid the movies boldly renegade artistic journey is a party scene, that does so well what so many other party scenes dismally fail at, it actually seems realistic. Whereby most depictions try to portray “fun”, in reality, “fun” is one of the last adjectives to come to mind when you consider most of the house parties you’ve ever been to. And I don’t mean that in a humbug sense either, but very rarely does a party simply look like an Earth, Wind & Fire video, whereby upon entry you are handed a frilly umbrellaed cocktail and begin lightly shaking your hips while cheerfully chatting with a stranger.
Midnight Cowboy’s loft party scene has since become iconic for just that reason – despite’s the aggrandised surrealism it is somehow a transportive depiction of how a kaleidoscopic drug-fuelled get-together of the sixties may have looked. Thus, it is no surprise that Andy Warhol had hand in it – in an almost mythical sense, of course. He was the artistic numen of Greenwich Village in that area, so it is only natural that he spiritually presided over the scene even if he, himself, was recovering in hospital following an assassination attempt – which just so happened to be another regrettable mainstay during the highly unsettled era.
While the film for the most part remains faithful to the James Leo Herlihy novel on which it is based while also flourishing the narrative with a seasoned vaunt of arthouse touches, the writer didn’t give them much to go on for the party segment. The book simply said ‘a party in Greenwich Village’, production assistant, Michael Childers had other ideas, embellishing the scene with a cacophony of New York’s decadent quintessence.
“That was partly my idea,” Childers remarked in a GQ interview. “I was friends with Paul Morrissey, who did all the Warhol movies and so was obviously close with Andy, and we’d hang out at Max’s Kansas City with him and Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground crew, Debbie Harry, New York Dolls and all those crazy people. I brought John there for a couple of dinners with Paul, and one with Andy, and he was fascinated.”
“I said, ‘Look! In the book, it just says, ‘A party in Sue’s in Greenwich Village.’ ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Let’s turn it into something completely Warhol.’ I had all the superstars in it – Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Paul Jabara, Hollywood Blonde, Paul Morrissey, Joe D’Alessandro, Taylor Mead, Patti D’Arbanville and Andy really wanted to be in it. Problem was that he was shot the week before by Valerie Solanas and we had to start shooting.”
While Warhol recovered in hospital, bitterly disappointed to be missing out on being part of the movie, his cohort of ‘Factory’ friends responded to the violence in the most late-sixties New York way there is – they got high! The ultimate tribute to Andy Warhol comes from the fact that the film remains the only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, and while he was tragically denied his cameo his essence is all over the key scene.
The writhing nudes, the swirling camera shots, weird dancing spaced-out people stroking the walls was not the result of some ‘light, camera, action’ choreography, these ‘actors’ were answering to a higher calling. The flamboyant cast of Warhol’s pals had thought that the best way to pay tribute to their chief would be to make it just like one of Andy’s Loft Party’s, thus prior to the scene they all got wasted.
Brenda Vaccaro, who plays Shirley in the film, recalls the moment when they slowly began to descend / ascend onto the set: “One girl came in with green nails, green hair and a stuffed monkey on her shoulder. She said, ‘I’m a tree, and this is my monkey.’” Seeking some respite from the mayhem, Vaccaro headed into her dressing room at Harlem’s Filmways Studio and found two strangers there, having sex: “I said, ‘Whoa!’ and got the hell out of there.”
The hedonism got so out of hand that one crew member quit. Cinematographer Adam Holender recalls him walking off set, “He felt his sensibility and religious beliefs were compromised.”
What they managed to create with this unspooling of riotous heathenry is not only a fascinating arthouse sequence that permeates the narrative with a frisson of surrealism but also a tableau that predicted the forthcoming dirge of the seventies. The mindless violence that spawned it is in this sense also befitting. And finally, the fact that the scene remains among the canon of cinema’s greats is a triumphant example of the vibrant explosion of art that came out of the tempestuous end to the sixties.