The Only X-Rated Movie to Win a Best Picture Oscar is Free-to-Watch Now

The Only X-Rated Movie to Win a Best Picture Oscar is Free-to-Watch Now
Image credit: United Artists, Legion-Media

Not all Best Picture winners have aged well (we're looking at you, American Beauty and Crash), but a select few have only gotten better with age.


  • This movie received an X rating on its release, a death knell for many films.
  • However, it went on to win a Best Picture Oscar and is still beloved.
  • It is now available to stream for free.

When this legendary movie was first released, it earned an X rating – partly for the scenes of sex and nudity, but mostly because the ratings agency was uncomfortable with the film's 'homosexual frame of reference' and its 'possible influence on youngsters'.

Around the same time, other movies threatened with an X rating decided to cut out some of their content to achieve a wider release. In 1971 for example, Stanley Kubrick reportedly removed 30 seconds from A Clockwork Orange to avoid the box-office crushing X rating.

In spite of all expectations, this movie managed to surpass the curse of the X-rating and become a critical darling. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

What's It About?

Based on the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy follows young Texas dishwasher Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as he quits his job and heads for New York City. He's convinced the women will find his southern charm irresistible and he'll be able to make a living as a male escort.

Joe quickly discovers that the sex trade isn't nearly as lucrative or glamorous as he imagined, and he eventually teams up with sleazy con man Rico 'Ratso' Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two end up squatting in a squalid apartment, trying to survive a cold winter and becoming close friends even as Rico becomes increasingly ill.

Throughout the movie, flashbacks and dream sequences reveal how the men got to this sorry state, and how they yearn to find a better place.

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Why The X Rating?

The 'homosexual frame of reference' that made the MPAA so uncomfortable includes the fact that at one point Joe tries to make money by receiving oral sex from a (male) stranger. His past in Texas involves getting raped alongside his ex-girlfriend.

However, nothing in Midnight Cowboy is really all that explicit – especially by today's standards. There is one theory that the movie's distributor, United Artists, actually asked the MPAA for the tough rating. Rumor has it that a psychologist warned them the movie might have a 'homosexual impact' on youth, and so United Artists got the strict rating as a sort of pre-emptive strike against public outcry.

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What Critics Said

The legacy of Midnight Cowboy lives on, with contemporary critics re-evaluating the movie and still really, really liking what they see. In particular, the atmosphere of the film and the performances by Hoffman and Voight are considered timeless. Here are some of the things that critics have said about Midnight Cowboy:

'The film is a masterpiece, one of the finest ever made. It is staggering, shattering, heartbreaking, hilarious, tragic, raw and absurd. Midnight Cowboy surpasses even The Graduate in its uniqueness, sensitivity, and curious blend of the sad and the funny.' – The Miami Herald

'​​Midnight Cowboy is America's challenge to any film from foreign shores... From now on, it is going to be difficult for the cinema snob to declare tritely that films in this country are made for immature audiences.' – The Boston Globe

'Nothing so completely heart-warming and compassionate has ever come from something so sleazy. The performances are simply immense'. – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You can watch Midnight Cowboy for free on Tubi and Pluto.