Marty (1955, Delbert Mann)

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This movie’s in an unusual position, I think, of being made more endearing by its Oscar win, essentially because it’s such an odd and eccentric choice for the Academy to have made (going way into the future, the same is somewhat true of No Country for Old Men). Almost nothing about this small, brief film carries the whiff of a Hollywood “product” — its perpetual niceness and normality, indeed, matches that of its characters. Like all of Delbert Mann’s films, unfortunately, it really amounts to little more than a glorified and slightly opened-up telefilm, but therein again lies some of its central oddness. The Academy rewarding a film adaptation of a teleplay for an anthology program is nearly as bizarre and out of character as the time they gave the statue to a British film (Hamlet)!

There are two stars of Marty. The first and most obvious is Ernest Borgnine, inheriting a role brought to life on television initially, and strikingly, by Rod Steiger; you can see his performance on DVD via Criterion’s Golden Age of Television boxed set. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, the cheerful Borgnine runs circles around his predecessor in the film version. What he embodies is the belief in people as paramount force that’s the prime feature of Paddy Chayefsky’s script — he’s immensely likable, good-hearted, and you trust him, which is what the script calls for. Chayefsky is, of course, our other auteur. He set out to write the “most ordinary love story” possible, and the artistic and commercial success of the film prove that there’s nothing, ironically, ordinary about the ordinary when it’s approached from a singular, idiosyncractic perspective like that of Chayefsky’s passionate, lovingly emotive teleplay and screenplay.

Marty‘s naturalism — the comings and goings of lonely single dudes with nothing to do on Saturday night, the tentative first pawings of love just as scary at age 34 as they are at 13 — might be a consequence of its source as a threadbare live TV production, and indeed it looks positively out of time with its Academy ratio charms as the widescreen revolution was heating up, but that’s also what has let it age rather well despite falling somewhat out of public consciousness. Witty in its decency, it feels like a modern feel-good independently produced comedy-drama, particularly since it doesn’t run on “jokes” but rather on facial expressions, small character details, dialogue and pathos.

Thematically, what’s most telling is that Chayfesky puts Borgnine’s Marty as well as Betsy Blair’s Clara (inexplicably labeled a “dog” by various characters in the movie, evidently to prove a point but not really succeeding) up as kids doing their best, despite their ages, the implication being something or other about love being an ageless phenomenon. They’re contrasted somewhat hamhandedly with Marty’s mother and aunt and their stodgy, old-world sensibilities as well as his cousin and his wife’s constant cantankerous battles. It’s not subtle, and the story evolutions of these background characters remain incomplete.

Marty isn’t much of a movie, really; it isn’t cinematic, it seems an odd but endearing time capsule (some of its lively shots of Brooklyn in the ’50s are breathtaking in the expected accidental-documentary sense), but see it and remember it for its simple, time-tested and wise perspectives about the likelihood of love among those, as Leonard Cohen would later put it, “oppressed by the figures of beauty.” Beauty, that is, as a societal construct; for what finally brings Clara and Marty together is the same social awkwardness, ineptitude perhaps, that keeps them solitary to begin with. It’s depressing to even contemplate what a film like this would look like today, to contrast the portrait of a decent guy doing his best with the moden overgrown man-child. Maybe we could take a few lessons from this.

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