Jane Fonda is magnetically terrific in the 1969 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, losing herself in the role of Gloria, a bitter would-be actress. She and the other characters are desperate, first of all, to survive during the Great Depression and, second, to have their dreams come true. Because they must acquire money, they participate in a grueling dance marathon, but in addition they want natural relief through love and intimacy, even loveless sex. Monstrously cynical, Gloria is also a “loser” who wants to die; and, really, we pity and even respect her when she does die.
Sydney Pollack‘s film, based on a novel by Horace McCoy, is bleak. And it’s more honest than most movies today (e.g., it doesn’t see its female protagonist as more virtuous than any man you could ever meet). Granted, the last few minutes of the film are rather flimsy, flowing less than smoothly from the previous material; but we can be very grateful for the set design, costumes, and general ambitiousness. Pollack, indeed, tried to make a work of art.