Midnight Cowboy

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Midnight Cowboy
Midnight Cowboy-poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Schlesinger
Screenplay byWaldo Salt
Based onMidnight Cowboy
by James Leo Herlihy
Produced byJerome Hellman
CinematographyAdam Holender
Edited byHugh A. Robertson
Music byJohn Barry
  • Jerome Hellman Productions
  • Mist Entertainment
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • May 25, 1969 (1969-05-25)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3.2 million[1]
Box office$44.8 million[2]

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 American drama film, based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. The film was written by Waldo Salt, directed by John Schlesinger, and stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, with notable smaller roles being filled by Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Salt, and Barnard Hughes. Set in New York City, Midnight Cowboy depicts the unlikely friendship between two hustlers: naïve sex worker Joe Buck (Voight), and ailing con man Rico Rizzo (Hoffman), referred to as "Ratso".

At the 42nd Academy Awards, the film won three awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture.[3][4] It has since been placed 36th on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, and 43rd on its 2007 updated version.

In 1994, Midnight Cowboy was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.[5]


Young Texan Joe Buck quits his dishwasher job and heads by bus to New York City in cowboy attire to become a male prostitute. Initially unsuccessful, he finally beds a middle-aged woman, Cass, in her Park Avenue apartment. She is insulted when he requests payment and he ultimately gives her money, implying she is a high-class prostitute herself.

Joe meets Rico "Ratso" Rizzo, a con man with a limp who takes $20 for introducing him to a pimp. After discovering that the alleged pimp is actually an unhinged religious fanatic, Joe flees unsuccessfully in pursuit of Rico. Joe spends his days wandering the city listening to his Zenith portable radio and sitting in his hotel room. Soon broke, management locks him out and impounds his belongings.

Joe tries to make money by receiving oral sex from a young man in a movie theater, but the man cannot pay. Joe threatens him, but releases him unharmed. The next day, Joe spots Rico and angrily confronts him. When Rico offers to share his apartment squat in a condemned building, Joe reluctantly accepts, and they begin a "business relationship" as hustlers. Rico asks Joe to refer to him as "Rico" instead of "Ratso", but Joe does not oblige. They struggle with severe poverty, stealing food and failing to get Joe work. Joe must pawn his radio, while Rico's health steadily worsens during winter without heat.

In intermittent flashbacks, Joe's grandmother raises him after his mother abandons him. He has a tragic relationship with Annie, disclosed through flashbacks in which they are attacked and raped by a cowboy gang in a parked car. Annie shows signs of mental trauma and is later escorted into an ambulance.

Rico tells Joe his father was an illiterate Italian immigrant shoeshiner whose job yielded a bad back and lung damage from shoe polish exposure. Rico learned shoe-shining from his father but considers it degrading and generally refuses to do it. When he breaks into a stand and shines Joe's cowboy boots to attract clients, two police officers arrive and sit with their dirty boots next to Joe's. Rico dreams of escaping to Miami, shown in fantasies in which he and Joe frolic on a beach and are pampered at a resort, including a boy polishing Rico's boots.

A Warhol-like filmmaker and an extrovert female artist approach Joe in a diner, taking his Polaroid photograph and inviting him to a Warhol-esque art event (which incorporates actual Warhol superstars Viva, Ultra Violet, Taylor Mead, Joe Dallesandro, and filmmaker Paul Morrissey[6]). Joe and Rico attend, but Rico's poor health and hygiene attract unwanted attention. After mistaking a joint for a cigarette and receiving uppers, Joe hallucinates. He leaves with Shirley, a socialite who pays him $20 for spending the night, but Joe cannot perform sexually. They play Scribbage and the resulting word play leads Shirley to suggest that Joe may be gay; suddenly he is able to perform. The next morning, she sets up her female friend as Joe's client and his career appears to be progressing.

When Joe returns home, Rico is bedridden and feverish. He refuses medical help and begs Joe to put him on a bus to Florida. Desperate, Joe attempts to get money by picking up a man in an arcade. He robs the man during a violent encounter in the man's hotel room, brutally beating and apparently smothering him. Joe buys two bus tickets to Florida with the stolen money. Rico again tells Joe that he wants to be called "Rico", not "Ratso", and Joe begins to oblige. During the trip, Rico's health deteriorates further as he becomes incontinent and sweat-drenched.

At a rest stop, Joe buys new clothing for Rico and himself and discards his cowboy outfit. On the bus, Joe muses that there must be easier careers than hustling, and tells Rico he will get a regular job in Florida. When Rico does not respond, Joe realizes he has died. The driver asks Joe to close Rico's eyelids, saying there is nothing they can do but continue to Miami. The other passengers stare. Teary-eyed, Joe sits with his arm around his friend as the bus reflects rows of Floridian palm trees.



The opening scenes were filmed in Big Spring, Texas in 1968. A roadside billboard, stating "If you don't have an oil well...get one!" was shown as the New York-bound bus carrying Joe Buck rolled through Texas.[7] Such advertisements, common in the Southwestern United States in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, promoted Eddie Chiles's Western Company of North America.[8] In the film, Joe stays at the Hotel Claridge, at the southeast corner of Broadway and West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan. His room overlooked the northern half of Times Square.[9] The building, designed by D. H. Burnham & Company and opened in 1911, was demolished in 1972.[10] A motif featured three times throughout the New York scenes was the sign at the top of the facade of the Mutual of New York (MONY) Building at 1740 Broadway.[7] It was extended into the Scribbage scene with Shirley the socialite, when Joe's incorrect spelling of the word "money" matched that of the sign.[11]

Dustin Hoffman, who played a grizzled veteran of New York's streets, is from Los Angeles.[12][13] Despite his portrayal of Joe Buck, a character hopelessly out of his element in New York, Jon Voight is a native New Yorker, hailing from Yonkers.[14] Voight was paid "scale", or the Screen Actors Guild minimum wage, for his portrayal of Joe Buck, a concession he willingly made to obtain the part.[15] Harrison Ford auditioned for the role of Joe Buck.[16] Michael Sarrazin, who was Schlesinger's first choice, was cast as Joe Buck, only to be fired when unable to gain release from his contract with Universal.[17][18][19]

The character of Shirley, the bohemian socialite Joe hooks up with was allegedly based on socialite and Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick.[citation needed]

The line "I'm walkin' here!", which reached No. 27 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes, is often said to have been improvised, but producer Jerome Hellman disputes this account on the 2-disc DVD set of Midnight Cowboy. The scene, which originally had Ratso pretend to be hit by a taxi to feign an injury, is written into the first draft of the original script.[20] Hoffman explained it differently on an installment of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. He stated that there were many takes to hit the traffic light just right so that they would not have to pause while walking. In that take, the timing was perfect, but a cab nearly hit them. Hoffman wanted to say, "We're filming a movie here!", but stayed in character, allowing the take to be used.[21]

Upon initial review by the Motion Picture Association of America, Midnight Cowboy received a "Restricted" ("R") rating. However, after consulting with a psychologist, executives at United Artists were told to accept an "X" rating, due to the "homosexual frame of reference" and its "possible influence upon youngsters". The film was released with an X rating.[1] The MPAA later broadened the requirements for the "R" rating to allow more content and raised the age restriction from fourteen to seventeen and above. The film was later rated "R" for a reissue in 1971.[1][22]

It took several hours to shoot the rape scene, and Jennifer Salt recalls the evening as a traumatic ordeal for her. The wardrobe crew had given Jennifer a nude-colored body suit to wear, but the night was so brutally hot and sticky that she quickly stripped it off. "I felt that the most horrible thing in the world was that people were seeing my bare ass, and that was so humiliating I could not even discuss it. And this kid was just on top of me and all over me and it hurt and no one gave a fuck and it was supposed to look like I was being raped. And I was screaming, screaming, and it was traumatic in some way that couldn't be acknowledged."[23]


Critical response to the film has been largely positive. Vincent Canby's lengthy 1969 New York Times review was blunt: "a slick, brutal (but not brutalizing) movie version of ... Herlihy's 1965 novel. It is tough and good in important ways, although its style is oddly romantic and at variance with the laconic material. ... As long as the focus is on this world of cafeterias and abandoned tenements, of desperate conjunctions in movie balconies and doorways, of catchup and beans and canned heat, Midnight Cowboy is so rough and vivid that it's almost unbearable. ... Midnight Cowboy often seems to be exploiting its material for sensational or comic effect, but it is ultimately a moving experience that captures the quality of a time and a place. It's not a movie for the ages, but, having seen it, you won't ever again feel detached as you walk down West 42nd Street, avoiding the eyes of the drifters, stepping around the little islands of hustlers and closing your nostrils to the smell of rancid griddles."[24]

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune said of the film: "I cannot recall a more marvelous pair of acting performances in any one film."[25] In a 25th anniversary retrospective in 1994, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Midnight Cowboy's peep-show vision of Manhattan lowlife may no longer be shocking, but what is shocking, in 1994, is to see a major studio film linger this lovingly on characters who have nothing to offer the audience but their own lost souls."[26]

Midnight Cowboy holds an 89% approval rating on online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes as of 2022, with an average rating of 8.50/10, based on 114 reviews. The website's critical consensus states: "John Schlesinger's gritty, unrelentingly bleak look at the seedy underbelly of urban American life is undeniably disturbing, but Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight's performances make it difficult to turn away."[27]

The Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa cited this movie as one of his 100 favorite films.[28]

Box office[edit]

The film opened at the Coronet Theatre in New York City and grossed a house record $61,503 in its first week.[29] In its tenth week of release, the film became number one in the United States with a weekly gross of $550,237[30] and was the highest-grossing movie in September 1969.[31] The film earned $11 million in rentals in the United States and Canada in 1969[32] and added a further $5.3 million the following year when it was nominated and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.[33] It eventually earned rentals of $20.5 million.[34]

Television premiere[edit]

More than five years after its theatrical release, Midnight Cowboy premiered on television on November 3, 1974. Twenty five minutes were edited out of the film due to censorship regulations and a natural desire for broader appeal. Although the cuts were approved by director John Schlesinger, critic Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News stated the film was "hacked up pretty badly."[35]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Picture Jerome Hellman Won [36]
Best Director John Schlesinger Won
Best Actor Dustin Hoffman Nominated
Jon Voight Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Sylvia Miles Nominated
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Waldo Salt Won
Best Film Editing Hugh A. Robertson Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear John Schlesinger Nominated [37]
OCIC Award Won
Bodil Awards Best Non-European Film Won [38]
British Academy Film Awards Best Film Won [39]
Best Direction Won
Best Actor in a Leading Role Dustin Hoffman Won
Best Screenplay Waldo Salt Won
Best Editing Hugh A. Robertson Won
Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Jon Voight Won
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Director John Schlesinger Won
Best Foreign Actor Dustin Hoffman Won[a]
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures John Schlesinger Won [40]
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [41]
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Dustin Hoffman Nominated
Jon Voight Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Brenda Vaccaro Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture John Schlesinger Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Waldo Salt Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer – Male Jon Voight Won
Grammy Awards Best Instrumental Theme John Barry Won [42]
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Won [43]
Best Director John Schlesinger Won
Laurel Awards Top Drama Won
Top Male Dramatic Performance Dustin Hoffman Won
Top Female Supporting Performance Brenda Vaccaro Nominated
Top Male New Face Jon Voight Won
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Director John Schlesinger Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 10th Place [44]
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actor Jon Voight Won [45]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actor Dustin Hoffman Runner-up [46]
Jon Voight Won
Best Supporting Actor Dustin Hoffman Nominated
Online Film & Television Association Awards Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Honored [47]
Turkish Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film 5th Place
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Drama – Adapted from Another Medium Waldo Salt Won [48]


John Barry composed the score, winning a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme, though he did not receive an on-screen credit.[49] Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin'" won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male for Harry Nilsson. Schlesinger chose the song as its theme, and the song underscores the first act. Other songs considered for the theme included Nilsson's own "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" and Randy Newman's "Cowboy". Bob Dylan wrote "Lay Lady Lay" to serve as the theme song, but did not finish it in time.[50] The movie's main theme, "Midnight Cowboy", featured harmonica by Toots Thielemans, but on its album version it was played by Tommy Reilly. The soundtrack album was released by United Artists Records in 1969.[51]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
No.TitleWriter(s)Arranger / ProducerLength
1."Everybody's Talkin'" (Nilsson)Fred NeilGeorge Tipton (arranger)2:30
2."Joe Buck Rides Again" (instrumental)John Barry 3:46
3."A Famous Myth" (The Groop)Jeffrey Comanor 3:22
4."Fun City" (instrumental)John Barry 3:52
5."He Quit Me" (Leslie Miller)Warren ZevonGarry Sherman (arranger)2:46
6."Jungle Gym at the Zoo" (Elephants Memory)R. Sussmann, Rick Frank Jr., Stan BronsteinWes Farrell (producer)2:15
Side two
No.TitleWriter(s)Arranger / ProducerLength
1."Midnight Cowboy" (instrumental)John Barry 2:34
2."Old Man Willow" (Elephants Memory)R. Sussmann, Michal Shapiro, Myron Yules, Stan BronsteinWes Farrell (producer)7:03
3."Florida Fantasy" (instrumental)John Barry 2:08
4."Tears and Joys" (The Groop)Jeffrey Comanor 2:29
5."Science Fiction" (instrumental)John Barry 2:46
6."Everybody's Talkin'" (Nilsson; reprise)Fred NeilGeorge Tipton (arranger)1:54

Theme song[edit]

"Midnight Cowboy"
Single by Ferrante & Teicher
from the album Midnight Cowboy
B-side"Rock-A-Bye Baby"
ReleasedJune 1969
GenreEasy listening
LabelUnited Artists Records
Songwriter(s)John Barry
Ferrante & Teicher singles chronology
"Midnight Cowboy"
"Lay Lady Lay"
  • John Barry's version, used on the soundtrack, charted at #116 in 1969. It also charted at #47 in the U.K. in 1980. [52]
  • Johnny Mathis' rendition, one of only two known recordings containing lyrics (the other being the Ray Conniff Singers), reached #20 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart in the fall of 1969.
  • Ferrante & Teicher's version, by far the most successful, reached #10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, #2 Easy Listening chart.[53] Outside the US, it went to #11 in Canada[54] and #91 in Australia[55]: 110  in 1970.
  • Faith No More released their version as the final track on their 1992 album Angel Dust.


Chart (1970) Position
Australia (Kent Music Report)[55]: 281  22


Region Certification Certified units/sales
United States (RIAA)[56] Gold 500,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.

See also[edit]



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  2. ^ "Midnight Cowboy". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on January 30, 2012. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  3. ^ Mitchell, David (2014). "Gay Pasts and Disability Future(s) Tense". Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. 8 (1): 1–16. doi:10.3828/jlcds.2014.1. S2CID 145241198.
  4. ^ Ditmore, Melissa Hope (2006). "Midnight Cowboy". Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work. Vol. 1. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 307–308. ISBN 9780313329685.
  5. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". National Film Registry. The Library of Congress. Archived from the original on October 31, 2016. Retrieved January 24, 2017.
  6. ^ Blake Gopnik, Warhol: A Life as Art London: Allen Lane. March 5, 2020. ISBN 978-0-241-00338-1 p. 629
  7. ^ a b Chris (October 5, 2006). "Midnight Cowboy locations". Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches. Archived from the original on January 6, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  8. ^ Popik, Barry (August 22, 2007). "The Big Apple: "If you don't have an oil well, get one!" (Eddie Chiles of Western Company)". The Big Apple. Archived from the original on March 19, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  9. ^ "Midnight Cowboy Film Locations". On the Set of New York. Archived from the original on January 7, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  10. ^ "Hotel Claridge, New York City". Skyscraper Page. Skyscraper Source Media. Archived from the original on March 26, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  11. ^ "Midnight Cowboy (1969)". AMC Filmsite. AMC Network Entertainment. Archived from the original on February 14, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  12. ^ Smith, Grady (August 10, 2012). "Monitor: August 10, 2012". Entertainment Weekly. Time. p. 27. Archived from the original on March 8, 2021. Retrieved February 27, 2021.
  13. ^ "The Birth of Dustin Hoffman". California Birth Records, 1905 Thru 1995. Archived from the original on November 29, 2014. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  14. ^ Votruba, Martin. "Jon Voight". Slovak Studies Program. University of Pittsburgh. Archived from the original on February 19, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  15. ^ "Voight Worked for Scale for 'Midnight Cowboy' Role". The Denver Post. Digital First Media. Associated Press. August 29, 2013. Retrieved August 29, 2013.
  16. ^ Duke, Brad (July 1, 2008). Harrison Ford: The Films. McFarland. ISBN 9780786440481 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Frankel, Glenn (2020). SHOOTING MIDNIGHT COWBOY: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 175–176. ISBN 9780374209018.
  18. ^ "15 Uncensored Facts About Midnight Cowboy". www.mentalfloss.com. May 25, 2019.
  19. ^ "Michael Sarrazin". Archived from the original on 2022-01-11.
  20. ^ "Midnight Cowboy by Waldo Salt; Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy; Draft: 2/2/68". Archived from the original on 2018-11-30. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  21. ^ Onda, David. "Greatest Unscripted Movie Moments". Xfinity. Archived from the original on August 17, 2012. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  22. ^ Monaco, Paul (2001). History of the American Cinema: 1960–1969. The Sixties. Vol. 8. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 166. ISBN 9780520238046.
  23. ^ Shooting Midnight Cowboy, p. 132, p. 132, at Google Books
  24. ^ Canby, Vincent. "Film: 'Midnight Cowboy'." New York Times, 26 May 1969.
  25. ^ Siskel, Gene (October 15, 1999). "The Movie Reviews". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on July 1, 2014. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  26. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (March 4, 1994). "Midnight Cowboy". Entertainment Weekly. Time. Archived from the original on June 15, 2018. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  27. ^ "Midnight Cowboy (1969)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on September 20, 2019. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  28. ^ Thomas-Mason, Lee (12 January 2021). "From Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese: Akira Kurosawa once named his top 100 favourite films of all time". Far Out Magazine. Retrieved 23 January 2023.
  29. ^ "'Men' Meek $17,219 on Slow B'way; But 'Cowboy' Tall $54,460 2d., 'West' Fast $54,324 in 2 Sites, 'Che' 52G". Variety. June 11, 1969. p. 8.
  30. ^ "50 Top-Grossing Films". Variety. August 13, 1969. p. 11.
  31. ^ Wear, Mike (October 8, 1969). "Sept. Totals Soar to High Plateau; 'Cowboy,' 'True Grit,' 'Easy Rider,' 'Daddy,' 'Oliver,' 'Curious' Leaders". Variety. p. 7.
  32. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1969". Variety. January 7, 1970. p. 15. Archived from the original on June 13, 2021. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  33. ^ Fredrick, Robert B. (January 6, 1971). "Top 10 Films Yield 40% Of Rentals". Variety. p. 11.
  34. ^ Cohn, Lawrence (October 15, 1990). "All-Time Film Rental Champs". Variety. p. M172.
  35. ^ "What's On". November 18, 1974. p. 82.
  36. ^ "The 42nd Academy Awards (1970) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved August 26, 2011.
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  38. ^ "1970 Winners". Bodil Awards. Retrieved December 11, 2021.
  39. ^ "BAFTA Awards (1970)". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved November 23, 2013.
  40. ^ "22nd DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  41. ^ "Midnight Cowboy – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  42. ^ "1969 Grammy Award Winners". Grammy.com. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
  43. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1966-69". kcfcc.org. 11 December 2013. Retrieved May 15, 2021.
  44. ^ "1969 Archives". National Board of Review. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  45. ^ "Past Awards". National Society of Film Critics. 19 December 2009. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  46. ^ "1969 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  47. ^ "Film Hall of Fame Productions". Online Film & Television Association. Retrieved May 15, 2021.
  48. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.
  49. ^ "Midnight Cowboy (1969)". IMDb. 25 May 1969. Archived from the original on March 16, 2014. Retrieved March 14, 2014.
  50. ^ Heylin, Clinton (1991). Dylan: Behind The Shades: The Biography. New York: Viking Books. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-6708-36024.
  51. ^ "Midnight Cowboy — John Barry". Music Files. Archived from the original on August 16, 2016. Retrieved July 18, 2016.
  52. ^ "midnight cowboy | full Official Chart History | Official Charts Company". www.officialcharts.com.
  53. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961-2001. Record Research. p. 91.
  54. ^ "RPM Top 100 Singles - January 17, 1970" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on June 12, 2012. Retrieved February 19, 2019.
  55. ^ a b Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  56. ^ "American album certifications – John Barry – Midnight Cowboy". Recording Industry Association of America.

External links[edit]