These days, Jane Fonda’s image seems stuck in amber. We imagine her as a space-vixen in Barbarella (1965) , as an angry prostitute in Klute (1974) or as a sweetly murderous secretary in 9 to 5 (1983). We remember roles so quintessentiallly of their time that talk of Fonda’s career resembles the fond unearthing of a time capsule. Watching her in Sydney Pollack’s 1969 “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” refreshes this history. The movie, while clearly of its era, is also earnest, raw and startlingly relevant. And Fonda’s performance as Gloria is its nexus.
“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” is a deeply earnest film, but it isn’t hard to watch. Probably because there aren’t any saints in it. Though it admires its desperate, vulnerable people–never losing sympathy for them and never making fun– it does let them fail. And it lets them fail naturally, as neither villains nor “losers”, but as human animals, untainted by morality. They break down, let each other down and sell themselves for almost nothing. And all of it is entirely sympathetic.
The situation is historical. We observe the players bravely dragging themselves through one of the many Great Depression spawned dance marathons. The entrants are among the least lucky of the Depression’s victims, so hungry and lacking in prospects that they are willing to be locked in a sunless ballroom to “dance” with a partner for countless sleepless days. They receive occasional 10 minute breaks to crash on a cot, take a shower, or try to feed their enervated bodies in some other quick, exhausted way… If a body can tolerate the conditions, the payoff appears worthwhile: daily access to a heaping all-you-can-eat table and a chance at the $1500 prize. The prize, of course, goes to the survivors only: that one and only couple to outlast the rest. Social Darwinism as entertainment.
The plot is a tableau, following a mostly sympathetic collection of hard-up types: a boyish drifter, an aging ex-sailor, a gentle pregnant woman and her defensive husband, two well-garbed Hollywood wannabes and a bitter single girl, gone nearly feral in hardened self-protection. Jane Fonda is fierce and pungent as the girl. And though the young Fonda is very lovely, one tends to forget her beauty here , seeing only sadness and edge. Partly because exhaustion depletes her color and energy, but partly because she seems to have forgotten it herself.
Fonda’s Gloria has a raw dignity, the kind possessed by someone who’s been stripped of everything but the last thing, the urge to survive. There’s an odd relief I feel in watching her. Like looking at Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photographs, witnessing a woman so bereft relieves me of my inborn compulsions to appraise and pass judgement, to bestow mental rewards and punishments, to decide who deserves better, who’s got more than they deserve. While many films do the opposite, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? provides a respite from my grousing, contemptuous instincts.
Though clearly kin, plenty differentiates this dust-bowl era dance marathon from modern day reality shows. Two distinct differences invite mention. One is the comparative quiet of TSHDT’s dance marathon: dialogue is pared down to the essential; beleaguered characters utter only occasional, brief lines, compressed and poignant, like the title cards in a silent movie. Fatigued and exposed as they are, contestants say something only if it might mean something. Conversely, our modern reality shows are talk–marathons. Endlessly chatty, participants obscure any possible meaning with posturing, sniping and relentless psycho-babble. The second distinction is even more intriguing: motive. The physiological need that drove Depression-era dance contestants is absolutely plain. What drives “real” housewives, et al. to expose themselves is more troubling. Though money is surely a strong inducement, notoriety-seeking appears the driving force. Constant self-exposure and exploitation has become de rigeur. We’re just as desperate as the marathon-ers, but our motives have become grotesque. We’ll suffer any humiliation for the sake of being seen.