A failed actor who later found some success as a contract writer for RKO Studios, Horace McCoy turned his time as a nightclub bouncer in the Dallas area into a Great Depression-era novel that failed to grip the imagination of his homeland, but earned serious praise from French existentialists.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is told through the eyes and mind of Robert Syverten, a young wannabe director of Hollywood films (or even just movies). Loitering outside Paramount Studios, he meets an embittered extra named Gloria. She's a runaway whose success as an actress is equalled by her success as a suicide. They are but two of many on the smog-choked, sun-streaked periphery. However improbable their goals, the strength of their ambitions is distressingly clear. Hoping that a studio executive (or a producer, or a director) will cut 'em a big break (and an even bigger check), some of these cloud-hoppers head towards the Pacific Ocean. Some keep going straight, but others go up, to an amusement pier above the water, joining other folks in one of many dance marathons held in the structure.
Robert and Gloria join 143 other couples in the quest for $1000 prize money. The rules are simple: keep moving, keep moving, and don't stop moving. The last pair standing wins. Breaks allotted for food and rest. 288 people basically sealed inside a gymnasium? The second-most degrading con job I can think of.
The story is told mostly through Robert's eyes and mind (the parts that aren't, concern his murder trial), but my obsession lie with Gloria. One of the saddest sacks in 20th century English literature--parents dead, pervo uncle, she's "sore on the world," and it shows. Robert considers her plain-looking (and I can't prove him wrong): too blonde, too small, too old to attain one of her unshakable dreams. Put out and off-putting, she's the sort of "unlikable" that hurts.
To drum up interest, the marathon's promoters pull all kinds of stunts, none more daring than the "elimination race" held at the end of every evening, a derby where the couples speed-walk around a circular track, and around, around, around, with the losers sent home. The tricks work. The crowds swell. Media coverage intensifies. Some couples land local businesses for sponsors. Hollywood stars drop by. Gloria goads Robert into approaching a director of some renown, and he does it, 'cause he's almost as desperate as she is, and he knows she's too fearful to make step two. Berating a pregnant hillbilly and sleeping with a sleazy producer--those are things she has no problem doing. Helps pass the time, y'know? The younger and prettier Gloria probably did the reverse at least once, as well.
Our two anti-humans can't much stand one another, but a faithful attendee by the name of Mrs. Layden finds them the bee's knees, openly rooting for them to be the last ones standing, wanting to help them even after the marathon is concluded, 'cause they're so clearly worth it (and she is so clearly unable to read people and see life as anything other than a soap opera).
After 879 hours, only 20 couples remain--Robert and Gloria among them. Do they have a chance? Of course not. The competition ends prematurely, not with a bang or a whimper but with a burst--gunfire breaks out, killing a poor innocent audience member. Such a shame. Well, maybe security will be tightened for the next one, eh?
Because, there's going to be a next one.
Robert and Gloria go outside--for the first time in over a month--and head for the edge of the pier. Gloria won't make it as an actress, but she still has her other dream--oblivion. She removes a pistol from her purse and asks Robert for mercy. He grants it, remembering when his grandfather did the same for a wounded family horse.
Just as he pulls the trigger, Robert sees Gloria smile for the very first time since he's known her. After all, what makes a person happier than a dream come true?
If McDonald's sold a burger called "The McCoy," it would be two all-grief patties, nothing special, let us please kick our bunions against the concrete because excruciating pain is all we can reasonably expect in an unreasonable world.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? made me want to down a glass full of whiskey, and then start eating the glass. I love it. I mean I never want to read that book again (the paperback would probably send thick black gunk bubbling up and over my toilet bowl if I left it in the bathroom) but I'm glad I read it once.
Writers-James Poe & Robert E. Thompson
"People are the ultimate spectacle."
In the early '50s, actors/producers/tennis chums Charlie Chaplin and Norman Lloyd were on the hunt for a big-screen project. Lloyd tossed out a few grand to purchase the rights to McCoy's novel, planning to cast Charlie's son Sydney and Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles.
Then Charlie's re-entry permit into the US was revoked (thanks to J. Edgar Hoover's vendetta against "commies in Hollywood"), effectively putting the kibosh on all that.
In 1955, McCoy died and the rights to his works reverted to his heirs. Frustrated over what had transpired, they refused to deal further with Lloyd (who as of this post is 102 years old and still acting). Enter young Sydney Pollack, a director unafraid to lay it all out and bunch it all up. Michael Sarrazin (a French-Canadian non-star) and Jane Fonda (star still ascending) were cast as Robert and Gloria.
Vital to a quality adaptation is realizing what can be and cannot be dropped.
The filmmakers wisely omitted three especially bleak, violent moments: podunk James slapping Gloria after one too many snide remarks; another contestant smacking hell out of his fainting partner, his intent growing ever more homicidal with each blow; and the gunplay that ends the marathon.
Time and place (Great Depression-era Hollywood) remain unchanged, although the prize money is now 1500 big 'uns. Robert and Gloria do not meet beforehand, instead being forced together when her original partner skips out.
It's one thing to picture the crowds aggregated to gawk at the scruffy spectacle of desperation in constant motion, quite another to have it pictured for you. Day after day, privileged flesh fill the bleacher to find amusement at the pathetic animals on the gym floor.
(They get charley horses, don't they? Inevitably.)
Seeing the derbies is better than reading about them, especially in the hands of someone like Pollack. Urgency surpassed only by uselessness. Rocky patters on about how the contestants epitomize "the American way" of life, and he ain't far off. Going 'round in a circle, under false pretenses, for scant recompense…exuberance knocking into stolidity…old life besides young life besides life yet to be. There's much dancing, even some singing, but no flash (until the last eighteen minutes anyway), no vertical expression of a horizontal desire, unless you're determined to die flat on your back. The weariness that permeated the pages bleeds through the frames. This is degradation as entertainment.
Ostensibly the dancers are brave and bold, but the truth is much darker. Time moves slower for them than everyone else in that gym...yet it's running out faster. Frequently infantilized by the master of ceremonies ("our little hard-luck lady," he calls Gloria in a moment of classic understatement), treated despicably by promoters, pitied by the kindest hearts in the bleachers, these zombies shuffle between heroic and dishonorable.
James and his wife make the transition from novel to film, but two even more memorable characters were added solely for the film: old guy sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons) and Alice (Oscar nominee Susannah York). The latter did the whole "diva breakdown in a shower" way before Mariah, while the former...oh God.
Oh my God.
Since the shooting was dispensed with, the impetus for our main characters' exit comes with the revelation that the so-called great cash prize will be but a pittance after deductions. Again, not flashy, not sexy...but it feels inevitable. Much more natural, and believable, than what occurred in the novel (which had a feel of McCoy blasting his way through a wall).
The final moments of Gloria (and Gloria and Robert) are soul-shattering. Out on the pier, as the contest continues behind them, they have their first meaningful conversation.
On my list of all-time favorite performances in a film, Fonda's portrayal of Gloria--the woman rode hardest and put away wettest--is definitely top 30. Sydney Pollack would go on to earn a reputation as an outstanding director of actresses, and he amazed Fonda by actually caring what she thought about her character. Although brutal and serrated, movie Gloria is more palatable than her papyrus counterpart, more Bipolar II whereas novel Gloria raged incessantly and spat acid onto the face of anyone fool enough to stand too close. Both are unforgettable, although I've never yearned for any amount of time spent underneath the skin of either. (Atop, different story.)
Hollywood felt much the same way; Horses still holds the record for most Oscar nominations (9) without one for Best Picture. The sole gold went to Gig Young for his portrayal of Rocky, the facile MC who fills the gymnasium with empty words and sentiments. Whether or not he deserved to beat out Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider is up for at least lukewarm debate.
Not hard to figure the reason for the near-shutout: Horses is basically misanthropy porn, a nihilistic marvel, a sledgehammer to the sternum, glum and disturbing. It's the type of film the industry nods at, but never strikes up a conversation with.
Back to Jane. Fonda lost Best Actress to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I can't argue against Her Majesty, on g.p., but Fonda shoulda won for her gloriously bitchy evocation of God's one and only during a stage play put on by two of the contestants.
(No, scratch that. Mags, love ya honey bunches of "hell yeah!," but the conclusion of the deadly derby, when Gloria has to cross the finish line with Harry on her back, that's what awards are for.)
(No! The last scene, on the pier, raccoon-eyed and ready to die....)
Michael Sarrazin beat out Warren Beatty for the lead male role. Crisis averted, really--two years removed from Bonnie and Clyde, could he have really pulled off the hard-luck schlub role? Would you believe a guy who looked like young Warren Beatty couldn't make it in Hollywood? No way, you'd expect him to seduce Gloria, Alice and every other broad in that gym. Sarrazin should have earned an Oscar nod just for not getting steamrolled by Fonda. Shame this was his only real big role (contract issues kept him from being cast as Joe in Midnight Cowboy).
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
The novel is a tough, wiry read, but only in the emotional sense. The words are blunt, the actions blunter, and the author makes his point without resorting to strident language.
The film is a tough, wiry watch. It's as claustrophobic as possible while managing to avoid the "arthouse" label. It gets far more right than wrong, even dropping the movie title in the same scenario as the book.Sure it eases up on the hopelessness a smidge, but it's still two hours in the barbers chair without any small talk.
MIND THE GAP
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is life in a cracked nutshell. Everything you care about will no longer matter once you allow it to speak. The future, what's that? Pointless as the present, as the past. Life is a grim and sordid craps game.
The book is better, ultimately, since written nihilism beats out visual or musical nihilism all of the days in all of the ways. But I could understand anyone who prefers the film, just because, you know, colors.