Long Take: What’s It All About, Marty?

Viewed July 20, 2012

On Sunday, July 8, beloved character actor Ernest Borgnine died. He was 95. For years, I have been drawn to his toothy, grandfatherly smile, and I was initially upset that The New York Times only published a short obituary. (Compare it to the one they gave Andy Griffith.) I felt that it betrayed his legacy on film and television, everything including From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) to The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) and McHale’s Navy, which aired from 1962 to 1966. But I have since moved on, and I watched for the first time the film for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor: Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955). I don’t speak in exclamations, but I have to say that some of the interjections featured at left on the original theatrical poster ring true for me, too. Marty is wonderful, superb, warm, and rich. (It’s a shame the poster design isn’t any of these things, though.)

For much of my childhood, I only knew of Marty as the answer to the question that longtime Twenty One game show champ Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro) fails to deliver at the turning point of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Stempel knows the title of 1955’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, but he throws the game, for the benefit of his opponent, the dashing literature professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), and accepts a payout from the producers, who wish to capitalize on Van Doren’s pedigree and good looks. But this really has nothing to do with Marty.

Marty, in fact, is about a thirty-four-year-old Bronx butcher (Borgnine) who lives with his widowed Italian mother. All of his younger siblings have been married off and left the nest, and he resigns himself to believing he’ll die single, convinced no woman could be interested in an overweight butcher. He’s painfully shy and incredibly sweet. In this way, Marty turned out to be just what I was looking for since I already find Borgnine an always appealing presence (even when he’s playing the bad guy). Desperate to please his mother, Teresa (Esther Minciotti), he agrees to go out to the Stardust Ballroom to meet other singles, alongside his buddy Angie (Joe Mantell). And, of course, he does, but it’s not easy. Be warned: I’m going to spoil all now.

Clara (Betsy Blair) has also come to the Stardust Ballroom, on a blind double date with a doctor who quickly ditches her because she’s a “dog.” He trawls the dance floor looking for a man to take his place so he can run off with another girl. At first he propositions Marty, who despondently looks on as couples dance around him, but he rejects the man’s offer of $5, admonishing him for wanting to treat a woman in such a way. One of the best scenes is virtually wordless, shot from Marty’s perspective, as he watches the doctor introduce Clara to his replacement. From across the room, Marty sees a mortified Clara run out of the dance hall, and he follows her. He’s gotten nowhere with other women tonight, so he may as well try to comfort her. Perhaps part of him also figures that he’ll be able to relate to her because he’s been rejected, too. (Actually, another great preceding scene takes place earlier that day when he comes home from work and, with Angie’s prodding, calls a woman he’d met last month. In one shot, the camera moves in on his face, closer and closer, while he tries to ask her out, his desperation and despondency becoming more and more suffocating. We can’t hear her voice, only his many attempts describing himself to her and guiding the conversation. It’s impossible for the viewer not to empathize with him. When he hangs up, the camera slowly pulls out. Dejected.)

Marty desperately rings for a date.

Maybe it’s presentism, but I couldn’t help feeling that the romance between Marty and Clara is rather modern for its time. And no, it’s not because the film, itself based on a 1953 teleplay starring Rod Steiger, was remade in 1991 by Chris Columbus as Only the Lonely, with the great John Candy. Marty plays out across two consecutive days, with a good chunk of its running time devoted to the night that Marty and Clara meet and get to know each other as they wander from place to place. Structurally, it reminds me of Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995), which is also about strangers falling in love over the course of one night together, albeit in Vienna.

Furthermore, Marty seems to be a new kind of male character in 1955 and one who has left an indelible impression on filmmaking today. Strangely enough, while watching Marty I thought about some Judd Apatow productions. Freaks and Geeks (created by Paul Feig), which ran from 1999 to 2000, is similarly about social outcasts but follows adolescent rather than stunted adults’ growing pains. Obviously the titular anti-heroes of the seminal TV show are numerous and varied, and not all of them had love on their minds. However, I do sense a spirit in Freaks and Geeks derived from Marty through its treatment of the characters’ struggles for individuality, independence, and acceptance. Both triumphantly reverse the trend of nice guys finishing last. Perhaps the connection between Marty and Apatow is even more pronounced in the mega-producer’s first directorial effort, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Although there is nothing to suggest that Marty is a virgin, he and Andy are alike in that they each overcome their sexual immaturity when they meet the right woman. Their journeys are sympathetically portrayed, but Marty’s is much more sensitively drawn and even includes a back-story involving suicidal thoughts (which Clara implies through her body language that she also has had). Marty is more than a Mama’s Boy, a trait easy to ridicule, but that’s not the only reason he’s romantically challenged. Feeling crippled by his heavyset frame and working-class occupation (more on that in a bit), Marty may be one of the earliest versions of a romantic anti-hero, and without him I don’t think Andy’s predicament, however raunchy, would be so endearing.

But Marty isn’t the only character who complicates archetypes. His mother, who speaks ungrammatically with a thick Italian accent, sounds like the women who frequent his neighborhood butcher shop. In the opening scene, they chastise him for being as old as he is and unmarried. And though his mother pushes him to go to the Stardust Ballroom, awkwardly using slang she picked up from her nephew and promising the place will be “loaded with tomatoes,” she is not nearly as opinionated as these women. Maureen O’Hara’s cruel and overbearing mother in Only the Lonely barely resembles Teresa. Teresa instead is a caring woman who accepts her nephew Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia’s (Karen Steele) plea to ask her sister, Marty’s Aunt Caterina (Augusta Ciolli), to come and live with her and Marty. To cut a long story short, Caterina just won’t let Virginia run her own household, especially now that she is a new mom. It’s only after Teresa spends time with Caterina, a depressed widow who feels abandoned, without a purpose because all she wants to do is cook and clean for her loved ones (yeah, some things about Marty seem a little outdated), that she begins to behave differently, out of character. Suddenly, it dawns on her that Marty’s finding a wife would render her obsolete (except it’s safe to assume that his big heart would preclude this from ever happening). And so she’s civil around Clara when she meets the young, plain science teacher late at night, before Marty accompanies her home, but the next day Teresa pooh-poohs his choice because she’s not, well, Italian. Her protestations aren’t convincing; she’s clearly reaching for any excuse to dismiss Marty’s attraction to Clara. Thus, at first glance, it might appear as if Teresa is a contradictory character, a victim of underdevelopment. But on the contrary, I think she’s a finely drawn and complex character, given the short screen-time she’s granted, for these same reasons. It’s a shame about that horrible Caterina-I-want-chew-ta-comeh-live-in-mya-house accent of hers, though.

Marty and Clara bond over their histories of rejection (he tries to build them up as not nearly as repulsive to the opposite sex as they feel they are), their social alienation (their aforementioned suicidal tendencies), and their stunted maturity, as Clara also lives at home. Hearing about Marty’s dream of buying the butcher shop where he works (thereby rendering him as aspiring to overcome his working class roots) helps convince Clara to take an administrative education job in Port Chester, which would force her to finally move out. My other favorite scene features a lovestruck Clara, newly returned home, recounting her evening to her parents, who are already tucked into their Ozzie and Harriet beds. It’s a virtuosic monologue by actress Betsy Blair, running through several emotions and offering fragmentary thoughts. Her new hopeful outlook on life and love stuns them, and this scene is the cornerstone of a quiet, touching performance.

Marty and Clara.

Marty promises to phone Clara the next afternoon, after church and lunch, to make plans for that Sunday evening. Unfortunately, he lets everyone around him—his friends, cousin, and mother—influence him to banish the thought of pursuing his burgeoning romance with Clara. It’s heart-breaking that he doesn’t come to his senses until night-time, fed up with standing around with his gang of friends, only ever talking in the round about what they’d like to do. Hey! That’s another Apatow comparison: Marty’s friends hold him back from maturing in much the same way that Ben’s (Seth Rogen) stoner roommates in Knocked Up (2007) wish that he would just wallow in irresponsibility with them. But like Ben, he breaks through and stands up for himself, for his desires. Marty phones Clara because it is stupid to let a good thing with her slip through his fingers. His final monologue, delivered to Angie, is terrific, and sums up what it’s all about:

[…] What, am I crazy or something? I got something good here. What am I hanging around with you guys for? 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 going to 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. [He rings her on the public phone at the bar. He waits for her to pick up.] Ange, when are you gonna get married? You’re thirty-three years old, your kid brothers are married. You oughta be ashamed of yourself. [Into the phone] Hello? [To his friend] Excuse me, Ange. [Closes phone booth door.] Hello, Clara?

What a glorious, optimistic, and open-ended final scene. Again, I feel this is rather sophisticated storytelling, too, thanks to Paddy Chayefsky of Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) fame (he also won an Oscar for adapting his earlier Marty teleplay). Any filmmaker today probably wouldn’t be able to resist the idea of concluding the story so that the lovers are without-a-doubt fully reconciled, opting instead to film the scene so that they meet in person. I suspect that Marty’s calling Clara on the phone may have been boundary-pushing, since Clara acknowledges to her parents that waiting for a phone call from Marty rather than an in-person visit is not exactly ideal or proper. Or maybe the phone call, which is represented on the movie poster above, signifies more than just a change in social mores. Perhaps it is also about class; for when Clara brings up having to wait for his phone call, during her aforementioned monologue, she alerts her parents to Marty’s insecurity with being a butcher, a profession that, after all, he never desired to pursue. Therefore, their union signals not only their growth as individuals finally coming into adulthood, as they embark on new, upwardly mobile occupational trajectories, but also a transgressive bridging over a class-based and cultural divide. (Clara may not be Italian, but she is Catholic, so that’s should shush Marty’s mother.)

Marty is a sweet little movie, funny and dark in places. I regret I didn’t discover it until after its star Ernest Borgnine died.

One thought on “Long Take: What’s It All About, Marty?

  1. For folks who may be in the San Francisco Bay Area during May (2013), the Mechanics Institute Library will be screening 5 Chayefsky films, one each Friday evening, beginning with ‘The Americanization of Emily’ this Friday May 3rd, and including ‘Marty’ on May 24th:

    Cinemalit – Paddy Chayefsky: Scenes from American Lives:


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