They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969): Pollack’s Grim Portrait of the Depression via Brutal Marathon

The downbeat mood of Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? must have also worked against its inclusion in the 1969 Best Picture contest, despite the fact that it was critically acclaimed and nominated for nine awards. Its omission among the five top contenders was conspicuous, due to the fact that the film was nominated for many important categories: Jane Fonda for the lead, and Susannah York and Gig Young for the supporting categories.

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, Jane Fonda, 1969
Courtesy: Everett Collection

Fonda’s first film after the sci-fi sex romp, Barbarella, made by her then husband, Roger Vadim,  is a searing depiction of the Great Depression, centered on a brutal dance marathon.

Based on Horace McCoy’s Depression-era novel, the narrative depicts a harrowing six-day marathon dance contest, stressing the fantasies, illusions, and madness of young people in Chicago of the early 1930s.

The story begins with Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) standing trial for a murder whose details remain vague.

Saga then switches to Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, where a dance marathon is about to begin. The protagonist is Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda), a tough would-be actress, who early one replaces her original partner with Robert–despite his initial reluctance. A loner and a misfit, Gloria is a tough woman who seems to enjoy arguments with the other participants.

Among the contestants are Alice (Susannah York), a Jean Harlow type who dreams of becoming a star; Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), a pregnant farmer, and her husband James (Bruce Dern); Sailor (Red Buttons), a vet marathoner who suffers from heart condition.

Gig Young, who won a Supporting Oscar, plays Rocky), the sleazy master of ceremonies whose job is to keep the contestants dancing at all time–and at all cost.

In the process, we witness, several deaths, self-destruction, deep depression, and manifestations of brutal animalistic behavior on the floor. Why are they doing it The motivation seems to be the same: Three meals a day and a chance of winning a cash prize of $1,500, at a time when the country suffers from severe unemployment, long bread lines, and higher than usual crime and suicide rates.

French writers and philosophers have admired McCoy’s 1935 for its allegorical allusions to American Capitalism at its worst. At one point, Charlie Chaplin, who purchased the rights to the book, considered making a movie out of it.

The shabby locale and despair of the characters must have also depressed the Academy, for it favored the lighthearted fare of Hello, Dolly! and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Best Picture nominees over Pollack’s disturbing parable.

Director Pollack later said that he discerned “a serious actress buried inside this glamour-puss,” and Fonda’s portrayal of a contestant battered by life is devoid of any sentimentality.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(N.Y.: Continuum International, paperback).