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Betsy Sharkey's critics pick: 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'

February 9, 2011 |  4:30 pm

They Shoot Horses Recently, as I was re-watching 1969’s “They Shoot Horses, Don't They?” -- an unsparing look at the desperation of a Depression-era dance marathon starring Jane Fonda -- I couldn't help but wonder how many reality TV creators had used it as a template, so closely do the shows that clog broadcast and cable channels echo its ethos and pathos.

If nothing else, the film captures the human condition and its historical context in a way typical of so many Fonda films. As such, it's a good choice to kick off LACMA's weekend series Friday night at 7. (A full schedule of films can be found here.)

Through February, the museum will feature the actress' best work -- "Coming Home," "Barefoot in the Park" and more, ending with a double bill on the eve of the Oscars, Feb. 26, with two of my favorites: “On Golden Pond” and “Julia,” one on the ravages of age, the other, the ravages of war. Sadly, the series highlight, a Valentine's Day conversation with the actress hosted by my colleague, Kenneth Turan, sold out long ago.

But back to “They Shoot Horses.” Fonda plays a worn-down Hollywood hopeful paired with a dreamy farm boy, the wonderfully enigmatic Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin. Nearly every stereotype we associate with reality TV turns up in the film: Bonnie Bedelia as the pregnant waif with Bruce Dern as her ruthless spouse; Red Buttons trying to pass for a decade or so younger to worm his way into the competition; Fonda, certain this is her last chance to get her life right; and Gig Young in his Oscar-winning turn as the master of ceremonies, orchestrating the conflicts and crashes with an eye to what will keep the seats filled and the crowds entertained.

Director Sydney Pollack's frenetic energy infusing the film allows us to witness the best and worst of human nature as couples spin and back-stab through days and nights in their fight for a few dollars or a few moments of fame.

Two of its truths stay with me: Despite the promise, there are no happy endings in these contrivances, and, sadly, history does repeat itself.

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photo: Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

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