On Electric Horsemen

The Electric Horseman, the 11th highest grossing movie of 1979, was clearly designed to be a modern classic. The structure suggests Frank Capra in its contrast between the human and the institution, as well as the moral awakening of a jaded and hard-headed female love interest turned idealist-activist through her association with a figure of homespun masculine decency. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, The Electric Horseman was “the kind of movie they used to make”

Robert Redford was a superstar at the time, though he had been largely absent from movies in the three years since All the Presidents Men. Jane Fonda was coming up strong on the finish line as the most decorated actress of the decade: two Best Actress Oscars (one for Coming Home, the year before) and another one on the way for The China Syndrome, another movie in which she played a smart, ambitious investigative reporter who puts herself in harms way. Released on December 21st, just in time for Oscar season, The Electric Horseman was primed to serve as equal parts social critique  and old-time entertainment. It sounds like the kind of movie your Dad would love. Yet while it was a modest hit, I imagine this might be the first time you’ve ever heard of it.

Redford plays a has-been rodeo star turned dubious media icon associated with a line of breakfast cereals. A rodeo star selling cereal seems to be one of the key signals that the film was made in 1979, but even then it’s hard to fathom a real-life cowboy being a household name. Sent to Las Vegas to pimp cereal, he’s told to participate in a promotion riding a thoroughbred while wearing a ridiculous electric suit. Because, as Don Draper always says, nothing moves cereal like a washed-out cowboy riding a horse and wearing Christmas lights. Redford finds out that the beautiful horse has been drugged for appearance and liberates it, leading to the best images of the film, as the lit-up Redford rides “Favorite Son” through the equally lit-up Las Vegas.

Fonda plays her second 1979 incarnation of Brenda Starr: she’d had better success in The China Syndrome, another then-important movie about muckrakers exposing the evil of corporations that never comes on TV any more. The villain here is John Saxon, a glowering Mr. Burns-type except without personality. This is one of the areas where the Capra touch was needed: in his good guy vs. the system flicks, the villains were always homespun little Caesars: colorfully pragmatic rather than the distantly evil.

In July of that year, Jimmy Carter gave what was unfortunately the defining speech of his presidency: the “Malaise” speech. Unfortunate, of course, because his defining speech was about how much everything sucked. As a mix of relevant polemic and popcorn entertainment, The Electric Horseman tries to respond optimistically to the malaise, but it ends up drowning in it. The film’s central image, of Redford lit up like a Christmas tree, is more depressing than liberatory: he’s lost among the lights even as he’s escaping them. We never know if Redford’s idealism is coming out of his selfish individualism (an icon of the “Me” decade”) or his revived altruism (the Capra touch). Director Sydney Pollack is a poor substitute for Capra. With the exception of a few earlier movies  (The Day of the Condor) and Tootsie, Pollack was always the director of high-profile pictures starring A-listers that you still really didn’t want to see but went to anyway because they seemed kind of important. As Bryan Curtis noted, “Pollack’s title cards often sag so heavy with stars that the films themselves seem to melt away.” See above for exhibit A: the poster for The Electric Horseman.In this film, the movie never makes that much of a case for its would-be populist appeal. With the exception of Willie Nelson, who’s wonderful as Redford’s confidant, these archetypes never give us any reason to like or hate them – and that includes the damn horse.

Yet despite its mediocrity, The Electric Horseman is a particularly fascinating look at America in what was equally (as Carter claimed) a crisis of energy and confidence. On the cusp of “Reagan” being used as a prefix of positivity, it’s a pretty gloomy feel-good movie. The Redford/Fonda vehicle must have seemed pretty dated by 1983, when the serious, kinetic patriotism of The Right Stuff  came out;  when the moody The Empire Strikes Back segued into the muppety Return of the Jedi; or 1984, when the mythical Americana of Redford’s The Natural came out. The Electric Horseman opens with Willie Nelson singing Ed Bruce’s timeless“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,”  a curious sentiment for a movie ostensibly about the liberatory power of even the most fading American icons. Thanks to movies like The Long Riders, Silverado, and Pale Rider, the 80s saw a nostalgic return to “real” westerns – and not the revisionist kind like Sam Peckinpah was making, or like fascinating failures such as The Missouri Breaks and Heavens Gate. There was really no room for burned-out cowboys in Hollywood any more. I imagine someone going to a two screen movie theater to watch this on New Years Eve 1979, feeling bummed out, and going home to listen to Ry Cooder and  lament the death of disco.

As The Electric Horseman has been consigned to irrelevance, something stranger has happened to Jane Fonda. By contrast, Redford has made at least five movies that are generally affirmed as modern classics: Butch and Sundance, The Sting, All the President’s Men, The Way We Were, and  The Natural. These movies came on ENCORE or AMC all the time. Yet while he won an Academy Award for directing Ordinary People and created the Sundance Film Festival, Redford was generally viewed as an actor of the sort whom the less you expected of him, the happier you were going to be. Yet Fonda was the go-to actress for prestige movies. After spending the 60s as Henry Fonda’s fun sexpot movie-star daughter, she wowed the world with the Pollack-directed They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? , kicking off a string of six academy award nominations and two wins from 1969 to 1981: Klute, Julia, Coming Home, The China Syndrome, and On Golden Pond. Those were very, very important movies when they came out. But other than 1970s-addicted cinephiles like me, has anyone seen these? Even though I was falling in love with the history of film as a teenager in the early 1990s, I primarily knew Fonda as the star of “The Jane Fonda workout” and as Ted Turner’s companion during Atlanta Braves playoff games. Without easy access to the Wikipedia, I had no idea that she was once called “Hanoi Jane” for sitting on an anti-aircraft battery in North Vietnam. She returned to acting in 2005 with the reviled Monster-in-Law and as part of the Lindsay Lohan meltdown with Georgia Rule.  Whatever the case, I find it very strange that we never really talk about Jane Fonda as an actress anymore. Even if she isn’t in a lot of my favorite movies of the period, she was perhaps its most dominant and consistent actress. Is she overrated? underrated? I honestly don’t know.

I’ve filled a lot of space on this mostly forgotten film that’s lingered with me since I was probably the only person in America who DVRed it on Encore at three in the morning. To end with the most hyperbolic of statements that I don’t really believe, you might just use this movie as the nexus of a certain cultural universe.