was the film that convinced audiences and critics alike that Jane Fonda could
act. After appearing throughout the Sixties in glamour-girl and comic roles (Cat Ballou, Barbarella) that barely scratched the surface of what this talented
actress could do, along came They Shoot
Horses, Don’t They?, which featured a tough, cynical, mean-spirited, and
take-no-prisoners Jane Fonda as Gloria, a down-on-her-luck contestant in a
Depression-era marathon dance contest. The showy role resulted in her first
Best Actress Oscar nomination.
picture also awarded Sydney Pollack his first Directing nomination; in fact,
the film received a total of nine Oscar nominations, including Adapted
Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Susannah York), and Supporting Actor (Gig
Young, who won); but it did not, curiously, land a Best Picture nod. It
dance marathon contests in the early 1930s were an American display of
spectacle and madness. On the one hand, they provided cheap entertainment for
audiences who wanted to watch the progression of misery as dancers remained on
their feet (aside from occasional ten-minute breaks for food and very rare
longer breaks) for hours, days, weeks… until one couple was left standing. On
the other hand, it provided some kind hope for the contestants themselves, as
the payout was a whopping $1500—a big chunk of change in Depression-stricken
(Fonda) matches up with Robert (Michael Sarrazin) by default. There’s also
Alice (York), a Jean Harlow wannabe, aging former Navy man Harry (Red Buttons),
and married couple James and pregnant Ruby (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia). The
proceedings are MC’d with ringmaster showmanship and a canny sense of sardonicism
by Rocky (Young, who is marvelous in his award-winning role). “Yowza, yowza,
yowza!” he calls into the microphone, as the contestants go through hell in the
guise of showbiz.
the picture was released in 1969, it provided a social commentary that was a
metaphor for life itself—that we’re competing in a never-ending marathon of
hardship until you either drop out, drop dead, or win the big prize. The final
irony is that the big prize isn’t such a big prize after all. Not a feel-good
movie, to be sure, but certainly a thoughtful statement on the human condition.
Pollack’s direction is superb, an early indication of the long career he would
have in Hollywood.
The year 2017 was a particularly gratifying one in terms of watching a virtual tidal wave of impressive young talent emerge both on screen and behind the cameras. It was also a year in which the major studios finally afforded a good number of talented females plum leading roles. The one constant, however, is that while the major studios became even more obsessed with tentpole franchise films based on comic book characters, it fell to the smaller, more creative independent films to remind us of just how wondrous cinema can still be. Case in point: "Lady Bird", which has received numerous major Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. If you think the movie is the biography of President Lyndon Johnson's wife, known affectionately by one and all as "Lady Bird", you're in for a rude awakening. The film marks the directorial debut of 34 year-old actress/writer Greta Gerwig, and she has come through with flying colors. The film is a bittersweet comedy/drama set in the early 2000s and centering on Christina McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a senior in a Catholic high school who dreams of grand achievements that include leaving her hometown of Sacramento, California and heading east to the Big Apple where she wants to attend college and begin making her mark on society. She is fiercely independent, self-confidant (a bit too self-confidant), highly intelligent and in possession of a sarcastic wit that all too often strays into the realm of outright cynicism. So desperate is Christina to establish her own unique identity that she insists upon being called "Lady Bird", although the name doesn't seem to have any significant meaning beyond Christina thinking it has some sort of profound impact.
When we first meet Lady Bird, she is grappling with the challenges that senior year presents to most kids her age. She is eager to move into adulthood but not quite as well-equipped to do so as she might imagine. She's likeable, funny but also somewhat narcissistic. She is trying unsuccessfully to cope with the fractious relationship she has with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a hardworking nurse who often seems tone deaf to her daughter's dreams and ambitions. At a time when a teenager's quests in life are usually encouraged by their family, Lady Bird gets a daily dose of reality tossed in her face. Her mother eschews her plans to apply to notable universities on the east coast, reminding her that they are literally living on the other side of the tracks from most of Lady Bird's more affluent friends. Indeed, the family is barely clinging to vestiges of the lower middle class. Lady Bird has a hands-off relationship with her brother (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend (Marielle Scott), who was invited to live with the family when she fell on hard times. Both indulge in the goth look that would make them seem at home in the Addams Family mansion. It puts a chasm between them and Lady Bird, who argues often with them and her mother. The only respite or sympathy she finds in the household is from her adoring dad, Larry (wonderfully portrayed by acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts). They share a gentle, humorous relationship that masks over the fact that he's got a world of trouble of his own, having just been fired from his job. (In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, the ever-desperate Larry goes on a long-shot job interview only to find himself competing with his own son). However, the core of the film focuses on the mother/daughter relationship and captures it in a way most mothers and daughters can relate to. They are both fundamentally decent people who care for and love each other but neither is particularly open to seeing life from the other's viewpoint. They spend most of their time caught up in emotionally-shattering debates and verbal duels. Lady Bird needs her dreams to be nurtured. Her mom understandably wants some recognition that she is working herself to death just to keep a roof over everyone's heads. At school, Lady Bird finds more frustrations. Her school adviser seems immune to reading her desires for higher education. Her frumpy but sweet girlfriend Jule (a marvelous Beanie Feldstein) is someone who has already thrown in the towel in terms of achieving her life's ambitions. Lady Bird angles for a good role in the senior class stage musical but finds nothing but irritants. She's determined to have sex before she graduates but her hunky first boyfriend turns out to be too good to be true. She latches on to a creepy intellectual (Timothee Chalamet, an Oscar nominee this year for "Call Me By Your Name") and ends up losing her virginity on the basis of his deception.
Greta Gerwig's script and direction are pitch perfect. One assumes the only logical reason that the film is set in the early 2000s is because that's when she attended high school. If that's the inspirational motive for the setting, fine with me. It allows us to revisit the last time period in which people still conversed with one another instead of gazed endlessly into a cell phone. Gerwig also gets a star-making performance from Saoirse Ronan, who won acclaim for her performance in "Brooklyn" a few years ago. However, it is this role at the tender age of 23 that stands to make her a major player in the film industry. She is matched by Laurie Metcalf, who has justifiably snared a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Even the minor roles are wonderful enacted. The film bristles with domestic tensions but ends on a beautiful and poignant note. "Lady Bird" is a film by women and about women, but it's appeal extends to anyone who appreciates great movie making.