Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reeling Backward: "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

I don't know of any other movie with a title that seems to fit its subject matter less than this 1969 classic starring Jane Fonda and directed by Sydney Pollack. At least, that was my first impression.

I had assumed, like many others I think, that "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was a Western. I should have been clued in by the presence of star Jane Fonda and director Sydney Pollack, both of whom are more associated with modern urban settings than tumbleweeds and six-shooters. (Though I should note that each has done a quasi-Western: Fonda in "Cat Ballou," and Pollack with "Jeremiah Johnson.")

No, it's about, of all things, a Depression-era dance marathon. These things were apparently quite the hit during the tumultuous '30s, as hard-luck young folks would submit themselves to the ultimate endurance test in order to win a nice little wad of cash.

The rules, as laid out in the pre-dance registration, are simple: Partners must keep their knees from hitting the floor, or they're out. They must keep moving the entire time they're on the dance floor. If somebody's partner is ruled out, the surviving one has 24 hours to find a new partner (of the appropriate gender -- no same-sex dancing) or they're out. They get a 10-minute break every two hours to use the bathroom, eat, sleep, etc.

And this would go on for weeks at a time.

In "Horses," they get to 1,200 hours or so before the film ends. (Note I don't say the dance ends.) Why would anyone do this, other than the absolutely desperate? More importantly, why would anyone pay to watch this spectacle of suffering?

Those uncomfortable questions are what the movie is really about.

Fonda plays Gloria, a hard-bitten dame whose partner is disqualified before the competition even starts due to ill health. So she's paired up with Robert (Michael Sarrazin), a naive, passive drink of water who wanders into the dance hall out of curiosity. Curiously, the opening and closing sequences are told from his perspective, as he witnesses a lame horse being put down as a boy, and later being sentenced to jail for a crime. The original novel by Horace McCoy was written with Robert as the protagonist, but that changed when a big star like Fonda was cast in the female lead.

I don't mind, since Gloria is by far the more compelling character. But Robert is such a complete non-entity, a guy who reacts to everything going on around him, that it seems strange to retain the framing device centered around him. Couldn't they show Gloria as a girl being moved to tears by a horse being shot?

There's a terrific supporting cast, led by Gig Young as Rocky, the carny-like showman who's running the dance competition. He has to stay round the clock just like the contestants, but he pulls all the strings.

Rocky's not above manipulating the contestants to jazz up the show, such as stealing an impressionable woman's prize dress, knowing that in her sleep-deprived state it will send her over the edge. Dressed in a tux, barking into the microphone to urge the crowd to cheer the contestants on as they literally kill themselves on the dance floor, Rocky is like some cynical jester mocking American ideals even as he espouses them, punctuated by his trademark "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!"

Red Buttons plays Sailor -- he's never given an actual name -- a dance marathon veteran who's over the hill, but still battling. He claims to be 31 years old, but his gray hair and lined face say otherwise. He knows all the tricks Rocky can throw at them, and altruistically gives advice to the kids to help them along.

Susannah York plays Alice, a British stage actress who's been talked into the marathon by a huckster who claims it'll help her break into showbiz. With her refined manners and slightly haughty attitude, she's instantly disliked by the other contestants. But when her mind becomes unstitched by the slow sleepless torture, the pity for her his palpable.

Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia plays a husband-and-wife team of destitute sharecroppers who see the marathon as a way to get regular meals, if nothing else. She's pregnant, and Gloria cold-heartedly berates her for not having an abortion or giving the child away, since they obviously don't have the means to care for it.

The cruelest part of the competition is the Derby, literally a run for life and death. The remaining partners are lined up for a speed-walk race around an oval for 10 minutes, and the three couples that come in last are eliminated. Consider what it must be like to exert oneself full-out for 10 minutes without a break after days and weeks of only resting two hours a day. The pained look on Sailor's face as he huffs around the circle, determined not to lose, makes plain that these dance marathons were just a half-step up from gladiator fighting.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They" is hardly what I expected, but it's not to be missed.

3.5 stars out of four

UPDATE: My Dad e-mailed me to remind me that Gig Young won an Oscar for best supporting actor. I actually knew that, and meant to include it in the review, but it got lost in the shuffle.

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