They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Year: 1969
Studio: ABC Pictures
Director: Sydney Pollack
Producer: Robert Chartoff/Irwin Winkler
Writer: James Poe/Robert E Thompson/Horace McCoy
Cast: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, Red Buttons

I realised how little I knew about this film when I started watching it because I had some vague idea it was a Western, probably because of the title).

Instead, it was something I never expected, a great idea where execution gets a bit long in the tooth while it's going on, but whose impact only grows the more you think about it.

Today you could read it as a prescient warning about the rise of reality TV and social media fandom as well as the gladiatorial nature of the media to conflate or invent drama and suffering for mass entertainment.

How could writers James Poe or Robert E Thompson (although strictly speaking the idea would most likely have come from novelist Horace McCoy, whose book they adapted) have known back in 1969 that we'd have an insatiable thirst for the shallow appeal of watching other people's real lives descend into train wrecks for our amusement, like we do today everywhere from Big Brother and Instagram to TV news and 'current affairs'?

Was there anything in popular culture that warned them (or director Sydney Pollack) about the world Hollywood would later pillory in movies like EdTV and The Truman Show?

The premise is a televised dancing competition a bit like the contest in Stephen King's The Long Walk – something it turns out was actually a thing in the 1930s – where couples dance for as long as it takes until only a single lucky pair is left to take home the prize money. They dance for almost two hours at a time, getting ten-minute rest periods to recuperate, change and freshen up before they're at it again.

Meanwhile, wealthy spectators bet on their success or failure, some of them representing sponsorship opportunities for couples to keep them in clothes, food or drink. Today we'd consider them a metaphor for reality TV audiences or armies of social media users following some fallen celebrity, delighting in the degradation and pain people go through for their 15 minutes of fame.

The lead couple fall into it almost by accident. Robert (Michael Sarrazin) is walking along the beachfront in Santa Monica some time during the Depression years when he hears the preparations for a dance contest ringing out from a boardwalk music hall.

He goes inside where couples are lined up along panels of assessors, so desperate to be accepted you'd think they were political refugees fleeing tyrannical government troops. One of them is the cynical Gloria (Jane Fonda), who's intended partner is rejected because he's apparently coming down with a cold.

Gloria, a failed actress, is already on the skids, the prize money her only ticket left. None too pleased with her prospects, she agrees to join up with Robert even though she seems to hate him as much as she does anyone in her perpetually jaded state.

That's all the set-up, anyway. The execution is the competition, presided over by the director of the production, ringleader and announcer Rocky (Gig Young), a man who wears two faces.

The first is the hucksterish hawker when he's on the mike, geeing up the crowd by adding 'yowza yowza yowza' at the end of every excited pronouncement. The other is the slightly disaffected backstage executive, trying to keep the whole show on track even though he seems smart enough to realise how barbaric it all is, playing psychiatrist and life coach to the contestants as they fall apart and manipulating the goings on to artificially create drama and maintain interest.

And fall apart they do. When the dancing gives way to roller skating races around the floor where the three couples who come last will be automatically eliminated, you can see the pain and anguish on everyone's faces, particularly married couple James and Ruby (played by Bruce Dern and an almost prepubescent-looking Bonnie Bedelia).

A dance competition doesn't sound terribly brutal, but as it continues over the space of almost a month, the hair and make-up as well as the acting do a very credible job of showing what exhaustion does to people. We're left with a juxtaposition of something as innocuous and supposedly enjoyable as dancing leaving people looking like they've been fighting with melee weapons.

As people we've come to know fall and drop out, it can only lead to one possible end, but Gloria's had enough – maybe more than even she herself realised back when we first met her – and when she asks Robert help her reach the denouement she's decided she wants, it's a very big shock.

There's human interest in the characters as the story unfolds around them, but by its nature it can get a little bit repetitive and a bit of a slog to actually make the investment to watch, but it will stay with you longer than you think the more you think about it later.

Apparently critics and film firmament back in the day saw real brilliance in it – to this day it holds the record for the highest number of Oscar nominations without being nominated for Best Picture.

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