You might remember Marty as the correct answer to the question Herb Stempel intentionally got wrong on the rigged quiz show Twenty One. He was asked what won best picture for 1955, he answered On the Waterfront. He was being forced off the show to make room for Charles Van Doren as the new champion. This story was told in Robert Redford’s best picture nominated film Quiz Show (1994). I’ll talk more about that movie in about 4 months. But for now it’s let me tell you about Marty.
Marty begins with a casual lightness. The music is very bright and energetic. Not the feel of a serious film. In fact, the music on several occasions seemed like a compromise to try and take this Paddy Chayefsky story and turn it into a broad, commercial success.
Although it wasn’t a big box office smash as some of the other hits that year, making $3MM on a budget of under $350k is pretty successful in my book.
When we meet Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) he’s at the butcher shop where he works. His little brother was just married the week before and in his neighborhood that’s all the little old ladies need (and they don’t need much) to ask Marty when he’s getting married.
In fact, in the first 10 minutes there are 4 conversations about finding Marty a wife. Some of it is comical. Some of it is the frustration of Marty’s feelings of longing to be with someone.
But there’s little wonder why Marty is single. He hangs out with his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) and their pals at a sports bar with a bunch of other guys doing the same thing Saturday night after Saturday night.
“We wind up sitting around your house with a couple of cans of beer watching The Hit Parade on television.” – Angie
Marty has a good heart but most of the people in his world are fixated on the superficial.
“Angie, I’m thirty-four years old. I been looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life. I’m tired of looking. Everybody’s always telling me to get married. Get married. Get married. Don’t you think I wanna get married? I wanna get married. They drive me crazy.” – Marty
He gets up the gumption to call up a girl he met about a month prior. The phone call is such an honest, heartbreaking scene. You only hear his side of the call but that’s all you need. Borgnine’s performance tells the whole story. Another rejection.
Eventually the stars begin to align for Marty and he finds himself at the Stardust Ballroom in what could have been a boring and cliché-ridden scene. Instead the story takes an entirely new and wonderful approach to bringing Clara (Betsy Blair) into Marty’s life.
Their dance at the Stardust Ballroom is so skillfully crafted. I love it.
This movie is beautiful and heart-wrenching. The emotion is portrayed with humanity as these two wonderful people find each other. I found myself instantly rooting for them.
“You don’t get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough you get to be a real professor of pain.” – Marty
Marty and Clara aren’t “lovable losers.” These are endearing people that no one ever gave much of a chance at romance.
The world has told them they’re “dogs.” But together they find there’s more to them than what others see.
Marty: I want you to know I’m having a really good time with you right now and really enjoying myself. You see, you’re not such a dog as you think you are.
Clara: I’m having a very good time too.
Marty: So there you are. So, I guess I’m not such a dog as I think I am.
But the film isn’t only about lonely people that find each other. Two widows (Marty’s mother and her sister Catherine) paint a picture of the challenges of women forced to grow old on their own.
Catherine is living with her son (Marty’s cousin) and his wife and child. Tensions are high between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and the couple asks Marty’s mother if Catherine can move in with her and Marty.
The film explores the expectations and obligations that friends and families put on each other not only with caring for the elderly (although in this film Catherine is 56 and considered an “old lady”), but how the mindset of our friends influence our behavior.
You see, it isn’t just that the people in Marty’s life wonder why he’s not married at 34 years old. They also have some very specific standards they put on him for what that person should be like.
Whether that’s looks, age, nationality or level of education, they balk at Clara because she doesn’t fit their ideals.
This goes double for the single men in Marty’s life who have a view of male-female relationships based entirely in fantasy. They look at girly magazines and idolize the work of Mickey Spillane.
“The thing I like about Mickey Spillane is he knows how to handle women.” – Joe
Marty becomes paralyzed, incapable of continuing his relationship with Clara. He struggles with wanting to be with her but doing so would mean living contrary to the worldview of his friends and family. It’s not an easy choice for Marty.
When the light goes on he suddenly turns the tables on those who have pressured, poked and prodded him. As he steps into the phone booth to call Clara he smiles back at Angie giving him a good-natured taste of his own medicine.
“When you gonna get married, Angie? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You’re thirty-three years old. All your kid brothers are married. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.” – Marty
This film is like a delicate melody that just floats effortlessly on the air. I first saw Marty many years ago. I got misty-eyed then and I got misty-eyed now.
Marty Piletti is one of if not the most likable leading man in Oscar history. In fact, the Academy liked Marty so much they nominated it for 8 awards with it winning 4 including picture, director, actor and screenplay.
Those music cues I mentioned earlier didn’t give Marty the feel of a real Oscar-caliber film. The best picture winners of the 1950s like On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity and All About Eve each have a gravitas to them that screams “Oscar!” Even An American in Paris has some grandeur (I don’t want to talk about The Greatest Show on Earth).
At times Marty looks and feels like a low-budget, art house film from the 70s. That is part of why it’s a little surprising it was as successful as it was. It became the shortest best picture winner clocking it at 91 minutes. It still holds that record.
It also became only the second best picture to also with the Palme d’Or at Cannes (The Lost Weekend).
There have been some timely best picture winners in these first 28 Oscars but none more so than Marty. If it has come out just one year later it would have been a blip on the radar and a casualty of the changing world of film. More about that in my next post.