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! Continue reading