It is with great sadness that we received the devastating news of the untimely passing of the renowned documentary filmmaker Nancy Buirski. She leaves behind a remarkable legacy. She had a unique ability to connect with her subjects and bring their stories to life in a way that was both powerful and empathetic.
We extend our deepest condolences to Nancy’s family and friends during this difficult time. May her memory be a blessing, and may her films continue to inspire and educate audiences around the world.
On Friday, Aug. 25, IPH had the honor of hosting her for a discussion following the screening of her documentary Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy. We feel privileged to have met her and shared this special evening. The moderator for the event was Lawrence Toppman, former film critic for The Charlotte Observer. Following are the video and a transcript edited for length and clarity:
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: When you rewatch Midnight Cowboy, I’m curious, you grew up in New Rochelle and you went to college on Long Island, right? At Adelphi?
NANCY BUIRSKI: Yeah, a couple years there. I went to Miami, Ohio, too.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: So you’re imbued in the New York culture?
NANCY BUIRSKI: Yes, definitely.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: And I was further away in South Jersey, but occasionally had a taste of it. When you watch Midnight Cowboy now, what rings true to you about the film, or most true to you? And are there any false notes where you think, no, if you understood New York, it wouldn’t be that.
NANCY BUIRSKI: When I saw it, it was a gut punch to me, mostly because I’d never seen anything like that on the screen. But I had seen New York the way John Schlesinger saw it, so it felt real to me. I wasn’t familiar with the hustler culture. I wasn’t living there, and I wasn’t spending a lot of time on Times Square in the middle of the night, but there was something about it that rang true. There is a little bit of sweetness, as J. Hoberman says, towards the end when he talks about the Ratso Rizzo character and he says that’s kind of a construct, a sentimental construct. You don’t see that in Taxi Driver. There’s a kind of sweetness between the two of them that is a construct. That’s the fiction of James Leo Herlihy and John Schlesinger. But I accepted that as fiction. The rest of it that surrounded those characters, I thought was pretty real, and I believed it, and it was a long time before I saw anything else like that.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Well, it’s interesting because people started to complain as gentrification took over in Midtown, and it became Disneyfied, which was just the pejorative adjective you could always throw at it. People were very nostalgic and say, oh, I wish we had the old New York back, but a lot of the old New York is this. And I was old enough to have seen that, and I didn’t wish for it back. And it’s interesting that people, I think, today, may have forgotten that, that was a crucial element of what the personality of New York was.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Right. I think that one of the things that he gets so beautifully is the fact that there are people that are suffering. There’s a lot of humor in this, partly because of the performance of Dustin Hoffman, but these people were living on the streets, and they were suffering, and we don’t want that back.
Now, the fact is that if you go up to New York, you’re going to see an awful lot of people who are living on the streets. They’re not all in one location. They used to be all on the Bowery or in Times Square. Now they’re kind of scattered all over the place. You walk up Third Avenue or First, you’re going to see them everywhere you go. And what he did is he found the ghetto that housed these people on the streets. Although the tenement that they’re living in was, actually, that was shot up in Harlem. He copied a tenement that he had found on the Bowery, but they actually shot it in Harlem.
But I don’t think there’s anything romantic about it. That’s what people are nostalgic for. They think that that was a romantic time, and there’s a crassness to the Disneyfication. I don’t think either one of them are particularly nice.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: No. I wonder if this was so shocking and startling a vision to people for whom New York was Astaire and Rogers dancing or people in the ’50s during film noir, cops were chasing people around. But I wonder if, when America saw this — it became very popularized and won an Oscar — it became a big film, if they started to think, boy, that’s what New York is like? Yow. And you refer to the famous “Ford to New York, Drop Dead” headline that was in the paper. And I wonder if middle America started to think in the early ’70s, whoa, I don’t want to help a place like that. I don’t want money to go to someplace like that. Is that what it is? Yikes. I don’t think you should get any of my dough. And I wonder if that created a cloud over the city’s image, nationally, for people who hadn’t ever been there or didn’t know what it looked like.
NANCY BUIRSKI: You’re posing a very good question, and I actually should look into that because I bet that the people that were running the “I Love New York” campaign were pretty upset about this film. I don’t know whether “I Love New York” came out at that point or later, but the point is that it couldn’t have helped tourism. And when Disney came in and bought those theaters and the city decided they were going to clean up. Has anybody seen The Deuce? A lot of that is about the effort to clean it up to get rid of the porn houses and all of that. That was about tourism because New York was going to make a lot of money from it and always did. And then you start showing it realistically, and I bet tourism dropped enormously.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: If people infer that this is what they were going to get when they got off the bus at Port Authority or the train at Penn Station, yeah.
NANCY BUIRSKI: And it was.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: And it was. I walked through it many a time. There was one theater in Times Square that was not showing porn in 1972, and I found it and went to it, but the stuff on the marquees around it made my jaw drop, and they were double bills, so you got your money’s worth.
There’s a pitilessness to the description and the depiction of the city that I can’t remember ever seeing before this. There’s heart in the film in the relationship between the two guys, but the actual way in which we look at New York, it’s like when you look at Jacob Riis labor photographs from the ’30s and you say, oh, that’s terrible. I don’t remember ever seeing New York painted with such a completely pitiless eye in both the cinematography and the storytelling. Do you?
NANCY BUIRSKI: I do not. And I think it’s important to, again, understand the context for this because what we tried to explain in this film is that John Schlesinger was a documentary filmmaker, and he comes to this as a documentarian. He’s observing as much as he’s telling a story and he chooses as DP Adam Holender, a Polish cinematographer who has the same sensibility. So they approached it like documentary. And it’s not like you hadn’t seen any of that in small independent films, right? It’s the fact that his studio made this movie, which is what’s so unusual. And so we see the real New York. It really is about his approach to it, and I think partly being an outsider and being so struck with what he’s seeing on the street, whereas a New Yorker comes and makes a film about New York, they’re so used to it, they’re not making make a big deal about it.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: I guess that’s true. He also had a habit of working with working-class and lower-class people in A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar, in the earlier films that he’d made, the so-called kitchen sink stuff. And he did do Darling, which is a higher class of upper-class people.
NANCY BUIRSKI: And he treats that anthropologically, as well.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: He does. And also, again, pitilessly. And it maybe does take someone who doesn’t live there both to notice it and to not give a hoot if he makes a film about it, as opposed to thinking, well, my city, I don’t, I can’t, a guy from England isn’t really going to care. He was, of course, gay, and he made an even stronger directly gay statement in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which was his next film. The debate goes on about whether or not Ratso and Joe are attracted to each other or have more like a battlefield friendship. In fact, the still that you show in there of the soldier reaching for the other soldier is what made me think of that adjective. What are your thoughts about that? I’m curious.
NANCY BUIRSKI: I think you’ve actually answered it. I think that there is a bonding that goes on between them. They’re struggling for survival like a battlefield, in a way. New York is their battlefield. And I actually put that picture in, not to say that directly, but I’m glad you brought it up because it’s forcing me to talk about it. But I really want to talk about people bonding with each other and caring about each other, and it’s, who deserves to be saved?
And when we think about salvation, which is what I think this film is a lot about, it’s not just whether or not you are saved, but whether or not you make the effort to save somebody else. It’s leaning into the compassion and the caring for somebody which saves you as much as it saves the other person. So that ambivalent look on Jon Voight’s face, on Joe Buck’s face, at the end of the film, he’s going to be okay. He’s going to move on because he’s holding that man in his arms. And I don’t know, I think it’s just so moving, the kind of tenderness that’s in that relationship.
And I don’t think they were gay. I think that they were just like, all of us have a best friend. All of us have someone that they care enormously about as much as our spouses or our family. That best friend can mean the world to us. And I think that’s what they found that in each other.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Well, interestingly, when I saw the film earlier in the week with a friend of mine, not my best friend, just a friend. Craig said afterwards, “What on earth is Joe Buck going to do in Miami?” He has no skills other than the one skill that we saw in New York, so to speak, he doesn’t know anyone there, he doesn’t have a job. Is he going to go back to being a dishwasher? He’s going to be a person who has grown, but his cycle is going to start all over again at the beginning.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Well, I don’t know. I think that’s a really good question and I wish John Schlesinger were alive or James Leo Herlihy, if he were alive to ask him. But I think, let’s remember that Joe Buck takes off his cowboy garb when he’s, the last moment when he’s going to help Ratso. He’s going to take off the disguise. He’s not going to be a cowboy. And he wasn’t even a cowboy, he’s not going to be a false cowboy. And so he’s finding something real in himself, something authentic, and whatever it is he does, he’s not going to be fooling himself anymore. I think that’s what’s key for me.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Until I saw Midnight Cowboy again, I hadn’t remembered he leaves New York just as he’s actually starting to get what he wants because he’s made a conquest of a woman who’s very pleased with him, who calls her friend and says, you should get to know this guy. And he makes an appointment to see her and is ready to embark on that gigolo career that he thought was what he wanted and would be good at. And that’s when Ratso was so sick, they have to leave.
NANCY BUIRSKI: That’s his conquest. Ratso’s his conquest. That friendship is his conquest more than hustling.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: But I’m just saying, if Ratso is okay and they’re hanging out there, his destiny maybe is that. It takes the near death of his friend to bust him out of that dream. He’s still holding onto that dream until he has to leave New York.
Schlesinger’s career really peaked with these two films, with this and Sunday. He did make Marathon Man, but 10 years later after this film, he was making Yanks and Honky Tonk Freeway, which, to put it nicely, were not worthy of him, or I didn’t think they were. And I wondered if he hurt himself by so early embracing the harsh reality of this, and then the very direct gay theme, not even a subtext, of Sunday Bloody Sunday, if that made it difficult for him to continue to move forward. Because when he got here, he was part of the British New Wave with Lindsay Anderson and all those guys. And then after this, his career slowed down noticeably. And I wonder if you have thoughts about that.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Unfortunately, I think it’s the success that did it. Sunday Bloody Sunday, he said was his most important film. And Midnight Cowboy soon after, but they were both so successful and he made such a name for himself that he basically could do anything he wanted. And he got involved in the celebrity culture. He got involved in living a life of a well-known director and enjoying it and I don’t think he ever got back to the essence of who he was in these two earlier films. But again, he did make some wonderful movies after, but nothing like these two, and I’m not sure why. But that’s part of the answer.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Well, the last thing he made were Paul McCartney music videos.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Yeah.
TIM FUNK, former Charlotte Observer writer: I want to ask you a quick question here. How did you get Jon Voight, and were you worried at all that his change in politics over the years would make him less fond of this period and this film?
NANCY BUIRSKI: Actually, the first person I talked to about being in the film is Brenda Vaccaro, and she was still friendly with Jon Voight, so she put us together. And not really. Jon Voight is passionate and idealistic about anything he feels. And back in the day, in the ’60s, he was passionate about liberal culture, and now he’s passionate about right-wing culture, but he couldn’t have been more charming and more of a gentleman, in terms of focusing on the business at hand, which was talking about this film, which changed his life. And this film was so important to him. He didn’t have a need to proselytize about anything else.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Just curious about your journey. You read the book, you’re interested in, now, making a documentary. Surprises? Areas that you weren’t expecting?
NANCY BUIRSKI: Well, the beauty of making documentary is that, unless you’ve lived it, unless it’s a diaristic film and it’s about yourself, all of it’s a surprise. All of it’s a discovery. And one of the things that I wanted in this film, is I wanted the audience to feel that same kind of discovery, be in that process with me, because I would find one thing would be revealed after another after another, and I began to realize how they wove together, that there was not one specific reason for why this film looked the way it did. There were many. And how do you get that across to people? How do you let them feel this sense of multitudinous influences, and how do you make them feel like you are part of the discussion? I’m not teaching you something, that you’re enjoying this with me. And that was my challenge. And so the surprise for me, as a filmmaker and structuring of film, was how do you do that?
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Here’s what occurred to me as I was looking over your CV: Many, really most, of your documentaries are about a protagonist. They’re about Althea Gibson or the Lovings, or Tanaquil Le Clercq, whoever they are. And you’re given an arc for that person. They started here, they ended here, how did they get there, what happened to them, and what did they do to happen to others? There’s a natural rhythm to that. This doesn’t have any rhythm that you start with. It doesn’t have any arc that you start with. So how do you start to impose one? So it is a journey and not, here’s a collection of photographs from my coffee table book.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Yeah. The character, the one character, it’s actually Midnight Cowboy. It’s the film. The film is the character, and what surrounds that film in the same way as what surrounded the Loving couple and Sidney Lumet and these people. Again, it was a process of discovery and just the way Schlesinger is influenced, I like to think that everything that happened around him. Again, he didn’t make a film about the protest movement. He didn’t make a film about the Vietnam War. But he was so affected by the rhythm of the world around him, the turbulence and all of that. I think I was affected by that, too, and I just wanted to absorb it and breathe it and then spew it out if I could, and make you all feel like, okay, this is all part of a piece, a tapestry, if you will, things being woven together, or a kaleidoscopic way of telling the story.
And what was so much fun, I work with a wonderful editor named Anthony Ripoli. What was so much fun was feeling the connection. It’s as if you’re having a conversation like this one, you’re having a conversation, and you find yourself moving from one topic to the other, but it all makes sense while you’re having it. That’s what I hope for.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Anybody who is under 50, 55 even, this can’t possibly be a firsthand experience. It’s all going to be history. It’s not going to involve memories or, gosh, is that when New York was like I was 10? Yeah. Now that I think about it, there won’t be any of that for somebody who’s in their early 50s or younger. So you might be the only introduction they have to that feeling, and that puts a little more responsibility on you than, okay, I’m going to do something about Sidney Lumet, and anybody can go watch his films and get a sense of what he thought and felt.
NANCY BUIRSKI: There’s obviously a lot more that one can learn about if they want to. And I say, use this as a jumping-off point, let it spark enough interest so you do read more about it. But the one thing I don’t want to do is a history lesson. So I want, again, I want you to experience it very much the way you experienced Midnight Cowboy when you first saw it, and very much the way I experienced making this movie. I wanted to share that.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: Was there anything that you left out that you wish you had now left in or would tell us like, oh boy, you wouldn’t believe this. I had a great scene about X.
NANCY BUIRSKI: People wanted to know more. Some people wanted to know more about the actual making of the movie. I didn’t want to tell that story. I know that some people wondered why we went off on a bit of a tangent about cowboys, but I felt it was all related. And again, that was the kind of thing that was in the air because the whole cowboy, the mentality of cowboyness, was something that a lot of people grew up with, and then as young men used it as some kind of disguise. So we went off on a little bit of a tangent on that, but no, there was nothing else, actually. I know that sounds wild.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What did the Schlesinger family contribute to the documentary, if you contacted them?
NANCY BUIRSKI: Okay, so Ian Buruma is Schlesinger’s nephew, and he was in the documentary, remember? So he gave me a lot of material. What we didn’t put in, actually, was a lot of older films that Schlesinger made when he was a documentary filmmaker. We really only have one in there now, but there was a lot of their home movies. In the first cut, I had a lot more of that in there. And even though there are some people who were fascinated by it, most people said, wait a minute, I’m losing the Midnight Cowboy link. It’s becoming too much about John Schlesinger and moviemaking in Great Britain and all of that. So that could have been another movie.
But Ian Buruma was really a huge help. And he had actually written a book called Conversations with John Schlesinger. So some of that interview with John Schlesinger where you hear his voice, that was Ian having recorded him while he was doing research for his book. So I was very lucky to have that interview.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The writer [Glenn Frankel] of the original book on the movie the documentary is based on, the previous two books he wrote about productions of movies were two ’50s westerns that are much more traditional, and then he jumps to a late ’60s movie about gay prostitutes in New York City, and it’s completely different, stylistically, from what he was writing about before. Was that jump what made you interested in pursuing this as the documentary or were you interested in High Noon?
NANCY BUIRSKI: It’s interesting that you linked this film to his other books about westerns. I’m going to ask him the next time I talk to him, but I don’t think he thought of this as a continuation of the Western theme, but I think maybe he did.
I had made three films, like a trilogy, that dealt with systemic racism, The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor, and A Crime on the Bayou. And as I was finishing up A Crime on the Bayou, we went through this horrific period of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter, which was a critical change in society, but it also introduced the idea that maybe white people shouldn’t be making these films. Now, that’s a whole other talkback that we could have. I feel like everybody should make any film they want to make, but we were living in a period where representation became an important aspect of who makes what films. If you have to have lived the experience in order to make it.
I was very fortunate to feel that my films were well-received, even though I was white, but I felt like maybe it was time for me to move over. Black people want to tell these stories, that’s fair. And I didn’t debate it. I didn’t argue it. It was time for me to move on, as well. So I was looking for something else. The Searchers was the film I was really focused on. It was about Native Americans. I didn’t feel I could do that either. Then Midnight Cowboy came up, and I didn’t feel I was going to get myself caught up in that debate.
TIM FUNK: Right. I want to recommend [Frankel’s] book on High Noon, too, which is really about the Hollywood blacklist as much as about the film.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Yeah, that’s what I mean when I say he puts things on a larger canvas. He finds the bigger idea in them. And High Noon is about the Hollywood blacklist. And as a matter of fact, the screenwriter of High Noon had been blacklisted, what’s his name? Carl Foreman, right. And then again, The Searchers is really about racism, but with Native Americans.
TIM FUNK: So Midnight Cowboy did win the best picture Oscar, but John Wayne, for True Grit, beat Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. If you had been an Academy member back there, would you have voted for Jon Voight or Dustin Hoffman for best actor, now that you’ve done this film?
NANCY BUIRSKI: I take the fifth.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: I would’ve voted for John Wayne because, okay, you can laugh, but he had been important. There are such things as lifetime Oscars, right? We know this. He won an Oscar because he’d been a film star and an anchor of the cinema industry for 30 years and gave us some great performances. I don’t think particularly Rooster Cogburn was one, but it was simply time to give him an Oscar. Jon Voight actually won the New York Film Critics Award for this movie, rather than Dustin Hoffman.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Can I just mention also that, ironically, it took me a while to come to this idea, and I don’t know if anyone would agree with me, but John Wayne, at the time that he won that Oscar, was sick. He didn’t die right away, but he had cancer. And I kept thinking, well, maybe these voters have taken a page from John Schlesinger’s book or James Leo Herlihy’s book, and they were showing some compassion to John Wayne. Not that he didn’t deserve it. He’s a great actor. Or let’s put it this way, he’s a great star.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: He’s a great presence.
NANCY BUIRSKI: He’s a great, he’s iconic as a presence. But he was also ill. And so to me, that’s interesting. We’re talking this film ends with a man who dies and someone who cares about him enormously is taking care of him and is saved in the process. Just leave that with you with that thought.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The night of the Oscars when John Wayne wins, but Midnight Cowboy [wins too], that seems like, to me, the two cultures of the film community clashing that night. Obviously, with Easy Rider and a few other films that came a few years earlier, the merging and whatever clash there was, was already in place. But this seems like, to me, the night that it really climaxed and in a butting of the heads.
NANCY BUIRSKI: Yeah, that’s what Charles Kaiser says, think about two tectonic plates coming together. That’s exactly what happened. It was an incredible evening for people in that audience to see that happen. And remember, Jon Voight even says, “I was glad he won. He deserved it.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Everyone has an idea of New York. Oh, it’s that way; well, it was built that way. So how do you go into situations really trying to find, say, a heartbeat outside of assumptions?
NANCY BUIRSKI: I think I’ve always said to myself, even before I became a filmmaker, I’d walk down the street and I’d look at people walking down the street, and I think every one of these people has a story. Everyone has a story. And I guess you end up making the film about the story that you feel represents the bigger story, but also that speaks to you personally. And there’s not a film on that list that Larry read that doesn’t have a connection to me personally.
It’s weird the way you find your stories when you’re making films. And I think that the story you find, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a documentary or a narrative film. The way you finally format it, the tools you use to make it, and all that matters, obviously, but it’s the story that grabs you. It is really like falling in love; when you see it, you know it. And I don’t know, I don’t have a better way to answer it because, yeah, people do have ideas about things, but it’s really not my job to debunk their ideas. It’s my job just to deal with the ideas that I have, I guess, and hope those ideas will resonate with other people.
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN: You’ve spent, now, a couple years of your life with a major piece of fictional narrative, which you’ve never tried as a documentary maker. Did this make you want to say, boy, it’s amazing what you can do when you tell a story through a narrative feature. I could do that. Or did you say, I’m sorry, that’s still on the other side of the river, and I’m just not going to go there. And part two of that question is, do you have a next project already, or not yet?
NANCY BUIRSKI: Well, yes. I’ve been fascinated with making a narrative feature. I made a film called Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq. This is about a ballet dancer who, at the height of her career, is stricken with polio and is paralyzed and can never dance again. She had been truly a beautiful, mesmerizing dancer. She’d been married to George Balanchine, the great choreographer of the 20th century. And after I made the documentary, I could feel and see the structure for a narrative film. So I’ve written the script, and it’s really hard to get a narrative film made, and it’s still out there, and I talk to people about it, but I don’t stop making the other films while I’m in the process of trying to get the narrative made.
It’s a way of using a new muscle, and I’m excited about that. But on the other hand, when I come across an idea for which I can make a documentary, and it’s not always easy because you have to have the footage to go with it, that documentaries are awfully hard to make. They look easy once they’re on the screen, but if you can’t find the footage and get the right people to talk to you and all of that, it’s almost easier to write the script because the script, all you have to do is sit down and write it. You don’t need any of that source material.
So I’ve come across two stories recently, which are too early for me to talk about, unfortunately. But even though both of them would probably be fine scripted films, if I could make the documentary, they would, I think, be more powerful because you would see the real stuff. And so at the end of the day, I guess I lean into documentaries more because I think reality is fascinating, but there’s a tremendous amount of truth in fiction, and I love that idea, as well. So if the stars ever align and I can make a fiction film, I’ll do that, as well.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: With obviously hours and hours of footage, how do you, as the director, decide what’s perfect for what moment in the film?
NANCY BUIRSKI: That is gut instinct. It really is. It’s, I guess, in similar ways to writing a script when you know what the right line of dialogue is, or casting a character in a movie or whatever, you see a piece of footage. I was looking, when I did the beginning of the film, and I knew I wanted to work some of the Vietnam stuff into the very beginning of the movie during the Jon Voight screen test. I had been looking at Vietnam footage, and I saw that aerial shot of the man looking up at the helicopter, and I knew that was going to be the image. I didn’t have to look any further. And I did look at a lot more. So I always knew, and I used it three times. So there’s certain things you literally fall in love with, and I always feel like I’m my best audience. Because if it stops my heart, I think it’s going to stop somebody else’s, and that’s what I’m looking for.
In loving memory of Nancy Buirski
June 24, 1945 – Aug. 29, 2023