Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Delbert Mann
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Music: Roy Webb
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
MARTY, Delbert Mann’s director feature debut still holds the record as the least costly Oscar BEST PICTURE prizewinner with a light flyweight budget of $350,000, more exceptionally, it is also that year’s pick of Palme d’or, which inexorably courts suspicion of whether it can uphold its cachet out of its kitchen-sink make-up.
Parlayed onto the celluloid by Paddy Chayefsky from his namesake teleplay in 1953, The story of MARTY is contracted within a two-days span, which recounts the humdrum life of an unassuming 33-year-old butcher Marty Piletti (Borgnine), who lives in the Bronx with his widowed mother (Minciotti). Marty is the last singleton among his siblings, and after a series of self-confidence-wreckage life experiences, he has learnt from the reality check that for a fat, ugly, Catholic Italian bachelor, marriage is a dashed dream, although he is exactly the marriage type. Yet, on one Saturday evening, urged by his mother, he tries his luck again in the Stardust Ballroom with his best friend Angie (Mantell), that’s where he meets Clara (Blair), a plain-looking 29-year-old schoolteacher, who is ditched by her blind date for being undesirably unattractive.
So here comes the most ordinary love story in the world, but do we buy the fact that Marty and Clare belong to the same league on the face value? Admittedly, Betsy Blair, aka. Mrs. Gene Kelly, has to demean herself in this role just for the sake of appearance, her Clara is a comely woman radiant with quiet sensibility and kindness (her hairdo is the main inconvenience but no prosthetic appendage was applied to uglify her), the double standard in sexes is as expectedly ingrained in a movie made 60 years ago, so when coming to the point that her fate is entirely put in the hand of a waffling Marty, the pungent trace of patronage cannot be smoothly dissipated, one’s inner voice may exclaim “Clare is not a damsel-in-distress, she doesn’t need Marty as much as he needs her”, but according to the film’s slice-of-life guide-line, the patriarchal society cannot allow that, otherwise, the film would be more aptly coined as “Marty and Clara”, that’s one crucial reason why today’s audience might hold a grudge over the picture due to the sneaking phallocratic overtone.
Another hiccup is in its depiction of the distaff characters, frankly speaking, all the peripheral roles are designated as negative influence around Marty, the nagging housewives clientele, his self-involved cousin Tommy (Paris) and his wife Virginia (Steele), his crude buddies, even Angie, enmeshed in the pleasure-seeking bachelorhood, fails to be a true friend to him, then there is the bellyaching aunt Catherine (Ciolli), a defeatist who prattles on and on that life is finished when a widow is in her 50s and has no one to cook for. Finally, Marty’s mother, the only one we assume that loves Marty without any selfish reasons, to the convenience of the plot, turns out not to be that wise at all. All those characters are realistic enough for viewers today to mirror in our own lives, but lumping them as a collective nuisance certainly is not the best way of characterization.
Be that as it may, MARTY has its down-to-earth charm thanks to Borgnine’s touching performance, Marty is a far better person than his appearance suggests, especially compared with those who are around him, and Borgnine cuts his teeth into his Oscar-winning role whose inner warmth, guilelessness and gentleness (even when dolor is prevalent in his attempt of a Saturday night date through a telephone call) would gradually percolate into every scene, to the point he sublimates the material and elevates Marty’s belated realization to be utterly rewarding, although the ending feels somewhat hasted, and his final barb to Angie is far too vindictive for a character like Marty, which only sounds good in theory as an echo to the beginning. Betsy Blair, in her hard-earned Oscar-nominated role (she was blacklisted and reportedly it took her husband’s relentless lobbying and threat to secure her involvement), brings about an indelible trait of tangible sensitivity and self-abasing humanity without sacrificing Clara’s fragile dignity.
A decent win or is it just a bad year for USA movies? Personally I incline to the latter, MARTY is an above-average character drama with winning performances, but pales conspicuously in comparison with most Academy’s BEST PICTURE champs both before and after it.