Marty is a film that was something of a rarity in the good ol’ 1950s’ Hollywood. It had a limited budget, no bankable stars and it’s leading characters were not blessed with matinee idol looks. What it had however, is a simple, universally identifiable little story with ordinary characters that audiences could relate to. The film is a well-written, funny and heart-warming character drama that is replete with rich dialogues courtesy of writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also wrote the Sidney Lumet film Network). The film was originally conceived as a TV drama and Chayefsky later adapted it for the silver screen, with Burt Lancaster’s independent production company Hecht-Lancaster producing it. The protagonist is Marty Piletti (played by Ernest Borgnine), a 34-year old butcher living in the Bronx with his widowed mother. He is a stocky, round-faced man who is not too proud of his profession. He is terribly insecure and is well-aware that society doesn’t consider his profession a very elegant one. He is also lonely. He comes from an Italian-American family and his brothers and sisters have all been married. Marty is the only one who isn’t.
Now, this is something that is repeatedly brought up by everyone around him – including his customers – and it infuriates him. “Marty, when are you gonna get married? You ought to be ashamed of yourself”, asks two lady customers one after the other. Marty is sick of it. He has a few friends and doesn’t go out very often. When they suggest meeting up with some new girls, Marty isn’t interested because it’s always the same old story with him: rejection. He has been hurt a number of times that he doesn’t want to go through it all over again. He is perfectly fine with staying single. In a funny exchange inside a cafe, his friend asks, “What do you feel like doing tonight?” and Marty responds with, “I don’t know. What do you feel like doing tonight?” and they go through the same routine again and again. He goes back home and his mother pesters him about his single status. She tells him that she doesn’t want him sitting alone in his house watching TV on a Saturday night and suggests that he go to a ballroom in the city. In frustration, he tells her about his insecurities. He thinks he is fat, ugly and miserable overall. He tells her that every attempt of his to hook up with a girl always end in heartache. But he finally gives in and decides to go, for her sake.
Once he is at the ballroom, he doesn’t seem to be having any luck just as always and that’s when he bumps into a plain-looking schoolteacher named Clara. She has just been dumped by a jerk who is disappointed by the fact that she isn’t a bombshell. The guy tells his friend: “I get a Saturday off once in a while and I deserve to be with someone better.” He goes around asking each lonely guy at the place, including Marty, if he wants to take his date and promises to pay five bucks if he does. Marty is baffled by this behavior and turns him down. When he sees that the next guy has taken the five bucks but walks away after seeing how unattractive she is, he approaches her and instantly turns into a shoulder for her to cry on. They instantly hit if off and eventually start to like each other. They both learn that they are too alike: good-hearted misfits who are past/approaching their 30s and are having a hard time getting anyone to like them for who they really are, not by their appearances. Marty finds that he can totally be himself and not feel embarrassed in front of her. She doesn’t make him feel embarrassed of his profession and in turn, he gives some good career advice for her too.
I particularly liked one line that Marty says during one of their exchanges, on how the children think their parents need them when they are all grown up and refuse to leave them to make a life for themselves but in reality, it’s the other way round and that they are depending on them and seeking safety in that. Marty and Clara’s relationship is supposed to be free of conflicts but it isn’t. And the conflict doesn’t stem from either of their behavior but the behavior of their parents and relatives. Marty’s aunt is responsible for a major chunk of it. A 56-year old woman who is making things difficult for her son and his wife, she is persuaded by Marty’s mother to come and stay with her. “A husband and wife needs some time to themselves and it’s not nice to meddle in their affairs”, she says. This aunt is a woman who hasn’t got anything positive to say. She is going through an extreme middle-age crisis and she passes some of that to Marty’s mother as well. “This is going to happen to you as well. What are you going to do when Marty gets married?” and this upsets her. This is how the conflict begins. Now that Marty has finally found someone, it’s his mother’s and friends’ turn to feel lonely and they all oppose his plan to settle down with her.
A majority of the characters in the film remind me of people I’ve come across. There are people like these in my family too. There are the middle-aged women who has got nothing to talk about but their arthritis and “You know who has died? And you know who else has died?” And I myself have been asked the same question that Marty has been asked: “When are you going to get married? You are already in your late 20s and if you don’t find someone as soon as possible, you’ll end up single forever.” I thought only we Indians talked and behaved this way. I was wrong. Chayefsky’s dialogues are sharp, observant and insightful and his script has given Borgnine the best role of his entire career. Borgnine’s performance caught me by surprise because before I chanced upon this film, I was used to seeing him in his despicable villain roles, especially in Bad Day at Black Rock (which actually came out in the same year). Borgnine succeeds in playing Marty as a very endearing and sympathetic character, someone that I could easily identify with. The film not only won four Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director) but also was the first American film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year.