Last week, while home in bed nursing a cold, I took comfort in watching one of my favorite old films: Marty. A true classic.
On the surface, Marty is the simple story of a Bronx butcher who finds love. Marty was, however, unique in several ways. To begin with, it was originally written as a sixty minute teleplay by renowned writer, Paddy Chayefsky. It starred Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand (in later years associated with the television show, Lou Grant).
It is said by some that Steiger turned down the chance to re-create his role for film because it would have meant his signing a multi-movie contract, something he didn’t wish to do. Others maintain that producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster weren’t sure Steiger would work for the big screen. (Ironically, Chayefsky originally wrote the script with his friend actor/director Martin Ritt in mind – hence the title “Marty”.)
Regardless of how Ernest Borgnine got to be cast in the role, he nailed it. In fact, I suspect he had the vulnerability that Steiger, good an actor as he was, may have lacked.
What makes the film so memorable is that American films, unlike European films, are rarely character driven in the way Marty was. This was especially true in 1955 when the film was made.
Marty is a devoted son, a practicing Catholic, and a solid friend but he cannot seem to find a girl. His traditional Italian mother, with whom he lives, worries that he’ll “die without a son”. Rejected so often, due, he believes, to his being homely and overweight, Marty is hesitant to try again; he is fearful of striking out.
At a ballroom mixer, he finally connects with a girl (Betsy Blair as Clara), who herself is not very attractive. He tells her “maybe you and me aren’t the dogs we think we are.” For once, Marty begins to feel good about himself. Of course, human nature being what it is, people in his life offer opinions based on their own agendas.
His friend, Angie, afraid of losing Marty as a companion advises Marty to “dump her…she’s a dog.” His mother, terrified of being abandoned, tells Marty she “don’t like the girl” (for one thing, she’s not Italian). Even his cousin, experiencing his own marital woes, tells Marty he’s better off single. Ultimately, Marty must decide to do what is in his own best interest.
Though the movie is over fifty years old, the themes of loneliness, superficiality, and selfishness are ones that are timeless, making Marty a true classic.