In honor of what would’ve been Susannah York’s 80th birthday, a look back at two of her films released by Kino Lorber.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Before They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? my only dance marathon memories were of Gilmore Girls (and I completely forget that episode was titled “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”). Consequently, I wholeheartedly expected the marathon in this movie to only last 24 hours long. Instead, the last number I have written in my notes is 1129 hours, or 47 days.
Directed by Sidney Pollack, and set during the Great Depression, Grapes of Wrath is brought up during the (mostly) cast commentary because of Michael Sarrazin’s resemblance to Henry Fonda, but that’s very much the kind of story you’re getting with this movie. It feels like a great American drama John Steinbeck would’ve written. The ending is unapologetic, and if it isn’t as widely known today (at the time it was nominated for nine Academy Awards) that could be because it took so long for the film to come out on physical media.
York plays actress Alice LeBlanc in a performance that stands out from the rest, not because it’s necessarily better (every actor in this film gives it their all), but because it’s very different. Alice likes to dress glamorously, and you get the impression that she joined the competition hoping someone in the stands might offer her an audition. Her appearance isn’t used to her advantage. She follows the same rules as everybody else, yet people seem to resent her and treat her like she’s vain.
Sailor (Red Buttons) makes a comment about her dress being from Paris and she responds that her mother made it. Later when her dress is stolen, you realize she only owned two. She’s struggling, same as the other dancers, many of whom are participating in the dance marathon for the regular meals and a place to sleep. Alice’s looks make her a target of false assumptions but if she were really the prima donna people thought she was she would’ve quit the competition ages ago.
Later, when they swap partners, the movie focuses on Gloria (Jane Fonda) and Robert (Sarrazin), but really the switch accentuates how lonely Alice is, that after all this time she isn’t any closer to her dance partner, Joel (Robert Fields). During Pollack’s commentary he talks about Alice’s near sex scene with Robert and how she’s in denial about what’s happening, but for me Alice is talking too much because she wants to make their affair personal and forge a real connection with Robert. She just goes about it in a way that’s artificial because they don’t have much time and she’s trying to force things.
York’s eyes during Alice’s breakdown scene, and the way her mouth twists, is probably her most memorable scene but my favorite is at the end of the first derby. Most of the runners have collapsed but Alice is still standing and covering her ears. Distracted by the physical endurance of the derby, you forget how noisy the crowd must be. Alice has been accused of being an attention seeker but here all she wants is for the audience to be quiet. It’s another example of people reading her the wrong way throughout this film.
To be honest, I feel a bit in a fog about The Maids and probably should’ve changed this to a single feature. I’ve never read a Jean Genet play before and don’t think I’ll be reading one anytime soon but, thinking back on the plot, I really did enjoy how the play was structured, and Christopher Miles does some clever things with the direction, like using mirrors to show people overhearing things they’re not supposed to hear. I think it’s just that Genet’s dialogue doesn’t connect. It’s very dense and hard to get a handle on the characters or know what’s going to make them tick.
Claire and Solange are sisters working for the same mistress (Vivien Merchant), but when the film starts Claire is dressed in Madame’s clothes, so you don’t realize she’s a maid. Solange (during the game she goes by Claire) makes out like she’s going to kill Claire but stops when the phone rings. This is the game they like to play but on this particular night they decide they’re going to kill Madame for real. Other than to say York’s Claire is softer than Glenda Jackson’s Solange, I feel like both actresses act their hearts out in roles that are too ill-defined.
Both They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Maids are available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.