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The Challenge of the American Dream in Cinematography


The American dream paints a picture of material success created from hard work regardless of birth status. The perceived ability to be successful, in a material sense, drives the actions of the main character of the Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the Drama Midnight Cowboy. In both films, the protagonists seek material wealth at seemingly any cost, and in both cases, the characters suffer for the pursuit of wealth. Both films challenge the American Dream by portraying the pursuit of success defined by material wealth as self-destructive. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, McCabe is killed by rivals, angered at his greed, while in Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck loses his friend. The element of material success in the American dream is challenged in both movies by presenting the self-destructive nature of hustling and greed.

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The Pursuit of Happiness Through Monetary Success

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy focuses on the experience of Joe Buck, a Texan man who moves to New York to be a male prostitute. He ends up being scammed by Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo, who later enters into a business relationship with Joe. Ratso indicates that he wants to leave New York and move to Florida, “In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got ’em in the, uh, gas stations over there. And ladies?” (Schlesinger, 1969). Therefore, he believes they can live a carefree life in Miami beach. Joe’s career as a male prostitute begins to take off while Ratso’s health declines. Seeking cash to fulfill Ratso’s wish of seeing Florida, Joe robs and possibly kills a man for money, which he uses to purchase bus tickets for both of them. During the trip, Joe discards his cowboy outfit. Ratso dies before the bus reaches Florida, leaving Joe alone.

The bustle of New York represents the epitome of the hustle culture associated with achieving the American dream. Enamored by the opportunities of New York, Joe Buck leaves his native Texas to find fortune. Soon after moving, he has been scammed and thrown out of his hotel. Joe’s perception of the American dream is naive, and he tries to rectify this by partnering up with the man who conned him. Ratso’s rhetoric is promising and enthusiastic as he says, “You know, with proper management, you could be takin’ home fifty, maybe a hundred dollars a day, easy” (Schlesinger, 1969). Moreover, Joe states that “I need management, god-dammit. ‘Cause you stole twenty dollars off of me” (Schlesinger, 1969). Midnight Cowboy effectively presents the self-destructive nature of pursuing the American dream through Joe’s struggles in New York, as he is humiliated and exploited. Near the end of the film, he has replaced his cowboy outfit with more mundane clothing, representing Joe leaving behind his old identity. Ultimately, Joe is left poor and alone, on the bus to Miami, and his American dream is left unrealized.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

In the movie McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), two main characters pursue the American dream. The storyline is focused on the gambling man and a hustling woman attempting to build a business in the wilderness. The main character is finding his way to a traditional American success connected to climbing up the social ladder through becoming more prosperous and influential. McCabe comes into the city with the question, “Tell me something, boys. Who owns the property around here?” (Altman, 1971). His primary goal is to create the most profitable business in the area, based on the residents’ demands. People living there are mostly working men who need to spend time somewhere. Therefore, McCabe establishes a makeshift brothel, where he owns three prostitutes and sells their services. Although the main character’s business is morally questionable, it is profitable and, therefore, acceptable.

Mrs. Miller is a prostitute herself, so she is aware of the business behind the scenes. Therefore, she pitches the idea to McCabe to collaborate in improving the quality of his brothel, “I’m a whore, and I know an awful lot about whorehouses. And I know that if you had a house up here, you’d stand to make yourself a lot of money” (Altman, 1971). Thus, they pair up to build their small empire together. The movie presents how a gambler and a prostitute improve their social status through risk-taking and hard work, as a part of pursuing their American Dream. However, the movie challenges the idea that money and social status are a guarantee of success. The main characters are suffering from insecurities and addictions, which are presented throughout the movie. McCabe dies at the end of the film without reaching the American Dream, as his business gets him killed. Therefore, the movie uses the lives of two main characters as an example of the impartiality of the success defined by the American myth, as the desire to become wealthy does not always correlate with happiness.


Midnight Cowboy and McCabe & Mrs. Miller are similar in challenging the idea of success presented in the conventional context of the American Dream. The directors do not explicitly make the main characters state their lack of support for the establishment, but rather show the unfortunate circumstances of blind pursuit of material wealth. The films help the audience comprehend these ideas through the characters’ mistakes, making the message appear more convincing. Overall, the characters’ attempts to pursue the American Dream show the negative aspects of unconditioned financial and status gain, as this often does not directly lead to happiness.


Altman, R. (Director). (1971). McCabe & Mrs. Miller [Film]. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Schlesinger, J. (Director). (1969). Midnight Cowboy [Film]. Jerome Hellman Productions

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