(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have. Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films. But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to. Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already. I’m a film geek for God’s sake! I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old. I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time. So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see. Enjoy!)
This is one of those movies I have always heard of. whenever I read about revolutionary films of the 60’s, this title always comes up. But I actually never knew what the plot of the movie was. For some reason, I always thought it was a western. Could be something to do with having “horses” in the title, huh? It’s also directed by Sydney Pollack, a filmmaker who I tend to like quite a bit, like 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE YAKUZA and TOOTSIE. This movie was also nominated for several Academy Awards, including Pollack for director, Jane Fonda for Actress, Susannah York for Supporting Actress and Gig Young even won the Oscar for Supporting Actor. I was definitely curious to see what the hoopla was all about back in 1969.
Guess what? This isn’t a western at all. lol. It actually lakes place during the Depression in Los Angeles. A young drifter named Robert (Michael Sarrazin) wanders into a place that is hosting a Dance Marathon. Now, back in the 1930’s, these contests actually existed. You’d have like 40 couples enter, and they would proceed to dance for weeks until the last couple is standing. They would have rest breaks once in a while, but for the most part, they would dance non-stop. And if that wasn’t enough, occasionally to spice things up, they would have the couples race each other in a circle for 10 straight minutes eliminating the 3 slowest ones. That’s fucking crazy!
Anyway, back to the movie. The primary focus is on Gloria (Fonda) who has pretty much given up on life. She’s a failed actress and just has no future. She is entering the contest to win the money so she can get back on her feet. Her partner doesn’t pass the physical, but Rocky (Gig Young), the master of ceremonies, pairs her with Robert. At first, the two hate each other but of course they end up bonding over the next few grueling weeks. Also in the mix is a young couple expecting a baby (Bruce Dern and “Holly MacClaine” herself, Bonnie Bedelia), a washed up actress (York), and an aging WWI vet (Red Buttons). The movie follows these people and we get a first hand look at just how much of a toll this grueling contest has on the contestants, physically and emotionally.
This movie came out just when the film revolution was beginning. It was a very exciting time to be going to the cinemas. Hollywood was actually producing challenging films. Movies that had a lot to say about Government, society and sex. THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is not an easy movie to sit through. And that’s because the movie is successful. It’s trying to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s trying to shake you up. That’s where this film works.
The filmmakers have done a fantastic job capturing the time period. Nearly the entire picture takes place in the dance hall, but it never once feels like a “small” movie. In fact, it’s very big, emotionally. There’s a lot of shit going on here. But man, just seeing how exhausting this contest was. Whew! It looks like pure hell. We see the contestants as they limp and fall all over each other. And those racing sequences are kind of disturbing. Just to think that this actually happened is mind-blowing to me.
The actors really have some big dramatic moments to deal with here, and they all do a pretty damn good job. Jane Fonda is top-notch as a woman so desperate, that she’ll do almost anything to win. Fonda was so good back during this time period. She’s so raw and real that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. Gig Young earns his Oscar win I think as the master of ceremonies. He has to have that fake demeanor like a game show host, but underneath it all, he’s not such a nice person. There’s a really sleazy scene when he propositions Fonda’s character without saying a word, and it’s so gross and creepy that it immediately made me want to take a bath . That’s how good he is in this. Susannah York is good, but I’m not sure if I would’ve nominated her. I thought Bonnie Bedelia was better. And it’s always a pleasure to see Bruce Dern in a movie. He’s so intense. I think it’s also kind of neat how Red Buttons kept on taking these challenging roles at this stage in his career, since he easily could’ve just made a living by making goofy comedies. And in a small role as Young’s assistant, Al Lewis is also pretty sleazy. He doesn’t say too much, but he looks like he’s pretty evil just by giving characters certain glances. The weakest of the actors is Sarrazin as Robert. I liked one moment when he sticks up for Fonda, but compared to everyone else, he’s rather weak. Not bad, just not on the same level as everyone else.
Pollack was still in his experimental state at this point in his life. The direction is very noticeable. Lots of zooms, hazy filters and innovative editing. It’s really entertaining to watch and the style certainly matches the emotional chaos of the story. The script is good, though it borders on being a little too heavy-handed at time. And that ending… Now, I liked the ending. It’s really bold and took a lot of balls to do. In fact, there is no way that any filmmaker would have the guts to do this today, so for that I have to commend Pollack for going all the way. But it almost feels like it’s too much. Almost. I still liked it.
This film isn’t as acclaimed as it once was, and that’s too bad. It’s almost kind of a forgotten film in a sense. It’s definitely a movie that should be seen. It features some great direction by Pollack and powerful performances from the actors. It’s depressing as hell, so it’s not a movie I would watch repeatedly, but I’m sure glad I saw it. This is an important film about a time in America’s history that wasn’t so glamorous. You won’t forget this movie. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated M for mature. Has some language (no F-bombs), and heavy thematic elements. Also some sexuality. But one scene of violence would probably get the flick an R today.
– Running time: 1hr 59min.
(THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is currently available to rent on DVD from Netflix)