The Third Greatest Love Story in Hollywood
1955 was apparently a weak year for movies. But Marty was its shining star. Produced by Burt Lancaster and Harold Hect and released through United Artists, it was the “indie” film of its day (the studios were still the ruling class), and it won Best Picture, Best Director (Delbert Mann in the most competitive category, beating Elia Kazan, David Lean, and John Sturges), Best Actor (for Borgnine), and Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky).
It centers around Marty, an Italian butcher, who at 34, still lives at home with his mother. His young brothers, sisters, and cousins (in typical large-Italian-family-style) are all married, and everyone wants to know when Marty is going to get married. Marty’s mother convinces him to go out dancing one night, “lots of plum tomatoes” at the Stardust Ballroom, but Marty strikes out once again. A good-looking guy offers Marty $5 to take his date home, but Marty, disgusted at the attractive man’s manners, refuses. Then he sees the man’s date abruptly leave their table crying, and goes to comfort her. As he explains, “All my brothers and brothers-in-laws tell me what a good-hearted guy I am. You don’t get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough, you become a professor of pain.” He feels sorry for this girl, who like himself, is less than attractive, but the two leave the dance together and spend the evening in a diner talking. Marty turns down a chance to ditch her for a “sure thing,” a more attractive girl his friends have picked up. After taking her home, Marty tries to kiss her. She is startled, so used to being unloved, but is won over by Marty’s sweetness. He sees her back to her house and promises to call her the next day for a date. His friends and his mother don’t approve of this girl, she’s not Italian, she’s too educated, she’s ugly, she’s a dog, and finally Marty gets fed up and calls her anyway. He’s lonely and he’s found someone equally lonely who understands him and enjoys his company. It is beautiful and sad.
Marty is played by Ernest Borgnine, who is not an attractive man. He always looks kind of angry because his eyebrows are so dark and bushy. His face is round and his nose somewhat pig-ish. He is a round man in general and seems more like a gangster heavy than a good-hearted butcher. Borgnine had previously played Sergeant “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity, the villain who tortures Frank Sinatra to death and is later stabbed by Montgomery Clift in revenge. Judson is a racist, leering, violent, knife-wielding, power-abusing pig. And Borgnine played him well. In 1955, Bognine again plays a racist villain, Coley Trimble in Bad Day at Black Rock, a western starring Spencer Tracy. But then came Marty. It was simple: shot in black and white during the time when CinemaScope was being developed and more and more pictures were being shot in color. It told a simple story: one evening and one girl. The girl wasn’t a starlet or a vamp, she was a high school chemistry teacher, played by Betsy Blair. Blair was a former Broadway actress and dancer whose former claims to fame were being married to Gene Kelly and being on the Hollywood blacklist. Kelly threatened to leave MGM, reportedly, and won Blair the part of Clara in Marty. Even after her award-winning performance, her career never took off again, and she eventually moved to Europe in self-exile from the blacklist. Like the characters she and Borgnine played, Blair was an outsider. She was surrounded by beautiful, talented people, and she was an outcast.
Hollywood is undoubtedly a place all about looks. And the films Hollywood churned out, whether explicitly or implicitly, were about looks as well. Why do you think teenage girls would hang posters up in their rooms? Because Clark Gable was dashing and Jean Harlow exceptionally beautiful. Funnymen escaped the need to be handsome (William Powell was a bit too wiry, but his headshots were usually humorous, and after being paired with Loy, his parts were as well), and exceptional actors like Bogart also escaped the need to be beautiful. Although, Bogart did have a rugged confidence that was attractive on screen. But the women these men played opposite, their love interests, were always beautiful. Even if the script called for a waif or a girl-next-door, you ended up with Joan Crawford or Grace Kelly. Beautiful women muses for directors and male leads alike. Many women with little talent but with lots of looks went farther than they should. True, some of these gorgeous women were talented actresses. Barbara Stanwyck was beautiful, but watch Sorry Wrong Number and experience her acting talent: she makes herself utterly annoying and sympathetic at the same time and and delivers a complete performance. Lovely and talented. Marty was a story about the people who weren’t quite good-looking enough for Hollywood. Marty’s cousin Thomas and his wife Virginia are perfect foils for Marty and Clara. Thomas and Virginia are newly married and already quarreling. Both are also rather attractive. Karen Steele, who plays Virginia, was even noted as “one of most strikingly beautiful actresses to ever work in television or film.” She was a former model. Jerry Paris, who plays Tommy, appears in the film in his undershirt. Audiences would have been shocked to see Borgnine basically shirtless. But Marty makes audiences root for the underdogs, the ones that aren’t that attractive. It creates sympathy for Marty and Clara because everyone can see a little of themselves in those two. Marty says to Clara, “See, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.” We all kind of feel like dogs sometimes. Maybe a little lonely, maybe a little unattractive, but this story is such a pick-me-up. It is sad to watch Marty trudge through his life, constantly made to feel he has failed. But beautiful to watch Marty and Clara just enjoy each other’s company. Why can’t all relationships be like that? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark of a good film.