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Brenda Vaccaro Answers Every Question We Have About Midnight Cowboy

The actress on John Schlesinger’s documentary-style filmmaking, what it was like to film her memorable sex scene, and that iconic fox-fur coat. Photo: Alamy

John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy was the first X-rated feature to win an Oscar as Best Picture, a superlative perhaps not all that surprising for a 1969 movie about an aspiring Texas-born sex worker named Joe Buck (played by a young Jon Voight) and his would-be pimp Ratso (Dustin Hoffman, with a limp). Much of that rating, however, can be attributed to the scenes featuring Brenda Vaccaro, who plays Shirley, a socialite who meets Joe and Ratso at a raucous, psychedelic party and takes the former home with her to have a very physical encounter (interrupted by a quick game of Scribbage). Vulture spoke to Vaccaro about Schlesinger’s documentary-style filmmaking, what it was like to film her memorable sex scene, and that iconic fox-fur coat.

Do you remember getting hired for Midnight Cowboy?
Marion Dougherty — you’re going to hear that name a lot — was the most famous casting agent here. She called me in to read for John Schlesinger. And Schlesinger had seen me in How Now, Dow Jones, a musical.

This was on Broadway?
It was a musical on Broadway. When I did How Now, Dow Jones, I stopped the show after “He’s Here!,” that song I sang. I just, I didn’t know what to do. They wouldn’t stop applauding. They wouldn’t stop screaming and applauding. I said, “Thank you. Thank you.” After, George Abbott gave me the lesson of a lifetime. He came back, he was furious. He stomped into my dressing room and said, “Don’t you ever thank the audience again. Don’t you ever bow and thank the audience when you stop the show.” I said, “I never stopped the show.” He was furious at me. He went fucking nuts.

So Schlesinger had seen you in this show?
Yes. But he didn’t think I was right for the part in Midnight Cowboy. So I went in and I audition. I think he was uneasy about it because Janice Rule — who was married to Ben Gazzara, who had the most fabulous voice. She was so sexy, I loved her. She had come in and read. And he thought she was more razor-edge. He thought I was too like, “Hi, I’m your mistress.” Too friendly, too sweet, too nice. He wanted somebody who could knock you down with a razor in two seconds.

That’s funny, because reading about the movie, it seemed like he was not thrilled with any of the casting decisions, at least initially. He didn’t like Jon Voight.
Well, he wanted that other boy that he couldn’t get. Michael Sarrazin. He couldn’t get him. So Jon was a secondary choice. He didn’t want Dustin Hoffman. He didn’t know that he was right. He was short. He didn’t think that that was Ratso. So Dusty called him up and said, “I’m going to take you downtown.” He took him down to the Meatpacking area. There was an old diner, and he walked into the diner, and there was a waiter that was limping, who hadn’t shaved, and said, “Where do you want to sit?” And Dusty said, “That’s Ratso.” And John Schlesinger hired him on the spot.

How was your character written? How was she described? What could you find out from the script about her?
She was sort of like this woman I met, who I fashioned her after. She worked for David Susskind as a casting agent. I can’t think of her name now. Shit. She was casting for David. And when I handed her my card, I said, “I’ve just got to New York, so I don’t have any pictures yet. They’re being made. But I have my card.” She said, “Oh, I’ll probably lose that.” And she threw my card away. I said, “Excuse me.” I said, “Those are my cards. If you can’t use it, perhaps I’ll find someone who could.” She looked at me like, “You’ll never work.” She gave me this look that’s like a leopard.

You think Shirley was the ruthless type?
Well, I don’t know that I had a chance to show that in Midnight Cowboy. Maybe on the phone call, which was improvised.

That phone call was improvised?
Yeah. He let me improvise it.

How did you convince Schlesinger to cast you?
I read four times. And then finally, he brought Jon Voight in and we sat there and laughed and had the chemistry. We had so much fun. I think after that, he just decided that I could be bitchy enough.

Schlesinger was out by then, but watching Midnight Cowboy, I just feel like there’s so many …
Homosexual innuendos.

Gay overtones. It’s a very gay movie.
Yes, it is.

Did you know while you were making it?
I didn’t think about it. I didn’t see a lot of what Schlesinger was doing.

Tell me about the famous love scene with you.
Yes, I said, “I’m so nervous.”

How was it written? Was it written?


And what did you say? Had you done nude before?
No. No. I’d only done one movie before this, with Garson Kanin in Vegas.

So obviously this came out and it was X-rated. It was the first X-rated film that was nominated for an Oscar.
That’s right. It’s very true.

Did you know that it was, when you were making it?
No, except I remember Schlesinger screaming it on the set. “Well, it’s an X-rated, darling.” It just never occurred to me.

I can’t imagine.
Ann Roth saved my life with the fox-fur coat.

Did you say, “I’m not going to do it”?
No. Schlesinger said, “Don’t worry. We’ll work things out. You’ll have pasties. But Julie Christie takes her pasties and throws them off. You’ll probably hate them too.” And then Ann Roth came up with the fox coat, and Schlesinger saw it. And I walked on the set, and he said, “I love it. Fucked in fox.” Isn’t that great that he said that? I have a picture. “First day on the set” picture. Let me see if I can find this picture. You’re going to love it. Now that’s the first day. See the fox coat? You see? It protected me. That was the first day on the set. Schlesinger? He was a bitch. He would do things that were bitchy. But he loved bawdy jokes. And he had a great sense of humor. And I loved him. I just thought he was wonderful.

What was the first scene you did? There were three.
The first day was horrible. You know why? Schlesinger was trying to come up the stairs of this horrible place we were in, and move the camera into the room, and then see us in this bed. And he never got the camera in the room. Don’t ask me why. Adam Hollander was a cinematographer. And for some reason, they couldn’t get the camera into the room. And so he came in, he said, “Darlings, I’m very sorry to have to tell you we’re coming back tomorrow because we couldn’t get the fucking camera in the room.” And both Jon and I looked at each other. I had pasties on. He had a thing over his crotch. And we’re lying in bed all day, like, “What are we going to do?” Schlesinger says good-bye and we’re both like, “Oh my God.” So we had to come back the next day and do it all over again.

But one of the funniest stories is with that handheld camera, and Adam Hollander was holding it. John is in front of the handheld camera. I’m now slipped off the bed with my coat flared open and my two tits exposed. And I said, “If my mother sees my tits before my face, she’ll never talk to you, John.” Anyway, I’m on the floor. And he’s over here, and he’s going, “All right, Jon, pump on.”

Pump on?
Or something like that. I’m not sure. And then he’s down really low, with the light on my face and on Jon. He says, “Come now, darling.” Well, both of us started laughing because we’d never heard of anybody that would … I mean, in our lives, can you imagine if a director said, “Come now, darling”? I mean, he was so funny. And he wanted me also to claw the back of Jon to draw blood. I said, “I’m not doing that, John. I refuse to do that.”

So that was the scene where they play Scribbage. That looked like it hurt. It must have been very uncomfortable for him to be rolling around on that.
I asked him years later, “Did you really think I was going to draw blood from Jon Voight’s back?” “Well, I thought you might.” You do see in the movie somebody clawing his back. It wasn’t me.

One thing about Schlesinger I forgot to tell you, he let us come to the rushes. It was so much fun. He would invite us in like it was a party. He’d let us sit there and watch the rushes. And indeed, that’s how he told me that my improvised scene was going to be in the movie. He played two takes that I asked to do with Jon Voight when I said, “How much was it I owe you?” In the script, it was just she gives him 20. There’s no conversation.

That’s such a great moment.
I left the rushes, he said, “Actually, darling, you are right. Yours is better.” Isn’t that great?

Did you shoot that in an apartment in New York?
Yes, it was like a loft. You had to climb up the stairs. And we shot the scene on the stairs, in that same building.

Tell me everything you remember about that party scene.
Oh, it was so crazy. Everybody was there. They were all on drugs.

Did you know? What was the deal? Because it looked like it was all improvised.
Schlesinger invited anybody that wanted to come to the party to come to the party. We had fucking crazy people. I walked into my dressing room, and there were two people fucking on the bed. I said, “Hello.” I closed the door. I went to Burtt Harris, who was the AD. And I said, “Burtt.” “What’s the matter, honey?” I said, “You got to get these people out of my room.”

Who were they?
I don’t know. They were just extras. They had a billion extras show up. There was a girl with a green monkey. She dyed the monkey green. Her hair was green. Her nails were green. She said, “Me and the monkey are in a tree.” And I went, “That’s good.”

So what were these people on?

Were you guys doing acid?
I didn’t do anything. As a matter of fact, my little cigarette that was supposed to be a joint was like … what is that herb? Something harmless. It was sweet. They roll it like a joint, but it wasn’t a joint. It wasn’t permitted on the set, but most of those people, including Paul Jasmin, the artist, including Paul Jabara — these were friends of Schlesinger’s, they all came and they were sitting there like, “Hey” — they were on acid. Who knew where they took the acid? We didn’t know anything.

And so how long did that scene take to shoot?
Oh, my God. Did it just take a week?

I think I saw six days of shooting.
Well, I wasn’t there every day. When I was in the scene, I was called to get ready, to put on my costume, to come down, to stand in a certain place because the camera was going to pass by me. I just remember all these people walking around. I don’t think Schlesinger was really happy about it. They were all wacked. I think it pissed him off because everybody’s so undisciplined. It was hard to direct people to stand over here. They’d move around without telling you they changed their move. I think he had a hard time.

How competitive were Hoffman and Voight?
I didn’t think that at all. Not at all. He’s so busy being Ratso that he was so involved in that. And Jon Voight was caring about his body. “Does it look better this way, Adam? Or that way?” He was so into being a young, beautiful, kind of Dutch-looking, gorgeous man.

Were you attracted to either one of them?
Neither one. Honestly, they were not attractive.

What do you think about the idea that somebody as attractive as you would pay for sex?
I never thought about it. I never thought about it then. I love Sylvia Miles’s contentious anger at the fact that he thought she would take money. That’s an interesting question because that’s something Schlesinger dealt with in the movie. Everybody was being paid.

Everyone was being paid. What do you mean?
For sex. Think about it. Even the boy in the bathroom, Bob Balaban. Everybody was being paid. It was all about money. Whole thing was about money. Which is interesting.

This film sort of —
Changed everything. Changed filmmaking.

Did it reflect the world that you knew at that point, a counterculture world? Or was it sort of predicting something?
It definitely explained New York at that time. When he hits that cab — “I’m walking here.” You know, that scene. That cab was definitely a New York cab at that time in this city. That was New York all the way.

Tell me your thoughts when you saw the full movie. Were you at all shocked? I mean, it’s not shocking now, but I understand at the time, it was quite shocking.
I thought it was a hit. I thought it was brilliant. I thought it surprised me, the whole Texas stuff he did. I think I was overwhelmed with the music. I was in love with Harry Nilsson.

What did your mother think?
My mother loved it.

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Janice Rule played a character named Shirley in 1968’s The Swimmer. Her (now ex-)husband Ben Gazzara was an actor and director who played, among many other celebrated roles, Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski. The same year Midnight Cowboy released, Michael Sarrazin starred in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? opposite Jane Fonda. The morning after Shirley and Joe Buck have sex, she is on the phone with a friend named Myra. Shirley arranges for Myra to meet with Joe. The dialogue, in part: “Well, I really can’t talk now, if you know what I mean, but believe me when I say, Myra, it’s an experience every emancipated woman owes herself. I’m not. I’m not exaggerating.” During a game of Scribbage, Joe Buck and Shirley contemplate spelling out the words “gay” and “fey.” After a brief moment of performance anxiety and an impromptu game of Scribbage, Joe Buck and Shirley have sex, a scene described in the script using phrases like “talon-nails furrowing flesh, drawing blood” and “hand swatting an unidentified mass of flesh” and “foot appearing upside down beside her face.” The encounter ends with “ascending shrieks.” The movie was Where It’s At. Ann Roth is a costume designer whose most recent project is the forthcoming Wicked movie. Rushes, or dailies, refers to the unedited film from a day of shooting. Paul Jasmin was an illustrator, painter, and photographer who appears in Midnight Cowboy. Paul Jabara is an actor, singer, and songwriter known for writing Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” and co-writing “It’s Raining Men.” Sylvia Miles plays Cass, an older woman Joe sleeps with and then requests payment from. Their scene ends with Joe paying Cass. Harry Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” was featured in the film.
Brenda Vaccaro Answers Every Midnight Cowboy Question