They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)
It is unquestionably the film that changed Jane Fonda from Henry's sexpot daughter into a respected actress. The funny thing is she turned it down when it was first offered because she didn't care for the script as written. Husband Roger Vadim urged her to reconsider and Jane's fans and I thank him.
It is during the Depression and we're witnessing a mixture of desperate people competing in an insanely grueling dance marathon. The point is they dance until they drop. The last standing couple wins. It could take weeks to complete. There will be food breaks and brief sleep. Why do it, one asks, as the audience's discomfort rises along with the contestants? Well, the prize money, of course, but also those meals and a warm place to rest. And you meet the most interesting people.
Fonda plays a downer of a character, cynical beyond belief, determined to win at any cost. Michael Sarrazin is a wannabe movie director who drops in by accident and becomes Fonda's dance partner when hers is disqualified. Susannah York is a weak British wannabe actress, Red Buttons a washed-up sailor, Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, a poor farm worker and his pregnant wife and Gig Young is the drunken, has-been MC.What a brilliant company of actors these folks were.
Directed by the competent Sydney Pollack, the film is relentless in its depiction of sadness, despair and hopelessness. There is no doubt that things will not end well. They just can't... it certainly wouldn't be true to the message of the story. This movie might have been a game-changer for the typical American film with the cheery ending.
At the finale, Fonda leaves the contest because she finds out it's not what it appears to be and we see how she is broken and suffering. Standing outside the dancehall with Sarrazin she threatens to commit suicide and pulls out a gun but cannot bring herself to pull the trigger. Help, she says to him. And he does.
Depressing or not, the film garnered nine Oscar nominations with Gig Young being the only winner as best supporting actor.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
It was based on an incredibly popular novel. I recall everywhere I turned a woman was reading it. There was great expectation that the film would do very well, but I don't think it did. Why? I expect the non-book readers found it too depressing for words. As the credits roll, one just sat in the seat, too numb and stunned to move.
The short version is this is about a straight-laced teacher of the deaf by day and a swinger a night. Living in New York in the 70s, she is working at being a liberated woman, eschewing marriage and striking out to find her sexual identity, which has been largely suppressed. The film shows us both sides of her life. We meet her father and sister, see her at school. She seems like a nice young woman living in the shadows of the person she'd like to be.
I always compared the change to the commercial of the bespectacled woman with her hair piled up who throws the glasses off and shakes her lovely head to allow the hair to fall. That was Teresa Dunn. She's all goosepimply over her earliest late-night encounters but we watch as her one-night stands get more schitzy and scary and the sexual encounters more violent. Perhaps the increasingly self-destructive Teresa doesn't see the impending doom and gloom but we do and it hangs over us like a bad cloud. That cloud is what makes this film so depressing. When's it gonna happen? Which one is he? Did it have to be so violent and seem so real?
It was based on a real-life incident, referred to as the swinging 70s murder which inspired a book, Closing Time: The True Story of the "Goodbar" Murder. It, in turn, inspired a novel called Looking for Mr. Goodbar, written by Judith Rossner and then, of course, this film directed by the superb Richard Brooks. In some circles the film was considered too lurid, too notorious. There has always been a segment of society that is simply not ready to accept the wild and crazy things some folks do for their sexual kicks. Perhaps Goodbar rubbed that in people's faces a little too liberally.
This is truly an electric acting ensemble. Diane Keaton may never have been accorded the acclaim she deserved. I thought it one of her finest roles, and that's saying a mouthful. As her sister, Tuesday Weld received an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. I loved the scenes with Weld and Keaton together. Richard Kiley was great as the hard-assed father. Richard Gere, William Atherton, Tom Berenger and LeVar Burton all turned in A-1 performances as the various men.
The Elephant Man (1980)
This one may not be as grim as some of the others. There are some upbeat moments, scenes of tenderness and caring. Nonetheless, this one more than qualifies to earn a spot among depressing films.
John Merrick was a real person, which, of course, does lend itself to greater depression when one considers it. He lived in 19th century London and was horribly disfigured. Horribly. He did, in fact, resemble an elephant.
A surgeon discovers him in a freak show where he is being mistreated by a thug who rather owns him. The surgeon pays the thug to allow him to show Merrick in some seminars and vows to help him though he must return him to the thug. Ultimately the surgeon has Merrick hospitalized where it is discovered how intelligent he is. He impresses all by reciting the 23rd Psalm. Merrick meets the surgeon's wife, who cares about him, and takes him to high society affairs, which is regarded as another form of exploitation... it's just that people dress better.
While in hospital care, a smarmy porter charges people to have a look at Merrick. Worse, his old tormentor from freak show days kidnaps him and features him throughout Europe in more shows, torturing him along the way. Merrick manages to escape and returns to the hospital but contracts a pulmonary disease and dies.
John Hurt gives a gut-wrenching performance as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins shines as the surgeon. It is one of the first feature-film directing chores for David Lynch, who always knew his way around unusual subjects.
The film says a great deal about those living with physical impairments, their sometimes harsh treatment and their courage. Merrick comes through it with his dignity intact and teaches us something about inner strength.
Sophie's Choice (1982)
It wasn't just depressing to me but shatteringly so. So emotional... it felt so personal. Its central theme comes from a loss that is so awful that I could barely process it. The depressing tone rarely let up and by the time the end came, as heartbreaking as anything else in the film, I needed some relief.
The title has to do with a Polish woman who is caught with a contraband ham and is being sent to a concentration camp along with her two young children, a boy and a girl. As they are waiting for the train, a Nazi approaches her and tells her she must give up her children. After begging and pleading and crying and being further threatened, she gives up her daughter to be killed and her son to be sent to a children's camp. And she is never the same again.
We learn much more about Sophie through a liberal use of flashbacks as she lives in a Brooklyn boardinghouse, rooming with violent, manic, abusive schizophrenic, would-be scientist named Nathan and has a pal in fellow boarder Stingo who dreams of one day becoming a famous novelist. Sophie's only real lightness occurs with Stingo who falls for her. Much more dangerous is Nathan, who scared the hell out of me with his violent outbursts. To observe how mean he was to the cowering, hurting, emotionally frail Sophie was sometimes too much.
I don't think as an audience member one expects that things are going to work out and they certainly do not. Sophie and Nathan take cyanide and we are left with Stingo to tell their story with affection.
Alan Pakula directed a wonderful, small cast. Meryl Streep turned in a performance of astonishing brilliance... for me one of the five best I have ever witnessed. She rightly won an Oscar for it. This movie introduced us to Kevin Kline, who never looked better, by the way, but whom I thought I would never like because this role was so mean-spirited. Peter MacNicol was most affecting as Stingo.
'night, Mother (1986)
The play won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Marsha Norman. It was directed by Tom Moore. Both filled the same roles for the film version. It stars Oscar-winning actresses Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft as a mother and daughter who live together. One night while preparing to do her mother's nails, the daughter casually mentions that she is going to kill herself before morning.
It is a searing film that never lets up. I will never forget fidgeting in my seat from the utter discomfort I was feeling. The longer I watched, the more that discomfort turned to depression. I can imagine how much worse it would be for someone who has actually threatened suicide or attempted it and perhaps only they can truly understand it. I cannot imagine someone playing this on the stage night after night after night.
All the joy has come out of the daughter's life. She is an epileptic who is unable to work or drive. Her marriage has ended and her druggie son is having trouble with the law. Living with her mother isn't particularly helping her disposition either.
It takes place on one set as I recall and from start to finish the talk is about death. The mother tries everything she can short of tieing the daughter to a chair... and maybe she should have. They go at it the entire film... you mustn't do it and I'm gonna do it... each said about 50 different ways until I wanted to kill myself and flee from the circle of misery.
One day, long after seeing it, someone gave me a copy, which I accepted. It sat on the shelf for years until one day I said to myself... never ever are you going to watch this again... and I threw it out.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
I cringe to even think of writing about this one... it creeped me out something fierce. It concerns the private hell of four people who are hooked on drugs, three of them on heroin. It is a harrowing look into that world, not much different from opening up a gash on one's leg and looking inside. Their lives fester with trying to secure drugs, arrests, horrific scenes of withdrawal and infections that lead to amputation. Murphy's Law is alive in this one.
There's no musical-comedy in this one... it's as grim as grim can get. Director Darren takes us through the lives and the culture. We see the start and the end of the drug pattern. We see the dashed hopes, we hear the denials and the empty promises. We witness the lies and self-deception and delusions. We walk with them among the denizens of the underworld to score that fix. We feel dirty.
Jared Leto plays a young man who visits his mother only to steal and hock her stuff for drug money. The mother, Ellen Burstyn, gets hooked on amphetamines as she is trying to loose a few pounds and be able to get into her favorite dress. She is on the verge of being on a TV game show and all must go well. Unfortunately, it goes horribly wrong. She goes into a psychosis, hallucinating beyond belief, thinking that the game show is taking place in her living room and that the refrigerator is alive.
I was more taken and more shook up over the mother's loss of a foothold on her life than I was the son's. It likely is because one is numb on these things happening to youth but an older person to get hooked as she does is simply heart-breaking.
As has been the case of all these films, the acting is exquisite. Burstyn has given us many fine performances... this is an actress who knows her craft inside and out. I think she can do anything but this is arguably the best she's ever been. Leto, too, gives it all he's got. I'm even a bit surprised they both didn't win Oscars. Jennifer Connelly, as Leto's love interest, and Marlon Wayans, as a friend, are at the tops of their games as well.
Like 'Night, Mother, I didn't particularly like this film. The others, despite being depressing, I could say I did like. I think it was the utter hopelessness, such penetrating despair up their on that screen. I couldn't shake it for a several hours and few films have that effect on me other than happy ones. I won't permit a film experience to drag me down like that but Requiem got to me.
These are simply six movies I thought of right off. A list of depressing films could certainly include Schindler's List, Velvet Goldmine, The Road and scores of others. What are some you would include in your list of depressing films?