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.