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THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (1969)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Gig Young, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, Red Buttons
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Nominated for nine Academy Awards:
Best Director, Sydney Pollack
Best Actress, Jane Fonda
Best Supporting, Gig Young (win)
Best Supporting Actress, Susannah York
Best Adapted Screenplay, Robert E. Thompson and James Poe (adapted from the novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy)
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
A grim, depressing story that revolves around the Depression era in the 30's, the film focuses in on a dance marathon where the two winners will split a $1,500 dollar cash prize. The dance lasts for days, weeks, and months, with the many contestants dancing for hours on end with only a few hours of sleep in the course of a day and eat very rarely. People willingly sign up for the dance and most of them are lonely, hopeless souls whose lives are at the bottom of the barrel and will do anything to get ahead in life.
The story opens with Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), overlooking the ocean and remembering a time when he was a young boy watching a horse running through a meadow, and ultimately being shot down by who appears to be his father or grandfather (throughout the duration of the film, there are several flashbacks sequences which are hazy that revolves around Robert's trial. We never learn if it's past or future events, or what crime he has been accused of). The building where the dance marathon is to be held is looking over the ocean, and Robert goes in and looks for a dance partner (you must have a partner, and if you lose your partner while inside then you have seventeen hours to find another one or else you are disqualified). Inside he meets up with bitchy loaner Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda), who is a cynical and sharp tongued woman who answers to every question and comment with pure venom. Other noticeable contestants are Jean Harlow wannabe Alice (Susannah York), who hopes there will be a talent scout in the audience. James (Bruce Dern), and his very pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), who are dirt poor and have no means to support their future child. The sailor (Red Buttons), who fought in the first World War and has heart problems. The emcee of the event is fast talking and charismatic Rocky (Gig Young, in an amazing Academy Award winning performance), who profits off of the misery of others and has little regret about it.
The days turns into weeks and the pain and suffering soon kicks in. Lack of sleep, energy and enthusiasm kick in, but those who can dance, do dance. Every once in awhile, to spice things up and to eliminate three couples, a torturous ten minute race is held where everyone must run around the floor in a circle and attempt to stay ahead of the game. The last three couple get the boot. The purpose of the dance, the races, the deathly look the couples have after awhile? To put on a show for those watching who need a pathetic lift in life. As Rocky, who at once point secretly destroys Alice's snazzy dresses so she won't appeal to the audience, points out that the people need to observe misery because watching it helps them through life and helps them forget about their own problems.
The story is an overwhelming experience of total despair, and because of that one won't really want to watch the movie over and over again and admit it's one of their personal favorite films. To put it mildly, the movie is a complete downer but serves its purpose powerfully because of it. We are witnessing tortured souls who all have dreams that can't possibly be reached by taking the easy road. But that's the tragedy, because none of these people have been given an opportunity in life to sit back, kick up their heels and enjoy life. They all hunt for things they believe will bring them a prosperous lifestyle, and that is the tragedy of the story. The metaphor of the dance, that we're all basically thrown into the same mix and walking around aimlessly with tainted intentions that are false, is brilliantly played out.
The atmosphere if perfect, not being to gritty but looking grim enough to reflect off of the several key characters. It's a very claustrophobic feeling, with only the first five minutes being shot outdoors, a brief moment in the middle where Sarrazzin opens a backdoor to watch the sunset, and the finale. Sydney Pollack shot the movie in sequence which had a tremendous influence on his actors, who after awhile began suffering physically and emotionally. It obviously enhanced their performance, since everyone involved with the film dishes out spectacular performances. Jane Fonda, better known at that time as the sexy bombshell in BARBARELLA, received universal acclaim for her daring performance, which garnished her an Academy Award nomination, her first of eight career nominations. Red Buttons, of course best known for his gift for comedy, delivers a bravura performance as the Sailor. Bonnie Bedelia gives a wonderful performance as the naive Ruby, who has no means of supporting her baby once it is born, and hints that she was forced to participate (Bruce Dern plays her husband in another grand performance). Sarrazzin gives the films weakest performance, but he still has several moments where he delivers. And of course Gig Young, who gives a tour de force performance as the emcee, a man who shouts gleefully towards the contestants while on the floor, but is as crooked and emotionally hollow as a tree stump.
The self-degradation and humiliation these people put themselves through is difficult to watch, but it is a film that draws the audience onto the dance floor, and allows them first hand to observe humanity at its lowest. Not an easy film to watch, but one worth renting at least once.
My Grade: A