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Gloria is a young woman of the Depression. She has aged beyond her years and feels her life is hopeless, having been cheated and betrayed many times in her past. While recovering from a suicide attempt, she gets the idea from a movie magazine to head for Hollywood to make it as an actress. Robert is a desperate Hollywood citizen trying to become a director, never doubting he'll make it. Robert and Gloria meet and decide to enter a dance marathon, one of the crazes of the 1930's. The grueling dancing takes its toll on Gloria's already weakened spirit, and she tells Robert that she'd be better off dead, that her life is hopeless - all the while acting cruelly and bitterly, alienating those around her, trying to convince him to shoot her and put her out of her misery. After all, they shoot horses, don't they? Written by
A brutally bleak screen adaptation of the pulpy Horace McCoy novella, about a Depression-era dance marathon where down-and-outers drive themselves to the brink of exhaustion to win the cash prize.
This film has become relevant again today in the age of reality T.V., where people tune in to watch strangers be humiliated, rejected and made fun of. Meanness and suffering sells today, and apparently it sold back then as well. The M.C. of the dance marathon, played wonderfully by Gig Young in one of his last (if not the last) film performances before the troubled actor murdered his wife and then killed himself, creates little narratives and dramas around each of the dancers, so that the audience can have their favorites to root for. Every once in a while, someone will show off a special talent, singing a song or hoofing a little dance number, and the audience will throw change at them, which the performer then frantically scrabbles up like a desperate pigeon. The cast of dancers is led by Jane Fonda, in a break-out role as Gloria, the jaded woman-of-the-world who's seen it all and doesn't want to see anymore; Susannah York, as a pretentious wannabe actress, who acts up a storm during a mesmerizing breakdown scene; Red Buttons, as an aging ex-serviceman who struggles to keep up with the young kids around him; and Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, as a sweet couple of country bumpkins who are desperate to win the cash for their unborn baby. And yes, that is Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster) lurking around in the background as one of the dance marathon officials.
Director Sydney Pollack vastly improves on the source material, making something much richer and deeper out of McCoy's lurid novella. He uses an edgy, jarring style that's suited perfectly to the material, and which he would never again display.
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" holds a sort of grisly fascination over its audience. Bleak as it is, it's also entertaining in a rather morbid way, making us feel like we're members of the audience watching this sick spectacle and making it that much harder for us to condemn the film audience without labeling ourselves as hypocrites.
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