Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
The Nominees: Geneviève Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days), Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses. Don't They), Liza Minelli (The Sterile Cuckoo), Jean Simmons (The Happy Ending),
Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?)
My Nominee: Shirley Knight (The Rain People),
You've gotta love Maggie Smith, there's just no one else quite like her. She has the grand qualities of a favorite aunt, she has the warmest of smiles, yet is the kind of lady you wouldn't want to disappoint. I've seen her in films all my life and although she always brings that same quality to her film work, I never grow tired of it.
She won the Best Actress Oscar only once, for her performance in the title role of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie based on the play by Jay Alan Presson (which itself was based on a book by Muriel Spark). It tells the story of a passion-filled schoolteacher working in a girl's school in Edinburgh in the 1930s who devalues school's listless curriculum in favor of teaching the girls about the important subjects that help them better understand their world - subjects like love and politics. Yet, she is no angel, she has affairs with two of her fellow teachers and the story really sparks when one of those affairs becomes known.
The film is not without interest but this was very much a movie of its time. The message, in the late sixties, in the wake of social rebellion and women's liberation, was far more palatable than it is today. Maggie Smith never gives a dull performance but here, her performance feels a bit mannered and unconvincing. Her Oscar nomination had been a surprise, the film had opened and then closed early in the year and, despite some good reviews, the film had fallen off the map, although she did win a BATFA award and was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Out of a very meager year for actresses in leading roles, my favorite was a turning point in the career of Jane Fonda. Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, is a very strange experience, a dark-hearted adaptation of Horace McCoy's novel about several people involved in a nightmarish dance marathon. I am at an impass here because I am choosing to reward Fonda's performance for a movie I didn't like very much. What is special is that Fonda here is that she shows a side of her talent that I never knew existed. She had been known personally as Henry's daughter and professionally as the star of featherweight pictures like Barefoot in the Park, Cat Ballou and the awful Barbarella. Yet, it was her role in Pollack's film that would show what she could really do as an actress.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (a comical title but a deadly serious picture) takes place in 1932 in a shabby ballroom in Santa Monica, California. Fonda plays Gloria Beatty, an angry, embittered woman trying to enter a dance marathon with her partner who is disqualified because of a noisy cough. At the last minute, she picks Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), a tall kid who is standing alone out of line. They enter a dance marathon in which a hundred couples have to keep dancing until they drop to their knees and are disqualified. Last couple standing gets 1,500 silver dollars. These contests were common in the 1930s and this one apparently goes on for weeks, with periodic rest breaks. The contest is merciless; it goes on and on and on while the sadistic MC Rocky (Supporting Actor winner Gig Young) scans the contestants to spot their weaknesses and exploit them in an effort to keep up the audience enthusiasm. He keeps raising the stakes, adding frequent heel-toe derbies in which the contestants have to heel-toe around a track for 10 agonizing minutes, with the last three couples to cross the finish line eliminated. As the dance goes on, it begins having horrifying effects on the dancers, who begin to crack under the pressure.
The contestants circling around Robert and Gloria are an assorted cast of characters, all of whom are dancing as fast as they can for various reasons. There's the sailor and his wife, who are former dance marathon winners. There's the farm couple (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedilia) who need the money because she is pregnant. There are a couple of wannabe actors (Suzanna York and Robert Fields) who are in the contest hoping to be spotted by talent scouts. Each one has a reason for being there and each one is desperate to win for one reason or another. They are willing to kill themselves for the money and the MC, in an effort to keep the crowd entertained, is all too happy to oblige.
This is the angriest character that Fonda has ever played. Gloria exhibits not one moment of happiness and never smiles. She has eyes that betray a life spent in misery and pain. What is most troubling is that she is still young, still beautiful and her disillusionment in life has come to her while her age is still fresh enough to offer possibilities. Yet, there's something else going on, something hidden. We learn very little about Gloria's past and that leaves us to fill in the blanks. We do know that she wanted to become an actress but failed, and we sense that her pathway to that dream perhaps led her to the casting couch. There's a perfect moment in which Rocky gives her a suggestive look and she defiantly tells him "no."
We also sense that she has entered this contest as a means of last resort. When her dance partner is disqualified during the sign-up process, there is a panic in her eyes and she chooses Robert, the only man who doesn't seem partnered up. We expect that something will crack, that her personality is a facade that will begin to fade once they fall in love, but no romance blooms - Robert is just a means to an end. She is a woman hanging onto life by her fingernails and, late in the film, when she discovers that most of the prize money will be used to pay for contest expenses, it becomes clear that all the hours and days and weeks of continuous dancing are all for nothing, she has lost all reason to live. In this torturous rat race that "just goes on and on and on and on," she opts out, the hard way.
This is a very effective performance by Jane Fonda. It explored a darkness that she never explored before or after. It was the beginning of a brilliant dramatic career that would make her one of the best actresses of her generation - she would play strong women, professional women, passionate women, but she would never show this dark heart again.