I've been watching all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the next one on my list was Marty, the 1955 winner, directed by Delbert Mann and starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair.
The movie tells the story of one weekend in the life of a 34-year-old butcher who still living with his mother and hoping for love. The film tells a simple story well, with moments of heartbreak, laughter and joy. In addition to Best Picture, the movie also won Best Director (for debut director Mann), Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine) and Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky).
But first, a few words about the 1954 winner, On the Waterfront, which beat out competitors The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in the Fountain.
I had watched On the Waterfront years ago, as part of an effort to watch Marlon Brando's best movies. Directed by Elia Kazan, the movie stars Brando as Terry Malloy, an ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman who struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses. Karl Malden plays sympathetic Father Barry, Lee J. Cobb plays union boss Johnny Friendly, while Rod Steiger plays his brother, Charley "The Gent" Malloy.
Brando is superb as a good man who gets sucked into unsavory dealings. His emotional struggles are equal to a Shakespearean tragedy, including the classic scene in the back of a car with his brother, where he laments about a prize fight he was forced to throw: "You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley."
On the Waterfront excels in nearly every category: from screenwriting to sets and lighting. It packs an emotional punch that will leave you reeling.
Rating (out of 5): *****
Marty beat out four contenders for Best Picture: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic and The Rose Tattoo. The film was a remake of the 1953 TV movie starring Rod Steiger It was the first American film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and, as part of a 1959 cultural-exchange program, was the first U.S. feature seen in the USSR since World War II.
Screenwriter Chayefsky had written the play as a starring vehicle for his friend Martin Ritt, even naming the lead character after him. But Ritt had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Red Scare, and the network wouldn't hire him for the TV movie, with the role going to Steiger.
As the movie opens, we meet Marty, working in the butcher shop, answering questions from nosy elderly ladies about his younger brother, who just got married. The women chide him for not being married yet himself. Back at home, he hears more nagging from his mother, who urges him to try to find a nice woman. So the stage is set for the evening's activities.
When his best friend, Angie (Joe Mantell), insists they find something fun to do on a Saturday night, he agrees to his mother's suggestion that they go to the Stardust Ballroom, where young people go looking for love.
Meanwhile, 29-year-old teacher Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair) arrives, on a blind date set up by her friends. We learn very quickly that her date finds her unattractive and is eager to ditch her. Initially out of pity, Marty asks her to dance, and they find common ground talking about how they've both been frequently rejected.
Of course, no relationship comes easy, especially when Marty's family and friends weigh in, unimpressed with his newfound love.
For those who are used to seeing Borgnine in tough-guy roles, this movie is a revelation, showing him as a sensitive, vulnerable man who is goodhearted, shy around women and prone to bouts of self-recrimination. This was Borgnine's only Oscar-winning role, although he's received numerous other awards over his long career. The 91-year-old actor has two films (The Lion of Judah and Another Harvest Moon) in post-production, and is rumored to be working on two other films.
Betsy Blair plays Clara as soft-spoken and hesitant, only gradually flowering under Marty's attention. Despite demonstrating promise in movies like The Snake Pit (1948), her career had come to a halt after she became involved in SAG politics and, in 1946, proposed the formation of the first Anti-Discrimination committee. These actions attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who began circulating her name in "Red Channels," thus destroying her career. She only won the role in Marty because her then-husband, the phenomenal triple-threat Gene Kelly, threatened to stop shooting at MGM if they didn't let her work despite the blacklist. The movie earned her an Oscar nom and awards from the Cannes Film Festival and BAFTA.
Esther Minciotti is perfectly cast as Marty's mom, Mrs. Theresa Piletti. Not only does she bear some resemblance to Borgnine, but her depiction of Mrs. Piletti shows some of the same eagerness to please others that makes decision-making difficult for Marty. You can imagine how, growing up in her household, he would become the man he was.
The filmmakers made efforts to make the movie seem realistic, incorporating a lot of outdoor scenes of the couple walking through neighborhoods of New York. Lighting is used effectively to highlight emotion, with bright lights surrounding Marty when he's feeling optimistic and shadows when he's feeling down.
It's no wonder that the film won a screenwriting award. The dialogue is well-crafted, with the characters not always expressing what they feel directly but rather hinting at it. Combined with the excellent acting, the words become more poignant.
Producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, who rumors say financed the movie as a tax write-off, believing it would lose money, were very wrong. While the movie only cost $340,000 to make, it generated $3 million in box office rentals, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made. Ironically, the producers spent more on the ad campaign ($400,000) than they did making the film.
While you couldn't call Marty a message movie, it makes important points about acceptance, tolerance and standing up for yourself. Ernest Borgnine fans who have not seen Marty should rent it immediately, to get a glimpse of his true range. Everyone who's ever been a little down on themselves can watch this movie and feel inspired.
Rating (out of 5): ****
Tell a simple story well.