Monday, July 9, 2012

Review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)

Robert (Sarrazin) and Gloria (Fonda) in Horses

Directed by Sydney Pollack
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler
Written by Horace McCoy (novel)/James Poe and Robert E. Thompson (screenplay)
Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Gig Young, Susannah York, and Red Buttons


Gig Young and Jane Fonda lead an ensemble cast in Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning drama about a marathon dance contest. The story begins when Gloria (Fonda) enters the intense competition, which is run by the smooth-talking, always-in-control ringmaster Rocky (Young). He plays the game, knows the score, and puts the contestants into the ring as a show for the paying customers. Along with her impromptu partner Robert (Sarrazin), Gloria and the other couples are made to dance for weeks, and they are even subjected to races in which the last three finishers are eliminated from the contest. Couples are whittled down until only a few remain. Despite the fact that they are still in the competition, Gloria is deeply troubled, and she asks Robert to put her out of her misery. Though tragedy befalls these two, the film ends with the show going on, as it must.

This film is full of interesting characters, and the number of subplots does not detract from the overall narrative. Being an ensemble piece is a great strength here because it opens up the film, while also showing just what kinds of people would enter such a hellish contest. With the aid of a confident director and a good script, the performances succeed in connecting with the viewer, making these characters likable, loathsome, pitiful, and even endearing. Granted, Fonda and Sarrazin are the main attraction, but Young's performance and, to a lesser extent, York's are far more effective, fleshing out the emotional baggage of their weary characters. It is quite an accomplishment for all involved to have created a movie so compelling out of this story. The film never strays too far off course, and it still offers a relevant look at "the show" people want to see, which might now be more like Big Brother or Survivor. Largely forgotten, this remains a minor gem from yesteryear.

Oscar Tally: Win for Best Supporting Actor (Young); Nominations for Best Director (Pollack), Best Actress (Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (York), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Musical Score (Original or Adapted)


  1. Nice review. I just saw this for the first time recently and was astounded that something so entrancing could come from such an idea. Cos lets face it, the premise makes you wonder what you're letting yourself in for.

    I definitely want to read the book from Horace McCoy now too.

    1. Thanks. The premise can be a tough sell, but I didn't even know what the film was about before I watched it, which was probably a good thing.

  2. Did you find yourself feeling physically drained after watching it? Neither of us felt like getting up off the sofa for anything, like we'd channeled the exhaustion of the characters somehow.

    Another neglected classic we saw recently was Seance on a Wet Afternoon from 19644.

    I'll mention it in the blog next week but in case I don't see you I recommend you add it to Netflix or whatever.

    1. I wasn't drained afterwards, but it did effect me as I was watching it. Some of those scenes were quite exhausting.

      I've added Seance on a Wet Afternoon to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Sorry if this is a repost it didn't seem to take the first time.

    This hard nugget of a film would never be made today and if by some chance it was it would never be made with such clear eyed restraint and lack of sensationalism. By the very nature of the story it has to be exploitive but Pollack's direction views the participants compassionately. They are already so used by the people running the marathon dance no further manipulation is necessary. Unfortunately that is a skill not in abundance in current Hollywood.

    Jane is great, though I can't argue with Maggie Smith's win for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The award that I do have an issue with is best supporting actress. Goldie Hawn was fetching and adorable in Cactus Flower but in no way was she the equal of Susannah York's sad, deluded Alice.

    It's a pity the film isn't more well known nowadays since like Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd the core idea of the picture has remained incredibly timely.

    1. This is the first time I've seen your comment, so thanks for reposting.

      Oh, the film definitely belongs in the company of the others you mentioned. It's not perfect, but it's a fascinating little movie.

      Though all of them are worthy nominees, I prefer Fonda to Smith and Hawn (slightly) to York.