PEOPLE ARE THE ULTIMATE SPECTACLE.
Director Sydney Pollack died a while ago, mourned by anyone who had ever seen Tootsie (1982), or Husbands and Wives (1992) where he put his acting talent on display. In a small tribute that I wrote to him on this website I quickly mentioned They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), his breakthrough film, and then moved on. Perhaps I should have written more about it, but I hadn’t seen it. Now that I have, I can say for certain that it is his finest film along with Tootsie, an experience that makes you feel both angry and sad.
The film is based on a novel by Horace McCoy that was written in 1935, showing how the Depression made people sacrifice their honor and sometimes more. A dance marathon is being arranged on the Santa Monica Pier; the contest will have many different couples competing against each other over several weeks. Everybody can take occasional breaks for food and sleep, but as soon as the siren sounds off they must go back to dancing. The participants are poor and need the cash prize they might win desperately; the increasingly tired and dirty look of the dancers over time only adds to the enjoyment of the spectacle for the viewing crowds.
We get to know several contestants. The charismatic emcee Rocky (Gig Young) finds a partner for Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) in Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), a young guy who just happened to be there. Gloria resents the fact that she needs money so badly that she has to stoop to this level; Robert is more timid and quiet. There’s also Alice (Susannah York), a naive girl who wants to be the next Jean Harlow; Harry (Red Buttons), an ageing sailor; and Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), a pregnant farm wife who needs the money for her family.
Casualty: Human dignity
It is soon clear just how grueling this competition is, but it’s the emcee’s job to hide the reality from the onlookers. There’s even a moment where the contestants are to race around the dance floor; the three couples that end up last are eliminated. Anyone can quit this freak show at any time, but these folks are too poor to do that. It’s amazing that these events actually existed; there’s plenty of upsetting scenes that show the consequences, how human dignity was one casualty of the Depression.
Watching this humuliation is embarrassing and sad and Fonda conveys the shame in a convincing way, her first major, serious performance in a film the year after she made Barbarella. York is also splendid as the vulnerable young actress who loses her mind; so is Buttons as the likable sailor, another great dramatic performance for the comedian. Young received an Oscar for his work as the emcee; always smiling to the audience, always coldly calculating behind the scenes, somewhat dropping his clean-shaven façade as the weeks go by.
Pollack has done an impressive job, using flash-forwards to give us clues to what Robert Syverton did at the contest that landed him in jail. The final sequence is heartbreakingly tragic, the ultimate surrender to the effects of the Depression.
The film begins with a scene where young Robert sees one of the family’s horses fall and break his leg. Robert’s grandfather looks at the horse with sadness, but doesn’t hesitate to raise his rifle and end the animal’s misery. It’s an act of mercy, one that colors Robert’s perception of life. A powerful symbol in a film that equally symbolically portrays dance marathons as a modern equivalent to gladiator games.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? 1969-U.S. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: James Poe, Robert E. Thompson. Novel: Horace McCoy. Editing: Fredric Steinkamp. Music: Johnny Green, Albert Woodbury. Cast: Jane Fonda (Gloria Beatty), Michael Sarrazin (Robert Syverton), Susannah York (Alice LeBlanc), Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia… Bruce Dern.
Trivia: Warren Beatty was allegedly considered for the part of Robert; Lionel Stander for Rocky. At one time, Charlie Chaplin also fancied the project as a vehicle for his son Sidney and Marilyn Monroe.
Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Young). BAFTA: Best Supporting Actress (York). Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Young).
Last word: “‘They Shoot Horses’ was an enormously challenging picture in the sense that it took place in one set, it was the same activity over and over, and it had to get slower because they got tired. So I had three things that are a director’s nightmare: no visual relief from the set, no relief within the set in terms of the activity, and worst of all, you can’t pick up the pace, it has to get slower. So I had to find other ways to pick up the pace.” (Pollack, Venice Magazine)