Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Marty: Small Screen Roots, Big Screen Brilliance

Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show (which, by the way, received a Best Picture nomination) recreated the competition between nebbish Jew Herbie Stempel and handsome Gentile Charles Van Doren on the 1950’s Jeopardy!-style game show Twenty-One. In the film, the producers of the show have rigged the results to enhance the drama and create a national sensation. While both Stempel and Van Doren are brilliant men in their own right, each is seduced by the allure of fame and willingly plays along with the deception of the show; they are fed the answers and taught how to play up the drama. Stempel, the reigning champion as the film begins, does not have the star quality the executives on the show really want. He’s nerdy, a bit uncouth, too nebbish, and most unforgivably in the eyes of the anti-Semitic producers: too Jewish. Van Doren is photogenic, handsome, and comes from a wealthy family. Twenty-One’s producers see him as marketable and appealing. When Stempel and Van Doren clash, Stempel is told to throw the game. The decisive question: What movie won Best Picture in 1955 (Quiz Show is set in 1956, so the answer is a gimme)? The answer Stempel must give: On the Waterfront.

For Stempel, answering On the Waterfront instead of Marty is very nearly a deal breaker. He claims that it was his favorite film, he has seen it several times, and would consider it an indignity to answer that question wrong. Although Stempel does eventually compromise, when you watch Marty, it becomes clear why Stempel idolizes the picture. Marty describes himself as an ugly man. Unlovable. Painfully ordinary. Marty’s ordinariness becomes his endearing quality, and in Marty, men and women like Herbie Stempel found a kindred spirit. For once, a film showed one needn’t look like a matinee idol to find love and happiness. Of all the films ever awarded Best Picture, Marty is unquestionably the smallest in scale, yet in its celebration of the ordinary man, it proves to have the biggest heart.

Ironically enough, Marty began its life on television. The story originally debuted on television, broadcast on The Goodyear Television Playhouse on May 24th, 1953. (Another irony—The Goodyear Television Playhouse, like Twenty-One, were both programs on NBC, proving that both quality and corruption can exist on a single network.) The Goodyear Television Playhouse brought serious works of drama and theater to the home audience in a one hour program. Works popular on Broadway were condensed along with standalone original material. Marty, one of the latter, was scripted by Paddy Chayefsky (who is most famous for his searing script for Network) and proved to be quite successful and stood out amongst the fare it was aired with.

What is significant about Marty was that it went against the grain in terms of how Hollywood viewed television. TV was seen as a very serious threat to the movie studios in the 1950’s. Why would audiences pay good money to go out and see a movie when they can be entertained at home? Hollywood answered by giving audiences massive, spectacular films that television could not hope to recreate. This was the decade of the musical, of the epic, of the films adapted from great works of literature. Look at some of Marty’s Best Picture predecessors—An American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, and From Here to Eternity fill out the bill for musicals, epics, and literary adaptations. Even All About Eve and On the Waterfront, with their marquee casts, pedigree filmmakers, and universal themes are larger than life in their own right, and could only work as feature films. In a decade of filmmaking where gigantic storytelling and gimmickry was seen as an absolute need (don’t forget, that the 1950’s were also the decade where 3-D, widescreen, and forgettable gimmicks like Aroma-vision were developed), Marty is tiny, unadorned and honest.

(Hell, the film was rumored to be a tax write-off for its producers, Harold Hecht and the actor Burt Lancaster. What bigger indicator of a throwaway project than that. In fact, in the trailer for Marty, Lancaster is seen introducing the picture, lending it some star power although Lancaster does not appear in a frame of the film itself. It is as if Lancaster doesn’t believe the story alone will sell the picture. Ultimately, when Marty became a critical and financial success—the film made back nearly ten times its budget—it made history as being the only film for which the Oscar campaign mounted for the picture cost more than the actual film itself. ($400,000 campaign budget against a $343,000 production budget, though it does seem like producers spend what it costs to make their film on many Oscar campaigns in recent history.))

Director Delbert Mann’s film traces roughly thirty-six hours in the life of its titular protagonist, butcher Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine). Marty is a lifelong bachelor in his thirties who lives at home with his overbearing Italian-American mother (Esther Minciotti) in the Bronx. Though Marty is a hard and dependable worker with a secure job, he has a grand total of zero romantic prospects. Partially due to his looks—Marty describes himself as a “fat, ugly man” (the stocky, round-faced Borgnine isn’t quite as hideous as his character describes himself as, but Borgnine is certainly not cut from traditional leading man cloth like his producer and From Here to Eternity co-star Lancaster)—and partially due to the constant browbeating he faces from his mother, Marty has become a large, decent man with absolutely no self-esteem. Marty is all-too aware of the price he has paid for his decency: “You don’t get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough; you become a professor of pain.”

Despite the fact that Marty has resigned himself to bachelorhood, Mrs. Piletti constantly harangues her eldest son into finding a girl. The fact that all of Marty’s younger brothers are married yet the oldest son is still single becomes a source of laughter in the community, and in many ways, reflects a failure on the part of Mrs. Piletti. Marty’s lack of romantic prospects becomes the primary source of conflict between mother and son: he is sick of rejection and heartbreak, she wishes to see her son happy. Ironically, Mrs. Piletti is clueless to what actually would make her son happy—some independence, for starters, and a chance to find love on his own terms. Furthermore, Mrs. Piletti secretly doesn’t want Marty to find love; she is absolutely terrified that if Marty does marry, she will be left utterly alone. Marty, in honest and direct terms, spells things out for his mother: “Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life where he’s gotta face facts. And one fact I gotta face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.” It is a testament to the strength of Chayefsky’s script and the skilled performances of Borgnine and Minciotti that the lived-in bickering between mother and son—which the audience, is of course, witnessing with fresh eyes—seems eternal.

Mrs. Piletti wins the argument, and she convinces Marty to go to a community dance to meet women. Marty has his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), tag along. Angie is an equally luckless bachelor, and when Marty says “I’ve been looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life,” one senses that the statement applies to Angie with the same fidelity, and that both men are burnt out in their search for female companionship. Again, Borgnine and Mantell make it appear that Marty and Angie have been best friends for a long time, and that their shared motivation for going to the dance springs not from the prospect of meeting women—both men dread the prospect of doing so by this point, they have a shared hopelessness in that regard—but simply because going out is a far better alternative than staying in and doing nothing and being bored. When the friends ask each other “So, what do you feel like doing tonight?”/ “What do you want to do tonight?” (This line became a 1950’s catchphrase), their fruitless search for women becomes a mundane, rote part of their weekly routines.

At the dance, Marty is unsurprisingly rejected when he asks a woman to dance. He wanders off by himself, and meets a 29-year old schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair). Clara came with a couple and hoped to be set up with a man they were acquainted with, but Clara’s date has stood them up. Clara is called “a dog” by other men at the dance (Angie included), though if Clara has any strikes against her appearance, it is that she is spectacularly ordinary (Blair, while certainly no “dog”, benefits from her plain appearance in this role). Marty, sensing a kindred spirit begins to talk to Clara, and though both parties are apprehensive—Clara especially so—Marty finds that the pair have much in common. On a surface level, both are relatively committed to their careers and both live with and are devoted to their parents (with Clara, it is her father). On a deeper level, both Marty and Clara intuit that they are both people who have resigned themselves to never falling in love. Their shared outlook provides a foundation for the pair to begin a relationship.

Eventually, Clara and Marty warm to each other. Both Borgnine and Blair have, like every successful romantic pairing in the movies, perfect chemistry. In this case, things start perfectly awkward and timid. Borgnine and Blair understand that Marty and Clara have both been hurt in the past, both fear rejection and loneliness, and both can hardly believe that there is another person out there who feels the way the other does. Eventually, Marty and Clara warm up to each other, and both have found what has eluded them throughout adulthood: a potential partner. They spend the evening together, out so late that Marty has to take a taxi home after ushering Clara to her doorstep because the trains have stopped running. Marty kisses Clara as he leaves, and in a sublime movie moment, he giddily dances down the middle of the street. Borgnine makes this large, oafish man twinkle-toed, the picture of utter happiness. Marty’s dance down the street after his date with Clara is a moment as equally joyful as Jimmy Stewart running down the main street in Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and frankly, the moment should be equally as famous.

The next day, Marty tells his mother how his date went and is met with reservation. It is here that Mrs. Piletti’s fears of abandonment are made explicit, and she puts it in Marty’s mind to renege on the promise he made Clara: to call her the day after the date. The final scene of the film finds Marty in the café that he frequents with Angie. Angie—peeved that Marty left him at the dance without telling him where he was going—also doesn’t approve of Marty’s matchup with Clara. Marty though, sees through Angie’s anger and realizes that Clara represents an opportunity at love that he would be foolish to throw away (Mantell also plays the role with a touch of obvious jealousy, and like Mrs. Piletti, the fear of abandonment is writ large over his face). Marty tells Angie:

“You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we have a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad. Hey Ange, when are you going to get married?”

The final moments of the film have Marty inside a telephone booth, making good on his promise to call Clara.

Marty is an honest film dealing with ordinary love. Atypical of romantic films, Marty does not adhere to the characteristics of its genre. Unlike It Happened One Night—a film I would categorize as prototypical—Marty doesn’t have leads who “meet cute” (and they certainly aren’t played by marquee stars like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert—Borgnine and Blair are character actors). They are a pair of kindred spirits, not opposites who attract. Marty and Clara are very much, almost painfully ordinary, unlike Peter Warne, who is popular and likable, and Ellie Andrews, who is essentially a princess. Marty and Clara don’t have glamorous jobs—they’re a butcher and a teacher, not a star reporter and heiress. There is no love at first sight, a sweeping off the feet, or a mad dash for the marriage altar. There is simply a promise to make a follow-up date that is adhered to, a possibility of happiness. In Marty, there is romance but there is no bullshit.

And really, how many real-life romances and couplings are as zany as the movies make them out to be? Do any of us meet our spouses-to-be under wacky circumstances or are they more mundane? Do we really fall immediately in swooning love? Are we really attracted to our bickering opposites—and I’m not talking in a lustful manner here, I think everyone in some manner has a physical attraction to otherness—or when we seek out someone for a long-term relationship, do we look more for partners with whom there are shared characteristics? Do first dates go smoothly or awkwardly? Marty always errs on the side of realistic answers to those questions.

Reality is what attracted Herbie Stempel to the film. Marty showed that an ordinary man—one who, God forbid, may be considered a bit of a loser—resigned to bachelorhood can defy the odds and find a soul mate. (And another great thing about the film: it neither judges nor celebrates Marty and Clara’s resignation to be single; it presents it as it is. If anyone is condemned in the film it is Mrs. Piletti and Angie, who try and force Marty to act in ways that go against his heart.) Stempel was an ordinary guy—God forbid, a bit of a loser too—who also defied the odds and got to win money on a game show. The film resonated with ordinary folks worldwide. The French loved Marty; it was one of only two Best Picture winners that also received the Palme d’Or, top prize at the Cannes Film Festival (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is the other film).

Marty is a testament to the virtues of realism and honesty. It says that what is ordinary is also beautiful.


Marty (1955)

Director: Delbert Mann

Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Joe Mantell, Esther Minciotti

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture*—Harold Hecht, Best Director—Delbert Mann, Best Actor—Ernest Borgnine, Best Adapted Screenplay—Paddy Chayefsky) from 8 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Joe Mantell, Best Supporting Actress—Betsy Blair, Best Art Direction (B&W), Best Cinematography (B&W)
*At 91 minutes, Marty is the shortest film to ever win Best Picture

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