Appearing throughout the 1960s in forgettable light comedies and overdone potboilers (some directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim), Jane Fonda hardly seemed to be an actress with a memorable career ahead of her. That changed in 1969, with They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, in which Fonda gave her first inarguably great performance as Gloria, a woman shorn of hope and compassion, who has learned to get by on bitterness and survival instinct. While Fonda was the film's biggest surprise, she was not the only casting risk that paid off. Gig Young, a journeyman actor whose career had had a few peaks and many valleys, was unexpectedly mesmerizing as Rocky, the oily and manipulative Master of Ceremonies, a performance for which he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Red Buttons, long a star comedian, was solid and believable as the battered and aging Sailor. Bruce Dern, best known for supporting parts in Roger Corman quickies, was both hopeful and desperate as the destitute drifter James, and Bonnie Bedelia, in only her second film role, created an indelible impression as Ruby, his pregnant wife; her cracked and sorrowful version of "The Best Things in Life are Free" may be the most heartbreaking moment in a film full of heavy emotions. And, while Susannah York's prior career made her fine work less surprising than that of her fellow cast members, that didn't make her descent into madness as the star-struck Alice any less harrowing to watch. Director Sydney Pollack skillfully juggles these superb performances, giving them equal emotional weight, and generates a mood of grim desperation so palpable that you can almost feel the sweat and fatigue rising off the cast. The late 1960s spawned a brief vogue of films about the dark side of American life in the 1930s, but They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is one of the few examples that still holds up today; its allegory still rings true, and its emotional resonance is just as sharp and troubling.
by Mark Deming review