Thursday, 3 April 2014

Marty (1955)

"All right, so I'll go to the Stardust Ballroom. I'll put on a blue suit, and I'll go. And you know what I'm gonna get for my trouble? Heartache. A big night of heartache"

I still really enjoy and admire Hollywood's initial steps towards a more realistic depiction of life. The 1950s saw a turning point as projects began to strive for authenticity, casting actors who looked like real people, actors who had studied or were familiar with 'the method' and scriptwriters like Paddy Chayefsky who excelled at the dialogue that people actually spoke. In short, creative people who had an understanding and appreciation of the world beyond the insular Hollywood hills and wanted to create it as faithfully as possible.

Marty is one of these films.

Chayefsky set out to write a love story, but he wanted it to be the most ordinary love story in the world. The kind of love story that happened to the people he knew, where the hero wasn't handsome and the leading lady wasn't pretty. He came up with a teleplay entitled Marty, the story of a gentle but lonely 34 year old New York singleton who worked as a butcher and who lived at home with his smothering Italian mother. Broadcast live in May, 1953 it starred Rod Steiger in the titular role.

Less than two years later, Chayefsky successfully expanded this original 50 minute play for the cinema and under the assured direction of Delbert Mann came this beautiful story of two underdogs played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair chancing upon romance in the film's 36 hour setting. Speaking of Blair, her then husband Gene Kelly had to lobby hard for her to get the role as she had been - like so many open minded showbiz figures of the time - blacklisted during senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious witch hunts for having communist sympathies. 

The cast are all convincing - including the three actors who reprised their roles from the TV play  Esther Minciotti, Augusta Ciolli and Joe Mantell as Marty's mother, aunt and best friend respectively - but Borgnine is especially effective as the big and big hearted Marty, a man whose honest sincerity and kindness belies his bulk in a manner that makes him easily loveable for the audience. The film also benefits from shooting in the locations the film is set, namely The Bronx, again a further indication at a Hollywood whose intention was to capture something of reality. 

The film was a resounding hit, scoring the double (Academy Award for Best Film and the Palme d'Or at Cannes) and bagging Oscars for Borgnine,  Mann and Chayefsky.  It's origins on television were not forgotten, least of all by Ronald Holloway of Variety who wrote, "If Marty is an example of the type of material that can be gleaned, then studio story editors better spend more time at home looking at television." Unfortunately, given how much Hollywood relies on TV for inspiration right now, I rather think they took Holloway's quote to literally!

When it comes to love stories, this is the kind I enjoy. It's not at all saccharine but it is sweet and at nearly sixty years later (and a good twenty years since I last saw it) it's still a great watch. It's influences can be seen down the years not just in the more realistic film-making we've subsequently come to appreciate but also more directly in films like the loose remake of 1991 Only The Lonely starring John Candy and Ally Sheedy, Jeff Garlin's 2006 indie I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With (which Garlin stars as a Marty like singleton who is trying to get an audition for a remake of his favourite film, Marty) and most recently the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's sole directorial project Jack Goes Boating.

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