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It's no secret that modern culture has a strong voyeuristic streak, often focused on public competition and humiliation-think Jerry Springer and Survivor, for just two examples. A few decades ago, this morbid fascination found a popular outlet in dance marathons, wherein a roomful of couples would dance (or shuffle, or wobble, or just try to stay vertical) until they literally dropped, hoping to win a cash prize or at least 15 minutes of meager fame. Although dance marathons have existed for centuries, they were all the rage during the Depression years, when many unemployed Americans found participating in these Social Darwinist exhibitions no more onerous than other forms of grunt labor for getting three meals a day and maybe some pocket money at the end of the ordeal, which typically lasted for weeks and even months of painful, nerve-killing toil.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, directed by Sydney Pollack in 1969, is the Gone with the Wind (1939) of dance-marathon movies. Based on a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, it gave Jane Fonda her serious-acting breakthrough as Gloria, a cynical cookie who enters a California marathon as a way of staving off poverty until her totally unpromising movie career gets going. When her partner gets disqualified for health reasons, she latches onto a young man named Robert (Michael Sarrazin), who just wandered in to watch for a while. Soon they're trudging around the dance floor with a motley crew of competitors including a wannabe Hollywood star named Alice (Susannah York), an aging Navy man called Sailor (Red Buttons), and a working-class stiff (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia), who actually won a marathon once. A smooth-talking emcee named Rocky, played with tragicomic brilliance by Gig Young, presides over the show.
And a show it is, rather than a genuine contest. Gloria and Robert learn this the hard way, when Rocky reveals that he ruined Alice's pretty dress so she'll look as wretched as the audience expects her to. As another way of boosting the marathon's sadistic visual appeal, Rocky interrupts the day-to-day drudgery of ordinary dancing with special "derbies" of high-speed walking, ousting the three couples who come in last. This eliminates the herd's weakest members and pleases the paying spectators by making the entrants look even more ridiculous and pathetic than usual.
McCoy's book was best received in Europe, where it was seen as one of the first American novels to reflect the existentialist ideas-viewing life as essentially absurd and purposeless-then gaining ground among philosophers and writers. Credit goes to the filmmakers for following the story's grim outlook to its logical conclusion, ending it on a note of dismal violence (foreshadowed in stylized flash-forward scenes) that Hollywood has never surpassed for sheer bleakness. Only in the adventurous 1960s era would mainstream production outfits like ABC and Palomar Pictures expect to earn their money back with such a downbeat conclusion.
McCoy knew the dance-marathon scene first hand. After stints as a sports journalist and pulp-mystery writer, he headed to Hollywood in the early 1930s for an acting career, which ended almost as soon as it began. He got the idea for a story about marathon dancers while working as a bouncer at a Santa Monica amusement pier. He went on to a long screenwriting career, specializing in westerns and crime dramas, but the two major movies adapted from his books--They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and the 1950 James Cagney vehicle Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye--bear out his reputation as quite a gloomy novelist.
The strongest asset of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is its casting, especially of the Gloria and Rocky characters. Fonda wasn't crazy about the script, but her then-husband Roger Vadim was among the many French left-wingers who admired the novel, so she signed on. She was surprised when director Pollack solicited her creative ideas about the story's underlying issues, and he was probably surprised by the thoughtfulness of the responses he got from an actress known mainly for comedy and sex-kitten roles in pictures like Cat Ballou (1965) and Barbarella (1968). She and Buttons decided to get a taste of the subject matter by dancing to exhaustion, but she reports in her 2005 memoir My Life So Far that she was hallucinating after a mere two days. In any case, she credits the seriousness of her work in this project for encouraging a new sense of independence and self-reliance that paid large dividends in her personal and political life.
Pollock was apparently worried that Young would be too lightweight as Rocky, preferring gravel-voiced Lionel Stander for the role. Young himself was hesitant when he got the offer from a former agent who'd moved over to ABC's feature-film division. But fear of departing from his usual romantic-comedy mold faded when he realized what he could do with the role. It earned him a deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor-perhaps because the film's depictions of self-destructive people struck a chord with his own weaknesses of alcoholism, hypochondria, and drug abuse.
Pollack also benefited greatly from the project, which cemented his position as an A-list director-and a daring one, not afraid of confining a whole feature film to a single setting that's as sleazy as it is claustrophobic. In a characteristic review, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker said that while Pollack wasn't an "imaginative" or "inventive" filmmaker, he staged the derby material "terrifyingly well" and "kept the grisly central situation going with...special energy and drive." Kael also trumpeted Fonda as the potential Bette Davis of the '70s, possessing "the true star's gift of drawing one to her emotionally even when the character she plays is repellent."
Kael was right about the derby scenes, which still carry cringe-inducing power, and almost right about Fonda, who continued to mature as an actress despite counterproductive projects and career moves. Seen today, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? remains a fascinating and troubling film, etching many haunting characters while spotlighting the dark side of capitalism and memorializing a Depression-era fad that has fortunately died away. By popularizing the title of McCoy's novel, it also gave American argot a catch-phrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on. Not many pictures can boast as much.
Producers: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: James Poe, Robert E. Thompson, based on Horace McCoy's novel
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Film Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Art Direction: Harry Horner
Cast: Jane Fonda (Gloria Beatty), Michael Sarrazin (Robert Syverton), Susannah York (Alice), Gig Young (Rocky), Red Buttons (Sailor), Bonnie Bedelia (Ruby), Michael Conrad (Rollo), Bruce Dern (James), Al Lewis (Turkey), Robert Fields (Joel), Severn Darden (Cecil).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt