So last night, just as I was about to head to bed, I flipped across the 1969 Sydney Pollack movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I ended up staying up way too late, but wow – that’s a fun movie. And by fun, I mean jaw-droppingly sad.
The movie is set during the Depression, and it’s about a dance marathon – last couple dancing gets $1,500. That sounds like it might be a fun little comedy. But all the contestants are desperate, one step away from dead in a gutter, and they dance like their lives depend on it. And meanwhile Rocky, the promoter, charges admission to watch them teeter on the brink of physical and mental collapse as the days stretch into weeks…
Here they are again, folks! These wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping! As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues! The marathon goes on, and on, and on! HOW LONG CAN THEY LAST!
For a movie about a dance marathon, there is almost no dancing. The couples just sway forlornly, sometimes literally holding each other upright. Occasionally, they get to collapse on cots during ten minute breaks. And then they hear a piercing klaxon, and it’s back to the dance floor. Sometimes spectators throw pennies, which they pick up meekly.
And this isn’t some Disney schlock where the dancers gradually bond, renew each other’s faith in humanity, and everyone wins. There’s no romance either – most of these couples are strangers who are paired up out of necessity. I don’t want to say anything about the ending, because it’s so over-the-top you guys might laugh at it. But coming at the end of two hours of majestically bleak filmmaking, the climax seems earned and appropriate.
But here’s the clever part: you obviously feel for these desperate dancers and hate those ugly spectators who eat popcorn and cheer for their suffering. But of course, you also want to see what happens next, how much more misery will be heaped on these poor bastards, and what will finally break them. In other words, YOU’RE one of those sadistic spectators who pay good money to watch a human spirit get trampled. That’s a neat trick, putting you on the dance floor AND in the stands.
One final note: Jane Fonda is awesome. When I grew up, she was most famous for those exercise videos and being Mrs. Ted Turner. But this lady won two Academy Awards, and was nominated another FIVE TIMES. They Shoot Horses was her breakthrough as a serious actress. She’s beautiful and sick of life, and it breaks your heart. You want to give her a hug, but you know she’d barely feel it. No surprise this film earned her a nomination for Best Picture… although if you consider how her PREVIOUS film was sci-fi soft-porn Barbarella, then yeah, it’s a little surprising.