(This review was written when I was using a different, erroneous list of #1s. It now resides in the “Other Movies” category for your enjoyment. –MCS)
January 4, 1970 | 4 weeks at #1
Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A grueling workout of a movie that makes a blisteringly downbeat point about American society.
What did I get? They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a very impressive piece of work indeed, attention-getting and disturbing. It’s intense and expertly crafted, but it’s ultimately undermined by the shallowness and obviousness of its central point — that American capitalism inevitably leads to extraordinarily crappy relationships between human beings. According to Pauline Kael, the filmmakers made the plot considerably more cynical than the source novel, by Horace McCoy (in the book, the organizers of the dance marathon behave in a relatively honorable way). I think the limitations of the movie become clearer if one asks, What would a “realistic” and untendentious version of this movie look like? I think it’s inescapable that such a hypothetical movie would be richer and more engrossing. Perhaps our age is more immune to message-y movies — I don’t know.
It’s a compelling movie, but one tires of the negativity before it’s over. Jane Fonda gives a very good and very brave performance, but her transition from tough cookie to (spoiler alert) defeated, eager suicide is not really convincing — which is not Fonda’s fault but that of the script, or perhaps Pollack, who still deserves credit for directing a pretty interesting movie. Meanwhile, Michael Sarrazin and Susannah York act out their respective crises a little too obviously. In short, it’s a very well put together and intelligent entertainment, but it does not rise above that, quite.
What here smacks of 1970? The pessimistic tone, as mentioned, and the big, ambitious canvas.
IMDB score: 7.9
My score: 8
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: James Poe and Robert E. Thompson
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern
IMDB synopsis: Gloria is a young woman of the Depression. She has aged beyond her years and feels her life is hopeless, having been cheated and betrayed many times in her past. While recovering from a suicide attempt, she gets the idea from a movie magazine to head for Hollywood to make it as an actress. Robert is a desperate Hollywood citizen trying to become a director, never doubting that he’ll make it. Robert and Gloria meet and decide to enter a dance marathon, one of the crazes of the thirties. The grueling dancing takes its toll on Gloria’s already weakened spirit, and she tells Robert that she’d be better off dead, that her life is hopeless — all the while acting cruelly and bitterly, alienating those around her, trying to convince him to shoot her and put her out of her misery. After all, they shoot horses, don’t they?