“Marty” is not a big movie. With a budget of 350.000$ and a cast of Hollywood second tier actors this is an attempt to capitalize on a television success by making a cinema version of it (like Star Trek, if you will). There are none of the bells and whistles of a big production and the story is almost trivial. I was therefore surprised to learn that this was the big Academy winner of 1955 with four Oscars including three of the big ones. Add to that the Palme D’Or in Cannes and you should be in awe.
Okay, I did like the movie and it does press a number of buttons for me, but honestly, if this is the big winner then this is a thin year.
It is easy to see why this was a crowd pleaser. “Marty” is a movie many people can relate to because it deals with issues familiar to probably most people. At the same time there is enough feel good in it to make people leave on a good note and for these reasons this little movie cashed in three million dollars in the US alone (according to Wikipedia). No wonder the formula has been repeated to death in rom-coms ever since.
Marty (Ernest Borgnine) is a 34 year old bachelor. He works as a butcher and lives at home with his Italian mother. All his siblings (and there are a few of those) are married and live on their own and everybody pushes Marty to get married as well.
But women is not Marty’s thing. He is a bit chubby (you know, Ernest Borgnine…) and socially awkward and has none of the smoothness needed to be attractive. His strengths are his honesty and his good heart, which we as viewers recognize, but people at the usual hunting grounds never see. So Marty would love to find a girl but has half resigned to just make it on his own.
Those Italian families have a bit of a mother issue, at least in this movie. Marty’s sister Virginia (Karen Steele) has her mother in law living in her house and she is driving her crazy. Five minutes with that mother in law and you understand why. Obviously she has been used to run her family, like micro manage her family, and she never realized her children grew up. Bad for the son, a nightmare for the daughter in law. Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli), as she is called, has to go and Karen asks her mother Ms. Piletti (Esther Minciotti) to help her out. So at the time the story plays out Catherine is moving into Marty’s house and his mother is listening to a lot of garbage from Catherine, which in turn seems to be polluting her mind.
Meanwhile the most amazing thing happens to Marty. At the dance hall he and his best mate Angie (Joe Mantell frequent he meet a nice girl. She is getting bumped by her date and Marty feels bad for her. He offers her his shoulder to cry on and that is what she needs. Clara (Betsy Blair) is in a similar situation to Marty and they soon find out they have a lot in common. Marty is in love.
Not everybody are happy though. Angie is sore because he feels somebody is taking his spot. His mother, poisoned by Catherine, is suddenly afraid to be rendered obsolete and see Clara as a thread and his brother in law is now in a fight with Marty’s sister and is advising him to stay out of relationships. All the people who used to pressure him to get married are now against the girl he finally found and that despite nobody really knows her. Marty has to find out what matters to him.
There are two stories here really. The lonely man and the lonely woman who both believe there is nobody for them, but then find each other and secondly the choice between heart and peer pressure. Both are standard ingredients, but the treatment here is nice and honest and without much of the silliness these themes usually come with. This is not a comedy, if there is something to laugh at it is secondary (I did laugh at Marty’s idiot friends though). Instead it treats its subjects honestly.
Marty is really an ordinary dude. He does not have some secret skill or the ability to suddenly turn eloquent. On the contrary he is a blabbermouth and has a rare skill for bad timing. As most people in his situation he is super conscious of his own deficiencies and that lack of confidence is a poor starting point when your hunting ground is a dance hall, the disco of 1955, and the ideal of your friends is the smooth macho type. In an age without internet dating Marty is at a major disadvantage. What is really nice is that when Clara and Marty find each other they are still two imperfect and clumsy amateurs, but they recognize that the other one like them despite that and for that they are grateful and not a little confused. It is a sweet tale and I understand what they are going through. It is incredibly difficult when you are convinced you are not the kind of person other people dream about.
The other part of the story is quite infuriating. With friends like these Marty does not need enemies. His friends are selfish idiots. That Marty frequents these people tells us that he does not judge other people or that he is sufficiently lonely to take what he can get. I can understand the hostility of his sister’s family. They are in the middle of a family row and that has to spill over. I feel truly sorry for Virginia and in another decade that mother in law and wagging tail of a husband is basis for a divorce. Nobody should put up with that crap. The real villain here though is Marty’s mother. She wanted him to get married and she noticed how happy he was when he found Clara and she even met her briefly. Yet poisoned as she is by Catherine she suddenly cannot let go of him and places her need for gratification ahead of her son’s happiness. The tragedy is that because Marty is a good boy he would do whatever to please her and she, the person that means the most to him, cannot let him be happy. She has just been telling Catherine to let go of her children and now she is making the same mistake with her own son.
I am sure this kind of mother issue is pretty common, but where the first story feel honest and real the second seem contrived. These people are just too insensitive to Marty’s feelings to feel honest.
I did like “Marty” and I do appreciate its qualities, but these are not big stories and to make this Best Picture of 1955 does not bode well for the rest of the movies.