Directed by Delbert Mann
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
Starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair
At the beginning of this project I had one goal in mind: to see a lot of ‘good’ movies and to be exposed to what peoples of other times thought of as good movies. In a sense, this project was something like a time machine. I got to see the past but couldn’t do anything about it.
Just as that was my goal I also knew the one thing most of the movies would have in common was disappointment. After all, because of the way society evolves it was destined that films made 50 or 60 or even 80 years would struggle to stand the test of time. Consider that three of the movies already seen for this series – The Broadway Melody, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Best Years of Their Lives – are hardly films that would be the best film outside their own slim part of history. It was finally in Marty, Best Picture winner of 1955, that I found a picture that holds to hold up.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann, Marty is the story of a lonely, overweight, middle-aged butcher who lives with his mother and is unlucky in love. On the verge of resigning himself to the fact he will never get married he meets Clara, school teacher who’s as unlucky in love as he is, and though neither are by far the most attractive faces on earth they have an instant rapport. But even though Marty is happy with her, Marty’s mother fears that love for Marty will consign her to the scrap-heap and she sets to running down the girl, Clara, as do Marty’s friends. But Marty isn’t to be swayed and in a rather famous speech declares:
“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. I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad.”
Marty won four Oscars, including best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Actor for Borgnine and Screenplay Adaptation for Paddy Chayefsky. Despite the success, Marty was an oddity at the time, as one of the first TV shows to be adapted to the movies and listening to the plot kind of makes you wonder why it was. After all, when reduced to a paragraph the movie sounds rather mundane, hardly the kind of story that needed a movie. Curiously, in spite of its lowly trappings, Marty isn’t mundane at all. Rather, it was a triumph for almost everyone involved.
The man who triumphed the most from the film was Paddy Chayefsky, who essentially went from a TV writer – he adapted this film from his own teleplay of Marty, originally part of The Philco Television Playhouse – to a lauded screenwriter who would, in time, win three Academy Awards and see himself listed more prominently in the credits than the director’s of the films he wrote. Essentially, as a writer, he challenged the notion that the director was he auteur for the film and has to be credited with bringing new prestige to screenwriting.
The other obvious winner from Marty was Ernest Borgnine, especially given how it changed his career. Before Marty Borgnine was typecast largely as heavies, particularly as Fatso Judson in From Here To Eternity – you can guess what his distinguishing characteristic was – but in Marty, rather than play the villain, he got to be gentle, loveable and quite charming. So charming in fact that it’s hard to believe Marty wouldn’t be married. He might not be the best looking but you have to believe that some girl would want to marry him. After Marty, while he did play villainous roles, from time to time, he managed to become a fairly good comic actor. Ironically, the only reason Borgnine got the role of Marty in the first place was because Rod Steiger, who played the part in the TV original, turned down the chance to replay the character.
The last of the big winners from the film was Delbert Mann, the director, but in some ways the victory here was a curse and never again would Mann reach such heights. Watching the film now, it’s easy to see why. Whatever the strengths of the movie they are not a product of good direction. Indeed, the film is rather visually bland and filmed like a TV show – it’s no shock to discover that prior to Marty Delbert Mann directed exclusively for TV – and if it’s any triumph it’s really because of Chayefsky and a magnificent cast. Mann just pointed the camera and got out of the way.
Though the movie is enjoyable, in all honesty Marty was no better than the third or fourth Best Picture of 1955. After all, other films out that year, none of which were nominated, include Rebel With A Cause, East of Eden, The Night of the Hunter and even Lady and the Tramp. Still, in hindsight it’s easy to see why Marty won Best Picture. After all, it’s a simple film about love and at the end, when the good guys win, it makes you feel good. Sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Betsy Blair had the thankless role of the schoolteacher Clara, who gets called a dog by just about everybody in the film not named Marty. At the time of the film she was Mrs. Gene Kelly and who would have thought that after her nomination here as Best Supporting Actress she and Kelly would have the exact same number of Academy Award nods as one another? The only thing that separated them was the Honorary Oscar he received in 1952, essentially for his choreography on Singin’ in the Rain.
Marty is the shortest Best Picture in history, at 91 minutes. Second shortest: Annie Hall at 93. Incidentally, if you watched both films back-to-back they would be shorter than the longest Best Picture winner, Gone With The Wind, at 221 minutes.
Marty was Delbert Mann’s debut feature and he was the first of a select list of directors to win Oscars on their first try. The others are Jerome Robbins (with veteran Robert Wise) on 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. Of that group, only one even rated so much as a second nomination as director – Robert Redford for Quiz Show – and not one a second win.
Paddy Chayefsky, the writer of the film is also in rarefied company, receiving three writing Oscars in the course of his career. Despite the fact that there are essentially twice as many screenplay Oscars awarded as there are directing Oscars – and a higher prevalence of ‘teams’ winning the Oscar, meaning there are far more Oscars for writing to go around than for directing – only four men have taken three writing Oscars. In addition to Chayefsky there was Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Francis Ford Coppola.
For a List of the Oscar winners watched and those to be seen, click here.