A grippingly poignant Oscar-winning gem, and one of the biggest little films in Hollywood history
Great depth can be found in simplicity, and the extraordinary film “Marty” proves it. The cutting power of words, subtle cruelties between people, a universal fear of being unwanted, and other insights into the human condition unfold while observing just another weekend in the life of a lonely butcher trying to find love. This low-budget, independently produced film took the world by storm, winning the first Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, becoming an international hit, and collecting four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky, and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine), out of its eight nominations. More recently, the American Film Institute named it the 64th Greatest Love Story of All-Time. This little film does not have the gloss, action, and big production values of its Hollywood counterparts, and perhaps that is why it is often overlooked when one talks about classic films. But whatever it lacks in majesty, it makes up for in spades with its powerful resonance on human nature.
Set in an era when Pork Tenderloin cost 59¢ a pound and it was a crime not to be married, “Marty” examines a weekend in the life of “Marty Piletti”, an Italian-American butcher in the Bronx, New York. Unattached, he lives with his mother while all five of his kid brothers and sisters are married. Hounded by everyone for being single (from his mother to two customers at the butcher shop), “Marty” tells his best friend "Angie", “Listen 'Ang', I’ve been looking for a girl every night of my life. I’m 34 years old. I’m just tired of looking, that’s all. I’d like to find a girl”. On this particular Saturday night, “Marty” and “Angie” venture to the Stardust Ballroom where he comes across a plain, lonely, and troubled woman named “Clara”. He goes to comfort her, they get to know each other, and over the course of the evening begin to fall in love. What might sound like a run-of-the-mill love story is far from it. At the hands of Mann’s atmospheric directing, Borgnine’s poignant performance, and Chayefsky’s profound words it becomes riveting entertainment, exposing the insecurities, callousness, and courage within people.
“Marty” holds a firm place in film history. It was part of a current wave towards realism, and as such was perhaps the first Hollywood film to be populated solely by average-looking characters, making a point that true love and romance are not tied to physical attraction. In addition, while countless films had been based on plays, novels, short stories, actual events, or specifically written for the big screen, "Marty" was one of the very first to be based on a television drama. Its success started a trend with TV-to-film adaptations which included "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and "The Bachelor Party”. And in its own way, “Marty’s” success helped legitimize the still somewhat new medium called television. It was also the first low-budget, independent, worldwide, American movie blockbuster.
A renowned figure of the Golden Age of Television (from the late 1940s through the 1950s), Bronx-born Paddy Chayefsky wrote "Marty" originally as a television play. After unsuccessfully trying his hand in Hollywood in the 1940s and disliking having to give up control of his work to others, he began writing for radio, theater, and eventually television, and “Marty” came after several television successes. The TV version aired to much acclaim, and its naturalistic dialogue heavily influenced subsequent TV shows. For the film version, he expanded the character of “Clara”, added details about “Marty”, his mother and aunt, and was given casting approval. For his screenplay, Chayefsky won that year's Best Screenplay Academy Award. It made him famous. From the forty TV and film scripts he wrote or adapted, he earned two more Academy Awards (for “The Hospital” and “Network”) and an additional nomination (for “The Goddess”). He also earned two Emmy Award nominations for his television work. Some of his other notable films include "The Catered Affair” (also starring Borgnine), "The Americanization of Emily", and his final film, 1980's "Altered States". He was married once for just over thirty years, until his death. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981 at the age of 58.
In 1948, actor Burt Lancaster and his agent Harold Hecht created their own independent production company named Norma Productions, which produced films for United Artists, and was renamed Hecht-Lancaster Productions in 1952. Wary of Hollywood, Chayefsky sold "Marty's" screen rights to Hecht (his former agent) and Hecht-Lancaster Productions, making sure he was contractually involved with every aspect of the film. Because "Marty" was to contain no stars and had already been shown on television, its success was a long shot. Having previously produced six films (most of which were big hits including "The Flame and the Arrow", "Apache", and "Vera Cruz”), Hecht-Lancaster Productions took "Marty" thinking it would flop and help offset their earlier successes as a tax loss. As soon as the film opened to honors and awards they changed their tune, pouring $400,000 into advertising (more than the $343,000 it cost to make the film), and it paid off. “Marty” became the most successful of their films (earning over $3 million), and Hecht (who acted as the film’s producer) walked away with a Best Picture Oscar. His acceptance speech began with “It's very fortunate to live in a country where any man, no matter how humble his origin, can become president, and to be part of an industry where any picture, no matter how low its budget, can win the Oscar”. In 1954, producer/screenwriter James Hill (soon-to-be husband of Rita Hayworth) joined Hecht and Lancaster, and in 1957 their company's name was changed to Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions. In the mid to late 1950s, they were the biggest and most important independent production unit in Hollywood. Other films in their twenty-one film catalogue include "Sweet Smell of Success", "Separate Tables", and "Birdman of Alcatraz”.
Among Chayefsky's demands was that Delbert Mann, the TV director of "Marty", direct the film. Mann had directed over 100 live television dramas and "Marty" became his film directing debut. If you’ve ever seen early live television plays, you can see their influence in Mann’s film directing. He brings a raw intimacy to the big screen, often bringing emotions front and center by moving his camera in or out towards an actor’s face during a somewhat lengthy shot. And by shooting several scenes on location he manages to give an inside glimpse at life in the Bronx circa 1950s. For his effort, Mann won a Best Director Academy Award, and became the first director (of six, to date) to win the statue for a film debut (the others are Jerome Robbins for “West Side Story”, Robert Redford for ”Ordinary People”, James L. Brooks for “Terms of Endearment”, Kevin Costner for “Dances with Wolves”, and Sam Mendes for “American Beauty”). Mann's next film was another Chayefsky TV-to-film project, "The Bachelor Party" in 1957, and his excellent work on both made him a vital figure at masterfully mixing the techniques of film and TV direction. He directed a third Chayefsky penned project in 1959, "The Middle of the Night".
Delbert Mann directed just shy of twenty films and over 160 TV shows in a career spanning just over four decades. Among his other films are "Separate Tables", "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs", "The Outsider", "A Gathering of Eagles”, and two Doris Day classics "That Touch of Mink" and "Lover Come Back”. For his TV work he earned three Best Director Emmy Award nominations. Mann also earned seven Directors Guild of America nominations, winning three (one for "Marty", one honorary Robert B. Aldrich Service Award, and an Honorary Life Member Award in 2002). He was married once for nearly sixty years, until his wife’s death. Delbert Mann died in 2007 at the age of 87.
At the heart of the film is the moving performance by Ernest Borgnine who stars as the Italian butcher, “Marty Piletti”. He flawlessly portrays a man who says of himself, “I’m just a fat little man. A fat, ugly man”, with no sign of melancholy or self pity. This role is performed with such genuineness and realism it looks as if one is observing a friend or neighbor. And Borgnine’s astounding emotional depth both breaks and lifts your heart, whether calling “Mary Finey” on the phone to ask her on a date, or in one of the film’s standout scenes, displaying a thousand feelings while having spaghetti at the table with his mother. Even with his somewhat brutish facade, I can’t think of a more sensitive portrayal of a man in a film. In its quiet way it is a tour de force. Rod Steiger played “Marty” in the television version and turned down reprising the role in the film since it would put him under contract to Hecht-Lancaster Productions. Lancaster then suggested Borgnine for the role, having worked with him in 1953's Academy Award winning, "From Here to Eternity”.
“Marty” brought Borgnine his only Best Actor Academy Award (and nomination), along with a BAFTA Award (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), Golden Globe Award, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award, among others. This warmhearted character was a change of pace for Borgnine after exclusively playing murderers and heavies in a dozen films (with the exceptions of his first film “The Whistle at Eaton Falls” in 1951). “Marty” made him a star, opening the door to more varied lead and supporting roles. I was lucky to meet Mr. Borgnine at the Oscars a while back and we struck up a conversation. He was very warm, incredibly kind, and had a constant smile in his eyes. Ernest Borgnine appeared in many classic films and TV shows, and you can read more about his life and career in my post on another of his classics, “The Poseidon Adventure”.
Betsy Blair plays “Clara Snyder”, an awkward, reserved, and shy high school chemistry teacher that men keep referring to as a “dog”. Like “Marty”, she has been repeatedly let down and is trying to face her fears of getting hurt once more. The two are kindred spirits, supplying long needed confidence and support to one another. When she first appears, much of her role is spent listening to “Marty” talk, and Blair manages to keep "Clara's" presence interesting and alive during his speeches. She makes you care about this wounded, sincere woman who cautiously challenges her self-imposed limits. For her performance, Blair received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only), and won a Best Foreign Actress BAFTA Award. Like Borgnine, she was not in the original televised version (her role was played by Nancy Marchand). It is the role for which Blair is best remembered (in the US).
Betsy Blair began as a dancer, working on the radio, and as a child model. She worked as a chorus girl at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub, where she met Gene Kelly (who choreographed one of its shows) and they married in 1941 (she was seventeen). She made her Broadway debut as a dancer in 1940's "Panama Hattie", and continued to appear on stage in dramatic roles. Her film debut came in 1947 with "The Guild of Janet Ames", and she continued to appear in small roles in films such as "A Double Life" and "The Snake Pit", before debuting on television in "The Charmed Circle" directed by Mann. Gaining a strong interest in Marxism in the early 1940s, she was later investigated by HUAC (which I explain in my "High Noon" post), blacklisted, and stopped working in films and TV in 1951. When she heard about "Marty", she enlisted husband Kelly's help (he was a major star by then) to land the role, and he reportedly threatened MGM that if she didn't get the role, he'd walk off the film "It's Always Fair Weather". That, along with pressure from Chayefsky, got her the role despite being blacklisted. Winning international acclaim and awards for "Marty", she became more famous in Europe than in the US, divorced Kelly, and moved to France. Blair began working in European films including Spain's "Calle Mayor" ("Main Street") directed by Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of actor Javier Bardem), Italy's "Il Grido”, and Ireland's "Lies My Father Told Me", and soon moved to London where she married film director Karel Reisz. She returned to work in Hollywood in the 1988 Costa-Gavras film "Betrayed". Blair amassed just over forty film and TV credits in her career, others of which include "A Delicate Balance" and "Careless", ending with a role in the 1994 TV miniseries, "Scarlett" (a sequel to "Gone with the Wind"). She remained married to Reisz for almost forty years, until his death. Betsy Blair died in 2009 at the age of 85.
Joe Mantell plays "Marty's" best friend “Angie”. “Angie” and “Marty” perfectly capture the mundane, lost lives of the film’s characters as they repeatedly utter the film’s famous dialogue:
“Angie”: “What do you feel like doing tonight?
“Marty”: “I don’t know Ang. What do you feel like doing?
Grabbing food off “Marty’s” plate instead of getting his own, giving “Clara” the cold shoulder out of jealousy, or talking with the guys about sports and women, “Angie” is the epitome of a neighborhood buddy you hang with, and Mantell’s restrained, no-nonsense performance loudly echoes the naturalistic quality the film. For his performance he earned his only Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. He, Esther Minciotti (who plays “Marty’s” mother) and Augusta Ciolli (who plays “Marty’s” “Aunt Catherine”), appeared in the original television production and reprised their roles in this film.
Brooklyn-born Joe Mantell made his first television appearance in 1948's "Public Prosecutor", followed by his first film appearance (uncredited) in 1949's "The Undercover Man". A career spent mostly on TV, he had recurring roles in such TV shows as "The Untouchables", "Mannix", and the 1979 miniseries, "Blind Ambition", along with guest spots on countess classic shows including "The Twilight Zone", "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", "Ironside", "All in the Family", "Maude", and "Lou Grant”. Appearing in just a handful of films, they include "Storm Center", "The Sad Sack", and most famously as the traveling salesman at the diner in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds", and as "Lawrence Walsh" in 1974's “Chinatown", in which he delivers the film's famous last line. He reprised the role of “Walsh” in his final film, “The Two Jakes” in 1990. He was married for fifty-five years, until his death. Joe Mantell died in 2010 at the age of 94.
In addition to its Oscar wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay, and its nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, "Marty" also earned Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (Joseph LaShelle) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Ted Haworth, Walter M. Simonds, and Robert Priestley).
With its forthright depiction of human relations, this week’s classic is a sweet, sometimes harsh film to which everyone can relate. An unexpected treasure guaranteed to surprise, captivate, and deliver an emotional wallop, it is also a film I never tire of watching. Enjoy “Marty”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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