They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (film)
|They Shoot Horses, Don't They?|
|Directed by||Sydney Pollack|
|Screenplay by||Robert E. Thompson|
|Based on||They Shoot Horses, Don't They?|
by Horace McCoy
|Cinematography||Philip H. Lathrop|
|Edited by||Fredric Steinkamp|
|Music by||Johnny Green|
|Distributed by||Cinerama Releasing Corporation|
|Box office||$12.6 million|
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American psychological drama film directed by Sydney Pollack, from a screenplay written by Robert E. Thompson and James Poe, based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel of the same name, and starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Bonnie Bedelia and Red Buttons. It focuses on a disparate group of individuals desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and an opportunistic emcee who urges them on.
The film was released theatrically in the United States on December 10, 1969, and also premiered at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film became a critical and commercial success, grossing $12.6 million on a budget of $4.86 million, becoming the seventeenth highest-grossing film of 1969. Reviewers praised its direction, screenplay, depiction of the depression era, and performances (especially of Fonda, York and Young). It received nine nominations at the 42nd Academy Awards including; Best Director, Best Actress (for Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (for York), Best Adapted Screenplay, with Young winning for Best Supporting Actor. As of 2023, it holds the record for most Oscar nominations without one for Best Picture.
Robert Syverton is a homeless man who recalls the events leading to an unstated crime. As a boy, he saw a horse breaking its leg, and it was shot and put out of its misery. Years later, in the Great Depression, he wanders into a dance marathon that is about to begin in the shabby ballroom near the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier. Couples are competing for a prize of $1,500 in silver dollars, and hope to be spotted by Hollywood celebrities and talent scouts in the audience. Robert is recruited by Rocky, the contest's promoter and emcee, as the substitute partner of a bitter, world-weary yet still young woman named Gloria Beatty, after her previous partner is disqualified for bronchitis.
The other marathon contestants include retired sailor Harry Kline, emotionally fragile aspiring London actress Alice, her partner and aspiring actor Joel, impoverished farmer James, and his pregnant wife Ruby. Early in the marathon, the weaker pairs are eliminated quickly, and Rocky observes the vulnerabilities of stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. The arena uses quack doctors to cover up the extreme physical and mental damage to participants. Frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses, especially when Rocky uses it to create artificial drama and entertain the audience, and Gloria's displeasure at the attention that Alice receives from Robert. Robert ends up pairing off with Alice, and Gloria takes Joel as her partner and switches to Harry after Joel leaves for a job.
Weeks into the marathon and to spark the paying spectators' enthusiasm, Rocky stages a series of derbies in which many contestants run around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry dies of a heart attack, before Gloria carries him and reaches the goal. Rocky disqualifies Harry, and the medics remove his body from the dance floor. When Alice suffers a nervous breakdown and showers with clothes on, Rocky comforts her and removes her from the competition. Lacking partners, Gloria and Robert again pair up.
Rocky suggests Gloria and Robert get married during the marathon, a publicity stunt that is guaranteed to earn more cash for them in the form of gifts from supporters such as Mrs. Laydon, a wealthy woman who sponsors them throughout the contest. When Gloria refuses, Rocky reveals the invoice sheet: expenses will be deducted from the prize money for the winner to have nothing. Gloria and Robert leave the competition. While packing up her things, Gloria searches for one of her silk stockings. When Robert finds it, and it has a run in it, she breaks down. The two leave the dance hall and stand on the pier near the beach. Gloria confesses to Robert how empty she feels and that she is tired of her life. Gloria removes a gun from her purse, but cannot bring herself to pull the trigger. She desperately asks Robert to shoot her, which he does. Police officers arrest Robert and remove Gloria's body. Asked why he did it, Robert tells the police that she asked him to. After they press him further, Robert says, "They shoot horses, don't they?"
The marathon goes on with the few remaining couples, having already reached 1,491 hours.
- Jane Fonda as Gloria Beatty
- Michael Sarrazin as Robert Syverton
- Susannah York as Alice LeBlanc
- Gig Young as Rocky Gravo
- Red Buttons as Harry Kline (Sailor)
- Bonnie Bedelia as Ruby Bates
- Michael Conrad as Rollo
- Bruce Dern as James Bates
- Al Lewis as "Turkey"
- Robert Fields as Joel Girard
- Severn Darden as Cecil
- Allyn Ann McLerie as Shirl
- Madge Kennedy as Mrs. Laydon
- Jacquelyn Hyde as Jackie
- Felice Orlandi as Mario
- Arthur Metrano as Max
- Paul Mantee as "Jiggs"
In the early 1950s, Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were looking for a project on which to collaborate, with Lloyd as director and Chaplin as producer. Lloyd purchased the rights to Horace McCoy's novel for $3,000 and planned to cast Chaplin's son, Sydney, and newcomer Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles. Once arrangements were completed, in 1952 Chaplin took his family on what was intended to be a brief trip to the United Kingdom for the London premiere of Limelight. During this trip, in part because Chaplin was accused of being a Communist supporter during the McCarthy era, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke his re-entry permit and the film project was cancelled. When the rights to the book reverted to McCoy's heirs sixteen years later (he had died in 1955), they refused to renew the deal with Lloyd, since nothing had come of his original plans.
A script was written by James Poe, who wanted to direct. The rights were bought by Palomar Pictures, whose president was then Edgar Scherick. Scherick offered the project to the producing team of Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, who were enthusiastic, but felt the script needed a rewrite and that they would struggle to make the film for Scherick's desired budget of $900,000. They also had concerns about Poe's ability as a director and worried that he was too arrogant.
Mia Farrow was interested in starring but Scherick felt her fee of $500,000 was too high. Eventually it was agreed to show the script to Jane Fonda, who was interested. Michael Sarrazin was borrowed from Universal to play the male lead. Scherick eventually agreed to raise the budget to $4 million. Martin Baum (agent) became head of ABC Pictures, and Winkler says Baum arranged for Scherick to be fired. Baum wanted the second female lead to be played by Susannah York though Poe had promised the role to his then-girlfriend. Winkler says it was Baum who suggested Red Buttons and Gig Young, and pushed for Poe to be fired. The producers were reluctant especially as Jane Fonda liked Poe and had director approval. Winkler arranged for Poe to direct a screen test for Bonnie Bedelia with Fonda; the test did not go well and Fonda became less enthusiastic about Poe's capabilities as a director. Poe was fired from the project.
The main candidates to replace Poe were William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack and Jack Smight. According to Winkler, Smight wanted $250,000, Friedkin wanted $200,000 and Pollack was willing to do it for $150,000. Pollack got the job.
Fonda said she was originally unimpressed by the script, but her husband Roger Vadim, who saw similarities between the book and works of the French existentialists, urged her to reconsider.
Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her opinion. She later said, "It was the first time a director asked me for input on how I saw the character and the story." She read the script with a critical eye, made notes on the character and later observed in her autobiography, "It was a germinal moment [for me] ... This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant." Troubled about problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.
Pollack had the script rewritten by Robert Thompson.
Warren Beatty originally was considered for the role of Robert Syverton and Pollack's first choice for Rocky was character actor Lionel Stander.
During filming there was an issue with Susannah York, who wanted a guarantee she would be able to make Country Dance. When this was not forthcoming, it seemed she would have to be replaced and Pollack suggested Sally Kellerman. However, York relented and agreed to make the film.
The film uses the unusual technique of flashforward (glimpses of the future). It occurs during the last 18 minutes of the film, as passages appear foreshadowing the fate of Robert, just before the tragic ending. Costar Gig Young was noted for his deep characterization of Rocky: he patterned his character after the bandleader and radio personality Ben Bernie, and used Bernie's famous catchphrase, "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!", for the character in the film.
The film's soundtrack features numerous standards from the era. These include:
- "Easy Come, Easy Go" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
- "Sweet Sue, Just You" by Victor Young and Will J. Harris
- "Paradise" by Nacio Herb Brown and Gordon Clifford
- "Coquette" by Johnny Green, Carmen Lombardo, and Gus Kahn
- "The Japanese Sandman" by Richard A. Whiting and Ray Egan
- "By the Beautiful Sea" by Harry Carroll and Harold R. Atteridge
- "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
- "The Best Things in Life Are Free" by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson
- "Body and Soul" by Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton
- "I Cover the Waterfront" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
- "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" by Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg
- "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)" by Harry Warren, Billy Rose, and Mort Dixon
- "Out of Nowhere" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
- "California, Here I Come" by Buddy DeSylva, Joseph Meyer, and Al Jolson
The ballroom band consisted of several professional jazz musicians, all uncredited. The band was led by Bobby Hutcherson and included Hugh Bell, Ronnie Bright, Teddy Buckner, Hadley Caliman, Teddy Edwards, Thurman Green, Joe Harris, Ike Isaacs, Harold Land and Les Robertson.
A soundtrack album was released on ABC Records in 1969.
The film premiered at the Fine Arts Theatre on December 10, 1969.
The film was a box office success, grossing $12.6 million in the United States and Canada on a $4.86 million budget, generating theatrical rentals of $5.98 million making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1969. It grossed $28,000 in its opening week.
The film was screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. In the United States, the film was applauded for portraying the Depression era.
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and named it as one of the best American movies of the 1970s:
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a masterful re-creation of the [dance] marathon era for audiences that are mostly unfamiliar with it. In addition to everything else it does, "Horses" holds our attention because it tells us something we didn't know about human nature and American society. It tells us a lot more than that, of course, but because it works on this fundamental level as well. It is one of the best American movies of the 1970s.
In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby said,
The movie is far from being perfect, but it is so disturbing in such important ways that I won't forget it very easily, which is more than can be said of much better, more consistent films ... The movie is by far the best thing that Pollack has ever directed (with the possible exception of The Scalphunters). While the cameras remain, as if they had been sentenced, within the ballroom, picking up the details of the increasing despair of the dancers, the movie becomes an epic of exhaustion and futility.
Variety said, "Puffy-eyed, unshaven, reeking of stale liquor, sweat and cigarettes, Young has never looked older or acted better. Fonda ... gives a dramatic performance that gives the film a personal focus and an emotionally gripping power."
TV Guide rated the film four out of a possible four stars and said,
Although it is at times heavy-handed, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a tour de force of acting. Fonda here got her first chance to prove herself as a serious, dramatic actress ... Young is superb in his role, a sharp switch from his usual bon vivant parts ... Pollack does one of his best jobs of directing, even if his primary strength lies in his rapport with actors. The look of the film is just right and Pollack skillfully evokes the ratty atmosphere amid which explosive emotions come to a boil ... [It] remains a suitably glum yet cathartic film experience.
In 1996, Steve Simels of Entertainment Weekly observed, "Sydney Pollack's dance-marathon movie has probably aged better than any American film of its time."
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1999. It was later reissued on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 19, 2004. Kino Lorber released the film for the first time on Blu-ray on September 5, 2017.
Turner Classic Movies observed, "By popularizing the title of McCoy's novel, [the film] gave American argot a catch-phrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on."
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- Fonda, Jane (2006). My Life So Far. New York City, New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-812-97576-5.
- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at AllMovie
- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at the American Film Institute Catalog
- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at IMDb
- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at Metacritic
- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at Rotten Tomatoes
- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at the TCM Movie Database
- 1969 films
- 1960s dance films
- 1969 drama films
- 1969 independent films
- 1960s psychological drama films
- ABC Motion Pictures films
- American dance films
- American independent films
- American neo-noir films
- American psychological drama films
- Cinerama Releasing Corporation films
- Films about competitions
- Films about death
- Films about depression
- Films about Hollywood, Los Angeles
- Films about suicide
- Films based on American novels
- Films directed by Sydney Pollack
- Films featuring a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award-winning performance
- Films featuring a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe winning performance
- Films produced by Irwin Winkler
- Films produced by Robert Chartoff
- Films scored by Johnny Green
- Films set in 1932
- Films set in Santa Monica, California
- Films with screenplays by James Poe
- Great Depression films
- Murder in films
- Publicity stunts in fiction
- 1960s English-language films
- 1960s American films