Monday 8 January 2007

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)

Of all the things that don't seem like logical subjects for tense cinema, a two month long marathon dance competition seems high up the list, especially with today's ADHD attention spans. It's hard enough for Americans to understand the concept of five day test cricket matches but they're almost fleeting things compared to this. Fashions could come and go by the time the thing is over. It's an endurance test, pure and simple, or maybe torture along the lines of Japanese game shows. Along with the dancers, there are nurses and a house physician. The show couldn't keep running without them.

We're at the the World's Greatest Dance Marathon at the Pacific Ballroom, somewhere in California in 1932. A host of hopefuls, as well off as you'd expect people to be in the depression, take part for the free food and the chance at $1,500 which is unreal money, or even the remote possibility for a job. The rules are simple: don't stop dancing, which may make sense for a while but ten minute breaks don't add up to much when you're on the 25th day and the organisers decide to eliminate another three couples by staging a ten minute derby.

The couples include such names as Jane Fonda (who was Oscar nominated), Bruce Dern, Red Buttons and Susannah York. Their partners may not be as famous as they are but they have other reasons to be notable beyond the small town sponsorships they pick up during the competition. Fonda is a real knowing bitch but her partner is barred from entry for health reasons so she acquires a new one who wasn't even there for the competition. He's Michael Sarrazin, who I don't know at all but who looks more like a Fonda than Jane does. Susannah York is some sort of aspiring actress. Buttons is a sailor who's obviously older than everyone else but who seems livelier than most of them. Most notably Bruce Dern's partner is obviously pregnant.

I know the officials from television, like Michael Conrad, the first Sergeant on Hill Street Blues, and Al Lewis much better known as Grandpa Munster, who hardly speaks a word during the entire movie. Running the show though is Gig Young as Rocky the MC, lying through his teeth half the time, and he's the one who picked up the Oscar for Best Supporting Oscar. For my part it's Susannah York who steals the show, running the whole gamut from an almost Marilyn-esque aspiring actress to half blue crazy woman taking a shower in her clothes. She really makes us believe that she's been through the whole show, all one thousand and some hours of it.

Because it isn't the show that matters, or the gimmicks the organisers come up with to keep the crowds packing in, it's what the show does to the people taking part. After all, the show is life and it doesn't matter that we're alive, it's what we do with it. Competitors change partners because of what they've got up to during the breaks, wake up screaming because they're hallucinating or don't wake up at all without the help of ammonia or baths of ice water. And they change their attitudes to one another too: relationships build and collapse during the event. That's what keeps us watching this trainwreck, because it sure as hell ain't the sport of it. And that achievement, the fact that we do keep watching, means that Sydney Pollack did something very right indeed.

Incidentally I can't seem to keep away from Mervyn LeRoy. He didn't direct this one, because it's 1969 and thus four years after his last credited directorial job. He's here as a real person though, as played by some uncredited actor, because the film is set in 1932.

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