Today! Because I’m gonna get off this merry-go-round. I’m so sick of all sticky things –
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Susannah York (x2), Severn Darden, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Al Lewis, Michael Conrad, Art Metrano
Part of my favorite nonsensical sub-genre of films (movies with complete sentences as titles), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is based on the very real practice of holding dance marathons during the Great Depression so that poor, hungry people could try to win money and prizes. These folks would have to remain on their feet virtually non-stop for days and weeks at a time, trying to outlast each other not unlike modern contests where people have to keep their hands on a car, or continuously ride a rollercoaster until everyone else quits. The difference, of course, was that these people were desperate, and often died from sheer exhaustion in striving to win. It’s a little talked about, shameful blip in history, with roots back in Roman times – straight-up peasant brutality used to entertain the better off.
So if that’s your idea of a fun movie, They Shoot Horses is 100% your jam. Gig Young won an Oscar as the fun-loving, heartless ringmaster of this nightmare carnival, but the on-screen suffering and deterioration of Fonda, Sarrazin, Buttons, and York is equally as impressive and shocking. Based on the effective Horace McCoy novel, the movie manages to round complete characters out of this depravity, improving on the source material by adding and/or enhancing the minor roles. The result is Sydney Pollack’s masterpiece (Out of Africa and Tootsie are both great, don’t get me wrong), holding down the odd distinction of being the most nominated movie in Oscar history that didn’t get a Best Picture nod, with nine! But, you know, thank God they saved that spot for Hello, Dolly!
Oh, back to my sentences as titles thing – it’s something I didn’t consciously know about myself until recently, but the longer and more ridiculous a sentence-title is, the more inclined I am to check out that movie. More famous examples would be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, but any movie I’ve never heard of gets a big bounce just from having this manner of title. If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium popped up on cable recently (perfectly fine!), but I’m still hunting down copies of Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? Let me know if you’ve got some sentence titles laying around! I’m popping in my VHS of Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? as soon as I’m done writing here!
Again, They Shoot Horses was nominated for nine Oscars, including Director, Actress (Fonda), Supporting Actress (York), and Screenplay, with only Young’s win, but was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review, and saw wins for Fonda and York at other critics galas. But no where were the balls in evidence enough to award it Best Sadistic Footrace, as, oh, every so often the dance marathon would be interrupted by a forced team sprint competition, with the loser eliminated, called The Derby.
#305 Superman’s mom joins the Two-Timers list, as Susannah York is our only repeat performer here today. Spotlight!