Friday, September 12, 2008

93. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)

Directed by Sydney Pollack
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Gig Young, Susannah York, Red Buttons

As it states at the beginning of the trailer to Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses Don't They?, people are the ultimate spectacle. Jane Fonda's Gloria wants to be part of a spectacle, travelling to Hollywood in the hope of becoming an actress. All she gets is a place in a marathon dance contest, offering the top prize of $1,500 in the midst of depression-era America.

This isn't the first film to be critical of the 'American dream' and it sure as hell won't be the last, but you'll be hard-pushed to find one so unevenly extreme in its treatment of an aspiring young breed of characters. The participants of the contest live through the cheapened descent that entertainment has undergone, their health, tolerance, and strength sapped with every waltz and jive. It's admittedly more suffering than you're likely to see on television nowadays but there are interesting parallels to reality-TV and talent shows that crush ambitious youngsters all too easily.

A recent first viewing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? brought this film back to the forefront of my mind. As well as both being titular questions they each feature long sequences of testing character interaction, and as such are a real acting showcase. Horses garnered three acting nominations, and a Supporting Actor win for the devilishly handsome Gig Young. Young is excellent, but the real standout is Jane Fonda, in what is my favourite performance of hers. The ever-charismatic star is the character who really gauges the political situation, and understands that the contest is indicative of this. Her character's apparent awareness of Horses' themes yet inability to rise above the entire debacle the biggest tragedy, Fonda's Gloria reads like a fame-hungry gambler that just can't stop. But the question remains as to whether her fate is a tragic one, or a perverse victory. Watch it, and decide for yourself.

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