Friday, July 11, 2014

Can We Talk? - Jane Fonda Edition

[Jane Fonda finding out that dancing isn't always footloose and fancy free.]

To my generation Jane Fonda was spoken of as the gal who made workout videos and starred in movies with Lohan and Lopez.  Some of us had heard that she was a huge star and an Academy Award winning actress, but we hadn't seen any of the flicks that proved it. After all, who would believe it after being exposed to Monster In Law and Georgia Rule, even if she does shine through the madness.

As I grew older and was pushed into watching more iconic flicks, Jane Fonda's face often popped up - my dad insisted we watch Julia and Nine To Five, and in high school I fell in love with her and Robert Redford bashing about NYC in Barefoot In The Park. Slowly but surely I was definitely getting this whole Jane Fonda "thing".

Adding to the appreciation is her recent role as the owner of Atlantic Cable News on The Newsroom. It doesn't happen as often as it should, but it is a highlight of any episode when she bursts on to screen with a dramatic Sorkin penned monologue.

Recently I was motivated to watch even more Fonda starring productions.

As one does sometimes after an exhausting 6 day work week, it was Saturday night and I was laying, tummy down, nearly face planting on the couch, caught between some sort of delirium and sleep.  I found myself wanting to mix it up after a couple marathon-ed episodes of Orange Is The New Black and turned on the regular old cable TV.

And what did I happen to stumble across? Something most would think was a snooze, but movie fans would appreciate - an AFI award ceremony. This one was specifically honoring Ms. Fonda.

I love anything involving actor career retrospectives. They are always enlightening for movie fans obsessed with the mediums history.  Fonda's filmography and personal life story does not disappoint.

During the show, one of Fonda's acting clips was for a 1969 film I had been dying to see since it was featured on my "Movie A Day" calendar over ten years ago. At the time I had no idea Jane Fonda was in it, all I thought after reading the plot was, "Dance Marathon! What a fun movie!" People who have seen this cinematic spectacle know just how comical that thought was.

Last weekend I watched the Academy Award nominated, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, for the first time and it blew my mind. It is bonkers, but director Sydney Pollack created one intense and extraordinary film viewing experience that entirely changed how I look at the world. Don't you love when a movie unexpectedly has that effect?

Be prepared, we're getting serious.

Before knowing the complete terror this movie would tackle, my impression was rather la-di-da on the topic. In my mind, back in the day people happily participated in a dance marathon to support a charity. Everyone joyfully jitterbugged for a 24-hour stretch, went home a little sleepy, and definitely feeling the need to give those tired gams a rest.

While those happy sounding events did actually happen, there was also a dark side. During the 1930s and 40s, a marathon could last for 50 or even more days and took advantage of a dreary American culture during the depression. It was for sport and monetary gain - a side of America I was too naive to even dream up. It's the real life Hunger Games. How was this even possible?

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a vividly enthralling movie that follows the participants in one of these horrid (and completely fascinating) type of dance competitions.

In the first minute there is a total sense of dread as each of the characters grimly files in to sign up for the competition. They have the clothes on their back and maybe one other outfit, they are unemployed ( a lot of out of work actors), and were aimlessly wandering with really no better place to go. They had heard about the brutality involved, but with their sights on a $1,500 prize and hopes of casting agents spotting them in the crowd, the couples buckle down to do whatever it takes to win.

That mantra to be the last couple left on the dance floor takes many contestants (played by many known actors including Fonda, Bruce Dern, and the grandma from Parenthood (!), Bonnie Bedelia) to extreme desperation. Especially in the scenes that don't involve dancing, but instead, running. If standing up for most of the day without adequate sleep wasn't crazy enough, when the competition started to lag, they would be forced to compete in "the derby", which involved running around a track that was set up on the dance floor.

Crowds from the bleachers would go bananas, cheering their hearts out, totally choosing to ignore the utter pain the contestants are battling. With dark circles under their eyes and gaunt looking faces, they look more like they are stuck in an internment camp, but one that comes with a disco ball. Not all dancing is fun. The complete suffering exhibited in the actors faces during these long, high intensity scenes will fill you with terror. Truly unforgettable.

People who shake their finger at the "controversial" movies of today, need to take two minutes to watch any movie from the 1960s and 70s. That's the essence of edgy, and rather dark cinema. No one makes movies like this anymore. It's a shame - they were controversial to prove a point, get people talking, not to make a buck.

Nearly immediately after the endcredits began to roll, I got my research hat on, and couldn't believe that almost all the accounts found in the movie were true to life - dancers only had 10 minute breaks every hour, they often slept sitting up against their partner, and crowds bet on which couple they thought would win. Just like horses - get it? I thought so.

I had no idea a form of entertainment like this existed, even though it really doesn't delineate much from other parts of history. From gladiator battles, to public hangings, and now mocking people as they audition for reality shows - we as a humanity have always found entertainment in suffering and humiliation. Sad when you think of it that way, right? Okay, so maybe this will get me to stop hate watching I Wanna Marry Harry.

My entire life I had wanted to compete in a dance marathon.  I always had this dreamy, idyllic idea of swing dancing the night away, in some adorable polka dotted dress with red patent leather Mary Janes. I had sufficiently thought that through over the years, which was only intensified after the airing of a Girlmore Girls episode back in 2002.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, with a title like, "They Shoot Gilmore's, Don't They", the entire episode focused on Stars Hallow's annual dance marathon and was a giant tip of the hat to the classic flick. I quickly made this connection after finishing the movie and excitedly cheered on the genius. I mean, has any other TV show penned an elaborate episode based on a somewhat obscure vintage movie? Proving again that the creative writing from that gem will never get enough credit.

Even with The Gilmore's taking a comedic perspective on such a humanitarian nightmare, I now confess to finding less interest in participating in a dance marathon. I wonder why? On the other hand, my interest in researching the history of this topic has highly intensified. I already dug up a few 1930s articles from my local paper that detailed some of these types of events in town. I'm bewitched.

Setting out to discover more flicks starring that classy broad Jane Fonda lead me to unearthing the unknown history of our cultures obsession with entertainment. Something tells me that if I had chosen to watch On Golden Pond first, it wouldn't have had the same effect. I would probably be obsessed with living in a cabin and going fishing, or something.

Either way, I'm only more intrigued to check out the rest of Fonda's filmography. Well, maybe except Barbarella.

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