This film takes a hard look at that most ephemeral of goals: realizing The American Dream. It does so within the historical context of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Based on a Horace McCoy novel (which was also quite good), this movie is about people who come to California to hit the big-time (in one way or another). They are the would-be starlets, singers, dancers, leading men, and so on. They are the “American Idol contestants” who, instead of displaying their talent on stage, provide cheap entertainment for the masses (who, ironically or not, are as poor as they) by trying to win big bucks in a dance marathon.
And what a marathon is. It’s a grueling experience that’s captured well in this film, underscored by the story’s relentless pacing. Sydney Pollack did a masterful job of directing.
The actors are also well-suited for the roles. Michael Sarrazin shines as the bewildered young man who aspires to direct, but ends up partnered with the embittered small-town girl from Texas (who can’t seem to make the cut as an actress) played by Jane Fonda.
To be honest, Fonda is a teeny bit too polished to play an essentially grubby loser. Even so, it’s a testament to her ability that she pulls it off. I think it’s something in her voice and her manner that suggests a slow burn behind the pretty face. And the way she spits out her most scathing lines is both funny and tragic.
Gig Young as the master of ceremonies oozes sleaziness. Between the corrupt nature of the contest, the voyeurism of the crowd, and the relentless sound of the horn calling the dancers back to the floor, the film overwhelms the senses.
But the most breathtaking moments are the races. The filming, editing, and acting almost make you pant along with the hapless participants.
For those who haven’t seen this movie, be forewarned that it’s not the kind that can end happily. It’s the frightening realization of the most horrible extreme of the American ethos.
I judge this well worthy of two thumbs up!