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Do Hollywood movies come any bleaker than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Battle Of The Year 3-D waltzing into theaters, we look back on other movies about dancers.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

No movie studio today would dare make a picture as bitter and hopeless as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? That’s not exactly a bad thing—the movie is so unrelievedly pessimistic that only the most dedicated misanthrope could love it. But there’s something oddly bracing—noble, even—about a Hollywood picture that’s willing to say, without even a hint of soft-pedaling, that life isn’t worth living, and that it’s squalid, unfair, and disappointing.


They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a show-biz-as-metaphor-for-life movie like The Day Of The Locust, Cabaret, and The Truman Show, and it may well be the most brittle and nihilistic of the bunch. The film centers on one of those winner-take-all Depression-era dance marathons in which poor people danced until their feet bled in the hopes of winning a big cash prize. In this case, the prize is $1,500 to the last couple standing, and the dancing goes on uninterrupted (save for short breaks every two hours) for more than a month. The contestants include aimless drifter Michael Sarrazin, wannabe thespian Susannah York, old trooper Red Buttons, dim bumpkin Bruce Dern, pregnant housewife Bonnie Bedelia, and a bunch of anonymous extras. The centerpiece role belongs to Jane Fonda, a beautiful, illusion-free young woman who knows all too well the contest is a sham, but who competes anyway, because what else is she to do?

At the time of the movie’s release, the idea of using a frenetic, grueling, artificially happy dance contest as a metaphor for America must’ve felt at least a little over-the-top. But now, in the era of reality television, in which all of life is being refashioned as one big competition, it’s barely even a metaphor. (It’s honestly surprising there’s no TV version yet.) What stands out now is the mileage director Sydney Pollack gets out of the material, and how he and the actors keep a potentially thin, claustrophobic scenario—the entire movie takes place within the confines of the dance hall—from turning into a slog. The logistics of marathon dancing are fairly compelling throughout (one man fashions a sort of writing desk for himself by hanging a chair around his neck), and emcee Gig Young (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) lends shape to the proceedings with his ongoing huckster patter.


But much of the credit goes to Fonda, who’s somehow able to invoke sympathy for a deeply cynical, hugely off-putting character. Her venom-tongued Gloria expects nothing from anyone, yet underneath all the knee-jerk negativity wants desperately to be proved wrong. Her tragedy is that she can’t just keep dancing like everybody else. Unlike the heroine of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, who knows what “nothing” means and keeps on playing, Gloria would prefer to have never played at all.

Availability: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix.