Movie review: ‘The Electric Horseman’

To say the least, Jane Fonda was quite the divisive person in the 1970s and, to some, remains so today. Unlike the insipid filth who passes for controversial stars now (say those sleazy, vapid Kardashians), Fonda was at the heart of a truly national discourse on a war that ultimately killed 55,000 Americans. The country was divided over the war as well as Fonda, who traveled to meet our enemy (and was afterwards called “Hanoi Jane” and reviled as, and correctly labeled, a traitor) and even posed with them and their weapons that were used to attack the U.S. military. Fast forward and you either supported her or never wanted to see her again. I don’t comment on politics in a movie review, but I can say it took several films (including “California Suite” – click here for my review) but I managed to be able to watch her without rancor. The film that did it was “The Electric Horseman” with Robert Redford. Truly a special film and wonderful work by all involved.

‘The Electric Horseman’
(1979; 121 minutes; rated PG; directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Willie Nelson and Valerie Perrine)

SETTING THE SPIRIT OF AMERICA FREE

(NOTE: After re-watching The Electric Horsemanon Aug. 3, 2017, I expanded this review with more opinion, additional trivia and the updating of links.)

When you put wonderful talent together, you can take a very pedestrian idea and make it very special. I’m writing today about “The Electric Horseman” – the story of a cowboy who steals a horse. OK, it’s obviously much more than that, but without the energy and passion of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda under the direction of Sydney Pollack, “The Electric Horseman” most likely would have been just another film in the winter of 1979.

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The Electric Horseman” takes aim at the coming corporate culture that would come to smother part of the adventurous side of the United States and it takes a stand for freedom and doing the right thing even in the face of corporate power, money and official authority. Along the way, you’re treated to a neat story and terrific acting so that it doesn’t bog down in liberal dogma against “the man.”

Today, after re-watching it again, I have to admire the excellent filmmaking and story-telling. Plus, you have one of the sensational chase sequences in all of American cinema history with Redford fleeing the law on a stolen horse. There isn’t any CGI to be found (it wouldn’t be developed for some decades to come) and helps make this a complete motion picture.

In “The Electric Horseman,” Redford plays “Norman ‘Sonny’ Steele” and he’s a former champion cowboy who’s the spokesman for a breakfast cereal. However, he’s hitting the bottle pretty hard and is spiraling down in the eyes of his corporate bosses. He becomes outraged when the company, which owns a Secretariat-like race horse, puts the thoroughbred into a Las Vegas show at the multinational company’s annual meeting. Redford doesn’t like the way the horse is treated (it’s also being given drugs for a variety of reasons) and so he decides to steal him – and then set it free in wild horse country.

Fonda plays “Alice ‘Hallie’ Martin” and she’s a TV journalist who wants a nice story to stick it to the corporate greedheads who run the fictional company. She uses her investigative talents to find Redford and then the two of them set off to release the horse named “Rising Star.” Of course they fall in short-term love and each get to know and understand each other – and its wonderful interplay for the audience to enjoy.

Everyone except the company pretty much wins in the end, but it is not a saccharine ending that too many in Hollywood would have made but director Pollack obviously would not allow (his talent obviously precludes this).

Here’s a look at the top of the cast:

  • It’s difficult for amateurs to fully comprehend the talent of the Oscar winning (and three time nominee) Redford. He does so much, so well and with such ease here that you forget it is difficult to do this work. He goes from a fun-loving boozy cowboy to a determined idealist to someone whose emotions come out in subtle ways. He is comfortable in all situations and manages to forge a special relationship with his audience. Redford is better here than most of his roles (his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Sting” is one exception) and he’s also remembered with Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men” (click here for my review). My personal favorite performance by Redford is in “Three Days of the Condor” – click here for my review.
  • Fonda, a two-time Oscar winner (and five other nominations) is pitch perfect here, too. She does a very convincing job as an actual TV reporter with intelligence (rare in the 1970s and completely absent today – and journalism has been my career, so my opinion counts for something). Remarkably, I liked Fonda better in the light comedy “Monster-In-Law” with Jennifer Lopez (click here for my review) but she is a better newswoman here than she was in her nominated role as one in “The China Syndrome,” which was released nine months before “The Electric Horseman.”
  • Valerie Perrine, who is an Oscar nominee for “Lenny,” does a solid job as “Charlotta Steele,” who is Redford’s soon-to-be ex looking for him to sign divorce papers. The meat of her role is her description of Redford when she talks with Fonda. A good, but all-too brief, piece of work by Perrine. She was also in “Superman.”

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the other actors and their work:

  • Willie Nelson is understatedly outstanding in his first movie here. While he’s a bit unconventional, it isn’t the funny type of role he did well in “The Dukes of Hazzard” movie (click here for my review). He is truly solid and does more with the character than anyone here except Redford and Fonda. He also had five songs on “The Electric Horseman” soundtrack.
  • Golden Globe winner John Saxon plays cold, calculating CEO “Hunt Sears” and he just cannot abide someone with Redford’s off-handed belligerence or even begin to understand his motivation since he’s nothing but a corporate greedhead. Saxon, who was excellent with Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” knows roles that show little emotion and he does them well. He was also in “Joe Kidd” with Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall (click here for my review).
  • Wilford Brimley basically plays … Wilford Brimley here as a farmer who helps Redford and Fond and the horse evade the law. He’s gruff, polite and principled. Just like for Perrine, a small role and good work in it. Brimley was also in “Absence of Malice” (another Pollack film but one that’s deficient considering his other works) and was tremendous in that geezer cult classic “Cocoon.”

The supporting cast is solid, but I’m not going to take much time with them. Notable as being solid in their roles are Allan Arbus, who plays an aggrieved director; Nicolas Coster as a wormy PR flack; and James “Hill Street Blues” Sikking as one of thoughtless corporate drones buzzing around the chairman. All do what supporting actors do: Give a foundation that makes sure the film doesn’t collapse.

Finally, I will say that it was Pollack’s guiding hand that made this one a success. The prolific director (37 films over five decades) isn’t a one-hit wonder, as he also directed “The Way We Were” (I’ll forgive him for that one), “Tootsie” and the little-remembered “Bobby Deerfield” (click here for my review) with Al Pacino as a Formula One race car driver. At the beginning of his career, Pollack did TV and directed an episode of “Dr. Kildare.”

The Electric Horseman” just missed out on being in the top 10 of films in 1979 after it earned $61.8 million on a $12.5 million budget, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million. Three films that year that were all better than the overrated drudgery of a snifflebag called “Kramer vs. Kramer” were “All That Jazz” (click here for my review), “Meatballs” (click here for my review) and “Going in Style” (click here for my review). Here are the other films from 1979 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Redford did all his own horse-riding stunts in the film.
  • The Electric Horseman” was nominated for a single Oscar – and that was for sound – it lost out to “Apocalypse Now.”
  • Nelson has been nominated for an Oscar, too, but it was for music in “Honeysuckle Rose.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Robert Redford and Jane Fonda previously starred together in The Chase (1966) and Barefoot in the Park (1967). Both actors made their feature film debuts in Tall Story (1960) while this picture is their last (currently) star teaming. This film was one of seven pictures director Sydney Pollack made with Redford while Pollack had previously worked with Fonda on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969).”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The name of Sonny Steele’s horse in the film is ‘Rising Star.’ The star steed was played by a five year old bay thoroughbred called ‘Let’s Merge’ after a six month equine talent scout. Robert Redford bought the horse after production was complete and owned him for 18 years before the horse passed away.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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