Jane Fonda is certainly one of the most interesting women in the entertainment world – not only because of her acclaimed performances but also because of her social interests and her political activism, especially her involvement in the anti-war movement, no matter how one looks at it and which side one is willing to believe. Especially all the controversy that surrounded her right from the start makes her success in Hollywood even more interesting – it seems that her talent as an actress was always to obvious to ignore, even if Jane Fonda repelled as many people as she fascinated. The foundation for her critical acclaim was laid in the year 1969 when Jane Fonda suddenly stopped being ‘Henry Fonda’s daughter’ and turned herself into one of the most respected and praised dramatic actresses of her generation. While she had already received respect for various on-screen performances, ranging from the comedy Cat Ballou to Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford, nothing seemed to have prepared critics for her turn as a desperate contestant in a brutal dance marathon in Sidney Pollack’s They shoot Horses, don’t they?, especially since this performance came right after her turn as Barbarella, the eye-candy in the science-fiction movie of the same name. But with this performance, Jane Fonda started her dominance over the next decade, winning two Oscars and various other awards during the following 10 years.
I have never made it a secret that I am one of the few people who isn’t blown away by Jane Fonda – there is always something too ‘knowing’ in her work, she never truly seems to inhabit her characters but instead always makes it obvious how very hard she is trying to appear to be not trying at all. A lot of fans and critics see her acting as a wonderful example of an actress being driven by her instincts but I can always see the wheels moving in her head, an actress who works with a very obvious preparation – most people see her ‘in character’, letting the character take over herself and that way inspire all her gestures and movement but I see an actress delivering all those gestures and that way hoping to get ‘in character’. Jane Fonda clearly has a wide talent for playing various kind of characters and I admire her very much for never creating her own comfort zone in which she preferred to play and interpret her characters but instead always played different and unique women without finding a typical ‘Jane-Fonda-character’ – but she always appears a little too…unpolished. A strange word but it means that she always seems to be one step short of truly becoming a master of her art – she has mastered all the gestures, she knows how to cry, she understands her characters, she lets her own intelligence help her find the emotional and intellectual core of the women she plays, but she is not fully able to bring these women to a complete life because her work as an actress is always visible, always lingering above her characters and that way prevents her from truly becoming the person she plays. Well, it all comes down to personal opinion and nothing is as subjective as ‘art’, may it be a painting, a song or a performance.
Because of all this, Jane Fonda’s work is always never as exciting or interesting to me as to most others. But – yes, Jane, there is a ‘but’ in this case – there is also a loophole: because Jane Fonda is also an actress whose success depends on the success around her. She needs to have a strong character in a strong movie or otherwise her shortcomings become too obvious and distracting. In Klute, she played a fairly interesting character in a rather uninteresting movie which resulted in a very good but also lacking performance. In Coming Home, she was surrounded by a rather good movie but was stuck with a too simple, uninteresting and underdeveloped character. But – we’re getting closer – in They shoot Horses, don’t they? everything was working in her favor. It’s is one of the most powerful presentations of de-humanization, humiliation and degradation ever presented on the screen. Sidney Pollack shows an absolutely merciless environment which forces the main characters to endure physical and emotional exhaustion as they try to win the prize money in a dance marathon – under the eyes of the cheering spectators. For a woman like Jane Fonda the role of Gloria must have been a gift since it helped her to express her own political and social views through her work as an actress. But this alone is not the reason why this role is Jane Fonda’s biggest success – the character of Gloria also fit her especially well because these kind of bitter, sarcastic, lonely and hardened women come very easily to her. Gloria, like Bree Daniels, is a woman who was hardened by the life she experienced and who, like Greta Garbo, wants to be alone but unlike Garbo not out of unhappiness but rather out of anger, anger at the world and at society that has forced her to become the woman she is today. So, if Gloria and Bree Daniels are so alike, why did Jane Fonda not impress me as much in Klute as she did in They shoot Horses, don’t they? – well, as mentioned earlier, Jane Fonda is too underdeveloped as an actress to shine in a movie that suffers from a bad screenplay or from an undecided execution like Klute which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a suspenseful thriller or a character study (of course, it could have been both but was to weak overall to lift this heavy task). Also, Jane Fonda’s shortcomings also become too obvious whenever a movie focuses too much on her and her character – and that’s why They shot Horses, don’t they? was the perfect vehicle for her. It’s a powerful and unforgettable display of human misery and it is also, by and large, an ensemble movie in which Gloria may be a more prominent character than others but is still part of a whole group of interesting and captivating characters. Because of this, Jane Fonda was able to use her usual screen presence and acting style and create a character without falling into the traps of her own deficiencies as an actress because Gloria is a character that benefits from the strength of the movie and the strength of the remaining players and also does not overexpose Jane Fonda and that way gave her just the right amount of both support and screen time to use her own talents with great effect. There is much less pressure on Jane Fonda which resulted in a natural and haunting performance that may still not be as great as other actresses could have been, but, given my usual dislike for Jane Fonda, still offers very high quality.
With her interpretation, Jane Fonda constantly shows that Gloria was turned into the kind of woman she is today – the bitterness does not seem to be a natural part of her but rather something she acquired as the years went on, as her life was slowly destroyed by the economical crisis around her. In this way, Gloria is a character that benefits from Jane Fonda’s acting and personality but Jane Fonda also benefits from Gloria and They shoot Horses, don’t they? – because Sidney Pollack constantly takes the desperation and de-humanization of the main characters further and further and this way all these character receive the audience’s sympathy and interest. Gloria is not an unlikable character even when she vocally attacks a pregnant woman or constantly pushes every kind of human closeness away from her – because the movie presents her and the other characters in a way that makes it clear how much they have suffered, how much they endured and how they now have to leave their last bit of pride behind them to take part in a show that basically treats them like animals for the purpose of entertainment. Every character in They shoot Horses, don’t they? has his or her own problems and back-story and they all help to turn these characters into complex and realistic human beings – Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia portray a couple which doesn’t know how to take care of their child when its born even though they won’t admit it and in this way even Bruce Dern’s loud and aggressive character does not evoke any dislike because he is too understandable. Susannah York and Robert Fields play another kind of desperateness and Michael Sarrazin is the sensitive, soft-spoken and sad-eyed harbor which provides some quietness among the spectacle. Even Gig Young as Rocky, the man who directs the marathon, seems only to be a product of circumstances and just as unwilling to participate in the whole affair as everyone else – but, also just like everyone else, he seems to have no other choice.
They shoot Horses, don’t they? gives all these characters their own kind of personality and back-story – some are dreamers, some still have hopes in a world that refuses to give them any reason to have it. Gloria Beatty is different – she has given up hope a long time ago. She is not a helpless woman who feels sorry for herself, instead, she refuses any sympathy and has retreated deep inside herself and build a shell of bitterness and anger that keeps all human contact away from her. In this aspect, Jane Fonda’s Gloria symbolizes a more bitter, angry and pitiless look at society – she presents a woman without any illusions, who still has the strength to keep on going but who would prefer to go alone and for whom living has turned into a constant struggle to survive. In this aspect, Jane Fonda’s Gloria also seems to stand as stronger character compared to the others – during the footraces that the totally exhausted contestants are forced to do from time to time, Gloria is absolutely unwilling to give up, getting strength from somewhere inside herself to keep going, even carrying her partner on her back only to avoid being thrown out of the contest after having endured it for such a long time. Because Gloria seems to inhabit so much strength in her, her ultimate downfall at the end is the final chapter in this presentation of decline and defeat, a capitulation which leaves the whole atmosphere of the story without any hope and shows that this process of de-humanization finally even brings the last one to fall. During this whole process, Jane Fonda manages to turn Gloria into a symbol for lost hope while keeping the integrity of her character intact.
No actor in the cast actively suggests a life outside the circus, all the characters seem to exist in a little micro cosmos that forgot about their old lives. In this way, Gloria Beatty is almost a mystery – who is she? What are her reasons? In the whole presentation of They shoot Horses, don’t they? Jane Fonda thankfully constantly stayed true to the core of her character and the theme of the movie. The screenplay, as mentioned before, is very strong and gives each actor and actress the chance to shine by presenting them with carefully constructed characters but all these characters often are more impressive for what they represent than for what they truly are. In this case, Jane Fonda is never given a true opportunity to expand the character beyond this bitterness and anger – but she takes a lot of opportunities to hint at an untold story, to suggest what else there may be inside of her and how her life might have turned out if circumstances had been different. In that way, Jane Fonda leaves a lot of Gloria open for interpretation but she also fills her with her own and the script’s ideas and intentions. In the hands of Jane Fonda, Gloria becomes a lost fighter, a woman who refuses any help or pity but who also knows how miserable her life has become and how little hope she has left. In her determination during the race sequences, she almost becomes like a wild animal, willing to push herself to the limit and not caring about whom gets left behind. Just like in a lot of other performances, Jane Fonda is not out to win the audience’s sympathy but to give an honest portrayal of a woman who doesn’t care about how she appears to others – Gloria does not care for social conventions and when she sees a poor, pregnant woman she tells her quite openly that in her opinion, there is no use in getting a baby when you don’t have the money to feed it. By doing so, Gloria constantly underlines that she is her own master and rejects any kind of kindness – after all, why should she be kind when nobody else is?
Jane Fonda also works very well with Michael Sarrazin as her co-star. Both actors almost seem to interchange the clichés that would be expected from their roles – in They shoot Horses, don’t they? it’s the female lead that is hard and bitter while the male lead is sensitive, soft-spoken and caring. Both are bound together by tragedy and necessity and he seems to be the only one who can break through her shell – Gloria has no problems to cope with all kind of characters around her, may they be powerful or weak, but when Robert suddenly protects her from the anger of another contestant, Gloria suddenly appears speechless. There is no love between them but a feeling of closeness and friendship in a world that seems to have forgotten about it even though Gloria does her best to again reject these feelings and Robert as a person. The fear of being betrayed is too deep inside her and so she keeps most of her personality to herself – she does not lie to Robert but she doesn’t want to share the truth either.
They shoot Horses, don’t they? tells the story of all the contestants beyond what the audience in the movie sees – they have to stay outside while the camera brings us backstage and gives us more intimate portrayals of the characters. Right with her first appearance, Jane Fonda shows the toughness and anger in Gloria and in some way, she never changes these aspects of herself – but Gloria also seems to learn and to develop during the marathon, the broken woman at the end is different from the broken woman at the beginning. Jane Fonda succeeds in showing the constant decline that the main characters suffers – and in doing so she does not only focus on the emotional decline which slowly takes Gloria’s will to go on but also her complete physical exhaustion. Jane Fonda believable makes the pain of the contest noticeable in her whole body and shows how Gloria becomes less and less aware, how the ongoing tiredness and exhaustion is not only affecting her body but also her mind. Gloria is a woman who is a thinker but also a woman who listens to her instincts – and as the movie goes on, her instincts become more and more dominant. At the beginning, the toughness is more apparent but slowly changes into hopelessness and it becomes obvious that the aura of the contest brings Gloria to her limits, not only because of what she has to endure herself but also because of what she witnesses. And so, when her stockings tear, it makes the whole marathon even more useless.
By displaying this whole process, Jane Fonda made the ending of the movie very believable – Gloria’s decision does not seem out-of-character or too sudden but instead as the ultimate display of sorrow and helplessness for which Fonda had laid the foundation during her entire previous performance. They shoot Horses, don’t they? kept pushing its characters further and further on the edge and Gloria’s choice now seems to be the climax upon which everything was going for. It makes sense that Jane Fonda’s Gloria does not want to let her fate be decided by somebody else – after the marathon has taken away almost all her pride and own power over herself and forced her to become a product, a puppet, she now wants to decide her ultimate fate for herself. Only the fact that actually needs somebody to help her in this moment makes it clear how much the contest has influenced her. It’s a powerful scene but again probably more powerful because of what it represents instead of Jane Fonda’s acting. Especially in her delivery of the lines ‘Help me’ and ‘Please’ Jane Fonda again retreated to her ‘obvious voice’ which is rather distracting in a moment like this.
Everything that was said in this review about Jane Fonda’s work, from her way of developing her character and her ability to show the heartbreaking reality behind a contest like this is also true for all the other actors – in this way, Jane Fonda never stands out among the ensemble but she fitted perfectly into it. Still, all this does not mean that her work is flawless – more than once, Jane Fonda suffers from the limitations of the character which does provide her a lot of good moments but ultimately does not truly allow her to go beyond the obvious bitterness and whenever it eventually does, Jane Fonda is not fully up to it. As mentioned before, Jane Fonda also simply benefited from the fact that she got so much with Gloria – she has shown later in her career that she is not able to make a character interesting if the writing does not help her. In They shoot Horses, don’t they? she was given a character that basically had everything an actress could ask for – and she took those great ingredient and gave consequently a great performance, even if this performance is more the product of everything around Jane Fonda than Jane Fonda herself. She also is never the best thing about her movie – almost all other actors and the story constantly overshadow her and in various occasions, she again turns into that ‘obvious actress’ who walks through her performance with too much preparation and calculation. And ultimately it's the kind of role a lot of actresses could have impressed with simply because it fits so well into the enviornment of the movie and provides many opportunities to reach high levels within a limited frame. So, if she succeeded so highly than mostly because she received so much help which made it so easy for her to succeed. All this means that her Gloria does not necessarily become fascinating by herself but she is part of the overall mood that the movie presents and all characters become interesting because of their own will to degrade themselves – They shoot Horses, don’t they? shows how far people are willing to go for money and the time and place of the movie also shows that this is not done out of free will but because they have to. Because of that it was a wise decision by Jane Fonda not to try to dominate the movie but become a part of its overall flow.
Considering the final grade for this performance, the length of this review may be surprising but if Jane Fonda finally manages to convince me, she does deserve to get some more attention and detail. Overall, Jane Fonda is very powerful in her role but she also received a lot of help from the script and the overall tone of the story. In Gloria, she found a character who is interesting enough to overcome her general problems as an actress in a movie that thankfully does not put too much pressure on her by putting her in its center and that way allowed her to truly shine. It’s a very dark and haunting performance that fits to the dark atmosphere of the movie and for this, she receives