Ryan always titles his Blind Spot Series “Blindsided by ….” I have copied him this month because I really was blindsided by my choice this month. Of course I had heard of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and was aware that it is considered to be one of Jane Fonda’s best performances, however to my shame I knew nothing about it. I didn’t who what it was about, who was in it other than Fonda or that Sydney Pollack directed it. And that is why it wasn’t on my Blind Side list. For reasons that will become clear, I had to write about it.
For those as ignorant as me about the movie here is a little background. Based on a novel of the same name written by Horace McCoy and published in 1935. The story centres around a dance marathon held in the faded and tattered La Monica Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier during the depression. Drawing from his own experiences, McCoy had worked as a bouncer on the same pier at several dance marathons (There is a bad horses mouth pun in there somewhere) . A film was very nearly made in 1952 when Norman Lloyd purchased the rights with the intention of collaborating with Charlie Chaplin on an adaptation. They intended to cast Marilyn Monroe and Chaplin’s son Sydney. The film didn’t get off the ground as Chaplin didn’t return from England where he was promoting Limelight after his re-entry permit was revoked.
Amazingly it was the first significant movie directed by Sydney Pollack who had made a handful of movies but had mainly worked in TV. A lot of the strength of the film comes in the way Pollack’s capturing the faded glamour of the surroundings and the broken desperation of the characters. James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) are there as much for the three square meals a day as they are for the $1,500 prize money; aspiring actors Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields) are looking for fame, aging sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons) is trying to prove he isn’t too old; but it is Gloria (Jane Fonda) and Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) who capture the desperation of the depression. As I watch these desperate kids clinging onto some kind of existence I can’t help thinking of a few lines from the Bruce Springsteen song Racing in the Streets “Some guys they just give up living, And start dying little by little piece by piece” and “Some guys they do it for the money, Other guys do it cause they don’t know what else they can do”. The movie and the contest within it are held together by Master of Ceremonies Rocky (Gig Young) who isn’t much better off emotionally than the contestants that he is happy to exploit. concentrating on the disparate and desperate characters grounds the movie in existentialism as much as any road movie or melodrama. This is what elevates it beyond mere drama as it asks questions of both it audience and its characters. The philosophical angle isn’t subtle, but the way it is handled isn’t heavy-handed either.
Nominated for nine Oscars including: Best Director (Sydney Pollack), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jane Fonda), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Gig Young), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Susannah York) winning just one, Gig Young for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. It also picked up a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress, Susannah York. It is however Jane Fonda who stands out at a time when she was making the move from movie star to serious actress. We see the unraveling of a smart and sassy but cynical and damaged woman before our eyes. As with all great performances, I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
In an interesting twist on conventions of film making you soon realise that what appear to be flashbacks are actually flashforwards, indicating but not explaining what will happen at the end of the movie. I’m sure nobody watching the movie expects a happy ending, the grim beauty of what we get is a tragic and shocking conclusion with no hope or liberation just all encompassing futility, the fact that we see it coming doesn’t stop a sense of a rug being pulled from under us. The other depression era classic The Grapes of Wrath ends on a note of hope and defiance with Tom Joad’s “I’ll be all around in the dark……” speech and his declaration of a search for to social justice, we get none of that here. As a portrait of the depression it is truly bleak, what makes it great is that it was relevant in 1969 when it was made three decades after it was set and it remains relevant today another three decades on. “Yowzza”!
You can find the other blind spot entries for the month HERE.