With Marty (1955) I finish off my list of 10 Classics to Watch in 2015, and what a great, sincere, authentic and uplifting film to end on. I loved this story which covers little more than a day in the life of Marty (Ernest Borgnine), a kind butcher and hopeless bachelor. He faces constant pressure to get married already but he’s giving up the search for love because he’s always rejected. He claims to be resigned to the fact that he’s an ugly dog attractive to no one, but then he meets schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair) who like him, is a wallflower, forever alone and constantly told she’s undesirable. As they get to know each other, they both admit what they know deep in their hearts–they absolutely are attractive in the most important ways, and can love and be loved. “Every pot has its lid” is one lesson in this story, so is listening to your heart, knowing when to stop being a martyr and seek happiness, and taking the step from wishing for something to making the big changes needed to make that wish reality.
Marty’s transformation from saying “whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” to his joyous discovery that he does got a lot to love, is such a real, moving and captivating arc. This plain man of few words has a smile and a kind gesture for everybody, a pleasant nature that covers how miserably lonely he is. But he never loses that spark of caring and hope. It’s what gets him to put on a suit, go to the Stardust ballroom and try one more time, and it’s what draws him to look after Clara when she’s rudely dumped (sold, better to say) by her jerky date. Marty never loses who he is on the way to meeting Clara, and then has to continue to listen to his heart as everyone around him tries to convince him she’s worthless.
There are big obstacles for the man whose nature is to neglect his own needs and happiness in order to please others. The very people who nag Marty to find a mate are the ones acting out of fear as soon as he falls in love, shows signs of changing and planning for a new future. They’ve come to depend on him, his routine and his presence, and so instead of being thrilled they selfishly bully him back into his lonely, sacrificing rut to keep their comfortable roles. The mother (Esther Minciotti) Marty lives with, is that very evening being brainwashed by her bitter sister (Augusta Ciolli), who fills her head with terror that Marty’s girl will inevitably push her aside. As Clara says when she meets Marty’s mom, there are other things an empty-nester can occupy herself with, and a new wife wanting her own family to cook and care for is the way it should be. It’s unfair and cruel for the ones who’ve already enjoyed that stage of life to begrudge new couples that same dream.
All Marty’s friend Angie (Joe Mantell) and his other buddies talk about is finding hot babes like they read about in Mickey Spillane books. But when Marty goes off with his new girl, Angie turns dour and insulting toward Clara, simply because he didn’t like losing his pal for the one night and is terrified she’ll take him away for good. Don’t get married Marty, says his cousin (Jerry Paris), keep your fun freedom and forget about family and responsibility. She’s a dog anyway, says Angie, and what Ma suggests Clara is, I won’t even repeat. All this negativity nearly kills Marty and Clara’s happiness precisely because they are both so nice that they hate the idea of hurting anyone with their relationship.
A confused and doubtful Marty almost settles back into his rut, but there’s that something stronger inside him again, nagging at him. Those people haven’t spent the time talking to Clara, getting to know her wonderful personality and her appreciation for his decency, kindness and dreams. She awakens his ambition, encourages him to run his own business, makes him comfortable enough to chatter away about things he’s kept bottled up forever. When the next evening the guys’ same old question comes up, “what are we doing tonight, I don’t know, what do you want to do?” Marty breaks away to choose love and happiness. It’s wonderful to see him think for himself, to take what he deserves, and not let petty fears stop him. It’s wonderful too, to see people not considered conventionally attractive display the greater beauty of deep, rich personalities that lead them to each other, bond them together and get them through initial (and future) difficulty. Simple story and few characters, but much power, meaning and heart.
Delbert Mann directed this teleplay by writer Patty Chayefsky, Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster produced, and the movie won four Oscars.