Viewed on its own today, it may be hard to appreciate how significant the 1955 winner of the Best Picture Oscar ‘Marty’ was at the time of its release; British film critic Leslie Halliwell called it “a breath of spring” for Hollywood and just watching the film today on its own merits, it may be hard to appreciate that perspective.
But in the context of what had come before it in American cinema (especially since talkies came in), its significance and impact is much easier to understand. The realism in how the characters in ‘Marty’ behaved and especially how they talked had barely been seen previously in Hollywood mainstream cinema.
Take for example, the most dominant film studio of the 1930s and 1940s, MGM. Their films primarily had smart, usually well-to-do characters always being able to deliver clipped, sharp dialogue full of insights and memorable one-liners. Even a studio like Warner Bros in this era which was much more associated with working-class people (and gangsters) had the same issue.It was hardly naturalistic but it was for the most part extremely effective cinema; after all, it wasn’t called the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood for no reason.
Due to a myriad of factors, Hollywood cinema had a sense of staleness in the early-to-mid 1950s as the medium of television were providing a freshness and realism that was missing from increasingly bombastic, overproduced Hollywood films.
One of the most prominent writers in this medium was Paddy Chayefsky and he was employed to do an expanded version of his TV play ‘Marty’ for the big screen and his script broke all the rules for what constituted quality dialogue in a film. He eschewed having snappy, ‘clever’ dialogue to capture the ‘marvellous world of the ordinary’ of how people really talked. What he menat was capturing how people often ramble, say things that are nothing to do with a group conversation, how they have trouble articulating themselves and the repetition of words. This last aspect is particularly notable as the repeated phrases one hears during the film (“It was a very nice affair” “What do you want to do tonight?”) stay in one’s memory.
But apart from that highly significant aspect, how does ‘Marty’ stand up as a film today?
The film’s story focuses on the title character, a mid-30s bachelor Italian butcher (Ernest Borgnine) whose low self-esteem is exacerbated by associates and family pressuring him to finding the loving partner he’s always longed for. From a situation of hopelessness, things turn for when he falls in love with a teacher at a dance named Clara (Betsy Blair) but for their own selfish reasons those who wanted him married disapprove of this new relationship, putting Marty in a seemingly untenable position.
Chayefsky’s script sharply captures how Marty’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth is reflected by the people who associates with, particularly Angie (Joe Mantell). It appears they are best friends but Angie never seems to provide any real friendship or support to Marty. Indeed when Marty meets Clara, Angie tries to undermine it and just really wants to keep Marty down to his level for his own selfish reasons. If Marty were to marry Clara it’s safe to say Angie would quickly disappear from his life.
Another extremely well-written scene (and the high point of the film) is when Marty’s widowed mother (Esther Minciotti) and widowed aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) converse about moving in together. Catherine is full of bitterness and spite and initially one is repelled by her. But over the course of the scene we see the source of her unhappiness and how as a widow she feels unwanted by her children and is lonely and without purpose in life. By the end of the scene she is defeated and accepting of her fate. It’s a marvellously acted, deeply moving scene with profound insight; something you don’t get often in any scene in any film.
Overall though, it has to be said the passage of time hasn’t served ‘Marty’ particularly well. What felt fresh and unique in 1955 has been imitated so often in the decades since that it feels a bit restricted and formal now, as if trapped by the conventions that it created. And this exposes its weaknesses such as its rather stiff direction by director Delbert Mann, making his winning of the Best Director Oscar that year rather baffling in hindsight.
Overall, ‘Marty’ remains a likable, slice-of-life film with oodles of charm and is highly significant in the history of American 20th Century film. But is it a film which still holds up as being the only film to win both the Best Picture Oscar & Palme D’Or? Not really.