Skip to main content

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty
(1955)

(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

Perhaps it was the way Marty carried with it an upfrontness, and unabashed sense of honesty, as epitomised by its title character, that felt fresh. That, and its (TV) play origins, of a mere two years earlier, pitched as “a guy who goes to a ballroom”, are never in doubt. It’s an interior, character-driven piece of one-on-one conversations, regardless of the exteriors director Delbert Mann (also the director of the Philco Television Playhouse production) brings to the material. Rod Steiger led the TV version – there are different accounts of who didn’t want him in the film, Steiger himself or producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster – which ran a half hour shy of the feature version, but Marty the movie nevertheless ranks as the shortest Best Picture winner.

That’s a blessing, in that it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but I have to agree with Tony Schwartz’s New York Times critique of the TV version’s “stilted subplot about his mother’s attempts to convince a sister to move into their household”. However, that element, also found here, does serve to emphasise the bind of Marty Piletti’s situation, 35, living with his mother and constantly being harangued that he “should be ashamed of yourself” for not being married; when he does find someone, everyone it seems, from his best friend to his mother, suddenly wants him to be exactly the Marty he always was, which offers them a familiarity and a safety zone. For his part, every romantically-inclined social interaction is painful: “I’m just a fat, ugly man” and “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it”. He’s entirely matter-of-fact about his lot, but gets on with his (lack of) life anyway, and as such, you can’t help but sympathise with him.

Marty’s turning point when it comes is genuinely touching, meeting Clara (Betsy Blair, Gene Kelly’s wife and then blacklisted), who has already been snubbed at the ballroom by someone upset at finding himself with “a dog”. “Dog” evidently meant something of what it means now then, although I suspect it was slightly less derisory, or we wouldn’t have such blunt dialogue as “You see, you’re not such a dog as you think you are” and “See, dogs like us. We ain’t such dogs as we think we are”.

Blair, who was also nominated, gives a very understated, keenly self-aware performance, as downtrodden as Marty and just as resigned to her situation. The scene in which, having returned to his house, she resists letting him kiss her, is quite shocking in its way (“All I wanted was a lousy kiss!”), suggesting an undercurrent of rejected rage even as Marty epitomises the mild-mannered lug, instantly regretting his outburst (Chayefsky argued there were intentional undercurrents in his play, of both Oedipal and latently homosexual nature, the latter of which he considered worthy of a study in the “normal” American male; those elements, particularly in respect of best pal Ange’s annoyance and the manner in which his pals are all talk, remain resonant in the picture).

One of the main rumours you’ll read about Marty is that Lancaster and Hecht had expected to claim the movie as a tax write-off, so convinced were they it would lose money. But it has other notables to its name also, including being the first American film since World War II to be shown in the Soviet Union. It’s perhaps debatable whether Borgnine would have snagged the Oscar with the benefit of hindsight, since Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy and most of all a posthumous James Dean were in the running, and given that his subsequent career was very much not that of a lead player.

As for its Best Picture win, it remains innocuous, a blue-collar Joe movie à la Rocky, but without that film’s get-behind-him, path-to-glory element. Another adaptation, Mister Roberts, is the better known and probably more loved nominee today, although Pauline Kael could be relied upon not to like either much; Marty was “small-scale, overly celebrated” and victim to Chayefsky’s “insistence on the humanity of “little” people, and his attempt to create poetry out of humble, drab conversations”. I think she’s too harsh on it; whatever faults it has are writ large in the indulgent scenes between the mother and her sister, but the performances of Borgnine and Blair ensure the picture remains genuinely affecting.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .