Saturday, March 21, 2015

Blind Spot Series 2015: They Shoot Horses, Don't They

The month has fleeted from us rather quickly (man, this year is moving along, isn't it?) and so it's time for another Blind Spot entry.  This one was hard.  That isn't to say that it was bad, because it wasn't.  It was just hard.

Enough of that.



It’s strange how you can know nothing about a movie and yet know everything about it at the same time.  I mean, I can know that ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ is about a dance marathon set during the great depression and that it stars Jane Fonda and Susannah York and yet, my preconceived notion about what this movie was actually about was so far off, SO FAR OFF.

I thought this was a comedy.

Well, I can assure you that there is nothing ‘funny’ about this film.  In fact, there are fewer films that I can think of that are this bleak, this emotionally crippling.  When the film ends, in those final moments, all hope, all faith, all possibility of a happy future is lost.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so empty at the climax of a film.  My wife even turned to look at me when it ended and asked, “Why did you want to watch this, again?”

We watched it because it’s brilliant.


‘The Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ centers around a group of people at the end of their ropes, so-to-speak.  Gloria, Robert, Alice, Sailor…remember these names, for you’ll remember their stories.  This group of distraught and lost souls enter a dance marathon with their eyes on the cash prize, but more immediately, they are just looking for food and shelter.  As the contestants grab their partners and their numbers, they crowd the dance floor, earnestly determined to outlast everyone else, patiently awaiting their rest breaks and supplied food.  While they dance, their ringmaster as it were, the emcee Rocky, pulls strings to create a chaotic and desperate atmosphere that pleases onlookers and creates entertainment out of misery, determined to stir the pot and make the exercise all the more ‘worth it’.

It’s not worth it.

I’m going to throw something out there, but hear me out before you disagree; ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ is kind of like an adult, more focused and literal version of ‘The Hunger Games’.  This is a story about people desperate for their own survival, cast about and hopeless, agreeing to participate in a game that will strain them, test them and in some cases kill them, all for the hopes of receiving a prize that could sustain their lives.  While they are participating in this competition, they are betted on, sponsored and cheered by wealthy spectators who take a fancy to their stories.  They’re lives are made spectacle of; they are sold to the public through the lens of commercial marketability.  When things aren’t progressing fast enough, they are poked and prodded, forced into a corner where they must exert themselves or bow out, or die.  When it is deemed fit, their personal lives are manipulated to make for better entertainment, going as far as to elicit tension and force relationships that may be budding into full-fledged affairs if it’ll gain more attention.


And then, when all is said and done, the winners don’t really win at all.

For a film this desperate and this bleak, it really needed an anchor to make it palatable, and Sydney Pollack is remarkably perfect here.  The way he surveys the whole proceedings, coming in at the right moments to make the characters come to life for us, but knowing when to scale back and just give us enough to keep us at a distance is so smart and so effective.  He makes us feel for these people and he gives us an innate longing to plead for their happy endings.  They won’t get them, but he forces us to pine for it in a way that feels genuine and never manipulative.  Films like this are important for they help us to understand a time we can never fully understand, and yet all too often that understanding is marred by a director’s ambition.  Pollack knows how to balance to grit and honesty with the fa├žade in a way that is remarkably poignant.

And that cast!  Jane Fonda has never been better, ever.  Her hard exterior masking her brittle state is so effective, so crushing.  Gig Young is the perfect foil, creating a tense atmosphere within his own brashness, but subtly exposing his own desperation.  Red Buttons delivers such a harrowing performance as Sailor, a man lost in his own struggle to remain relevant, clinging to a past and devoid of any real future.  But the star here is Susannah York.  WHAT A PERFORMANCE!  She bleeds such honesty, such raw emotional unraveling.  Every scene chips away at her soul until we’re left with a shell of a woman.  It’s one of the bravest and most compelling performance I’ve ever seen put to film; period.


No, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ isn’t a comedy.  In many ways this isn’t even entertaining.  It’s one of the hardest films to watch, and when it ended I felt dead inside.  Still, it’s perfect, a masterpiece of storytelling importance and a film that I wouldn’t change a thing about.

28 comments:

  1. That's one hell of a title. Great review! You make me very curious for this one, even though you said it's hard to watch. Hmmmmm

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was certainly worth the watch, even though it was hard. It's a brilliantly constructed film that will effect you where it counts.

      Delete
  2. So glad you finally caught up with this and that you got so much out of it. If anything was ever the anti-comedy this is it. It was so heavy that the first time I watched, years ago, it was so despairing I walked away rather shell shocked and disposed to hating it. Between then and my second try I read the book, as downbeat as the film, and developed an affinity for Pollack's directing style so I was more prepared for the onslaught. At which point I was blown away by the film.

    It was no less emotionally searing but knowing what to expect I was ready for its rhythms. I love Jane Fonda and think she is reliably excellent and has been award worthy several times throughout her career but never more so then in this, and that includes Klute. I can only imagine what a revelation this was to audiences at the time since her films leading up to this were Barefoot in the Park and Barbarella. She's said this is the performance that convinced Pakula that she could handle Bree Daniels.

    One of the great things about the film is that everybody is at her level. I love Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower, she's adorable and endearing and I'm not one who thinks comedy performances are lesser than dramatic work but there is absolutely no way that she should have won the Oscar over Susannah York's shattering work, just no way. Gig Young was justly rewarded for his performance, although sadly behind the scenes the praise seemed to only worsen his downward spiral, but Red Buttons is equally amazing. Michael Sarrazin is usually pushed aside in praise of everyone else but his part doesn't offer the opportunities the others do, he's our guide more or less and as a mirror he has to stand back and observe, he does fine with what the role offers. It's not something that I watch often, it's just too scaldingly harsh for casual viewing, but it's a great piece of film making.

    One thing that is incredible considering what makes big money nowadays is that this was an enormous hit upon release making triple its budget at the box office. I can't even imagine that reception for the film today.

    A small aside. June Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee's sister (Baby June in Gypsy) subsisted on competing, and usually winning, dance marathons with her husband, both in their mid-teens at the time, after they eloped from the family act and before becoming established as a Broadway star. She eventually wrote and directed a play about the experience called Marathon '33 which garnered she and her star, Julie Harris, Tony nominations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarrazin is a great anchor for the film, but like you said, he sadly just doesn't have the same impact due to the passive nature of his character.

      And I love Hawn, and I even love her performance in Cactus Flower, but that win over York and Dyan Cannon (who was really Lead in her film but was also head and shoulders above Hawn). In a just world, Cannon would have won in Lead (yes, even over Fonda) and York in Supporting. Those are two of my favorite performances of the 60's. UGH, if only.

      And I love Young, but I wish Nicholson had won for Easy Rider. Now, THAT is the comedic performance of 1969.

      Red Buttons Oscar snub is gross. He should have at least been nominated alongside Young.

      I really want to read the book.

      Delete
    2. Nicholson was probably the best part of Easy Rider but for me that's faint praise since I hated that movie utterly.

      I go back and forth on whether the Oscar should have gone to Young or Buttons. Young's bitter, manipulative alcoholic from what I've read was somewhat close to who he was off-screen though that shouldn't take away from his work whereas Red was a happy go lucky guy so the worn down Sailor was a stretch. But then he had already won the award for a decent but not nearly as complex performance in Sayonara and Nicholson was certainly amply rewarded in the coming years so I'm glad Gig did win.

      Did you know one of Gig Young's five wives was Elizabeth Montgomery?

      Delete
    3. I've heard that Gig's performance was not a 'stretch', but it's still shattering. I also go back and forth with who I think was better, but honestly, Button's is far more sympathetic and offers a very crushing blow to the audience, so I kind of side with him.

      And I also HATED Easy Rider, except for Nicholson's scenes. The rest of the movie was a complete mess. He is brilliantly comedic though, and basically set his bar very high (a bar that he met many times in his early career).

      I didn't know that about Gig...but it doesn't surprise me that you did :-P

      Delete
  3. I had seen this picture a couple of times...yup twice-I was into depression:) OK no not really but you nailed it with your critique. You hope for each person to make it in some way except for 2 characters-Gig Young's and Jane Fonda's. At least I knew they were doomed. He seemed to be the Master of Ceremonies for something evil and he was already lost right at the beginning. Jane Fonda was so negative (I have met people like that actually) that it is a blessing when the end finally comes. I agree with you about Susannah York

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I get what you mean about 'being into depression'. I've often told my friends that if a film can make me FEEL something, that is when it matters. Depression is hard to watch, but it's hard to watch for a reason...it makes you FEEL.

      UGH, York...like, OMG she's so good here.

      Delete
  4. I've never seen the film but I always keep thinking of a very famous episode of Gilmore Girls called "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They" where Lorelai asks her daughter Rory to be her partner at the last minute for a dance marathon in the hopes that she can beat Kirk once and for all. It's a hilarious episode.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've never watched an episode of Gilmore Girls...but this one ain't so funny :-P

      Delete
  5. Shit. This sounds absolutely brutal.
    J
    www.assholeswatchingmovies.com

    ReplyDelete
  6. Wow, this sounds rough! I don't think I've been so intrigued by a movie after reading a review but...wow!
    - Allie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for the compliment. There are few films that literally make me feel like I lost a piece of myself while watching it. 'Kids' is another one. Like...it makes you question the point of living.

      Delete
  7. I've run across the title a thousand times in my travels, but never bothered to find out what it was about. Simply based on that I assumed it was a comedy. Glad I read this first or might have been thrown for a real loop. That said, it might not ever have watched it. Not sure when I'll get to it, but you've definitely moved it way up the to-watch list. Excellent review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was just like you. I had no desire to see this at all, and then Joel recommended it and told me it was far from the comedy I assumed and so I put it in my Blind Spot for the year to force my hand. Despite the emptiness in my soul, I'm glad I did!

      Delete
  8. Yeah, I've not seen this one yet, either... but with a title like that, I would NEVER think it was a comedy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL, it was more the people involved than the title. I had only known York from Tom Jones (a comedy) and Fonda is better known for her comedic work and Pollack, having directed many things, had a knack for comedy, and it was about dancing...but that title could be spun in a funny way, when you think about it.

      Delete
    2. Funny how perception changes over the years. You saying that Jane is better known for her comedic work, which I guess is the case now, but when I was a kid after Horses and Klute she was one of THE premier dramatic actresses, along with Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and Faye Dunaway who only very occasionally went back to her early comedic roots. Even when she revolutionized the exercise industry with her workouts she was still doing heavy duty stuff like Agnes of God and The Morning After.

      If you're interested in seeing some more of Susannah York's best dramatic work check out Images or The Maids which is based loosely on the infamous Papin sisters where she co-stars with Glenda Jackson, both are brilliant in it.

      Delete
    3. I'm trying desperately to get ahold of The Maids!

      And yeah, time changes things. I also think it's what I associated her with, mainly because I didn't dig deep into her resume, so it's less what she's better known for to the world and more what she's better known with for me. I mean, for the longest time when I thought of Jane Fonda I thought "expressionless actress who bores the shit out of me unless she's fighting with Jennifer Lopez", for real, but Klute and especially this film are starting to change things for me.

      Delete
    4. I found The Maids through Netflix, on disc not streaming but if I remember correctly I had to wait a bit for it.

      Delete
    5. Last time I checked, it wasn't available, but I'll check again!

      Delete
  9. Fabulous review. A blind spot for me as well. Fonda was an interesting case. I always appreciated her acting but was never blown away by her as many were (and are). Perhaps I need to give some of her movies another chance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I've used the phrase "I'm not fond of Fonda" a lot during my cinephile life because I don't really care for any of them, to be honest, and yet they have all had their moments to impress me. Jane is not an actress I get excited about, but here and in Klute, she was marvelous.

      Delete
  10. Yay! So glad you loved this! The cast is brilliant, and Pollack's direction is terrific. I nominate Fonda, Young, and York, but they all lose at the moment. Now I want to rewatch this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. York is my winner, and I can't see anyone changing that. I also nominated Fonda (who loses to Cannon) and Young and Buttons (who lose to Nicholson). This was such a tremendous cast. Pollock may be my Director winner ATM.

      Delete
  11. I'm just popping back into this one to recommend this take on the movie for you. If you're not familiar with the site it's one of my favs. He does wonderfully in depth overviews of the films he looks at.

    http://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2011/06/they-shoot-horses-dont-they-1969.html

    ReplyDelete