Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marty Quietly Steals Hearts ... and Lots of Awards

At a recent civic meeting, someone brought up the movie Marty (I forget the context) with the comment, "Everybody knows Marty," and everyone there did nod their heads in agreement. That is, everyone there except me. Not only had I never seen Marty, I had never even heard of it prior to this local meeting. Normally I would brush that off as a different generations type thing, but I actually happen to be a fan of old movies so it's surprising that I wouldn't have at least heard something about this movie in the past. Naturally then, I had to go look up this movie and when  I heard that it had won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Picture, I was even more intrigued (and additionally stunned that this movie hadn't been on my radar previously). I was delighted to find that a copy of the movie was in my library and immediately checked it out.

Marty is the story of a 34-year-old Italian-American butcher living a quiet life with his mother in the Bronx. He goes to work and then meets up a with a handful of other bachelors at their favorite watering hole. Simple enough. But everyone - from his family to his random customers at the butcher shop - is hounding him about why he isn't married yet. Even his younger brothers and sisters are already married, so what's wrong with him? Pestered with all these questions daily, Marty decides to take his married cousin's advice and go to the Stardust Ballroom to look for women. While there, he comes across Clara, a chemistry teacher whose has just been stood up by her blind date when he saw another woman he found more attractive. Marty and Clara find in each other kindred lonely spirits and have a delightful evening together.

As (mis)fortune would have it though, on that very same evening, Marty's mother Theresa visits her sister Caterina who is going through a rough patch. Caterina's daughter-in-law is beyond frustrated with her meddling and has asked Marty and his mother to take in Caterina. Theresa must break the news to her sister that she is no longer wanted as a live-in companion to her son and his family. Caterina moans about how it's so difficult to be a mother after all of your children have flown the coop and no longer need you. She plants a seed in Theresa's mind about how terrible her life will be if Marty gets married and leaves her, and thus for the first time in her life, Theresa is completely against the idea of Marty finding someone. Meanwhile, Marty's friends look down their noses at Clara because she is a "dog" - aka an unattractive woman (it doesn't seem to matter that Marty isn't particularly leading man handsome himself) - and try to convince Marty to stay away from her.

After watching Marty, I am rather surprised that it won for best picture - especially considering that it came out at the same time as several movies that have become a larger part of the popular culture and/or tackled tougher topics, such as East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, The Seven Year Itch, Lady and the Tramp, Picnic, The Man with the Golden Arm, and even Blackboard Jungle. Still, Marty is atypical Hollywood - especially 1950s Hollywood - so I could see how the Academy might have wanted to give a nod to something out of the ordinary. Neither of the leads are Hollywood glamorous nor are they particularly suave or charming. The story is albeit a love one, but it's a nontraditional one with a slow buildup. Indeed, this movie is far more focused on constructing characters than it is on an action-filled plot. The majority of the movie is made up of various conversations held between the characters. In fact, the whole movie takes place over only one weekend, meaning that there isn't a whole lot of time for much of anything to happen. And yet the movie shows how just a couple of days can do a lot to change one's perspective and life.

One of the things that I appreciate about the movie is that while it is ultimately about setting up a conventional marriage, it raises important questions. Marty notes in the beginning that if you're going to be spending 40 or 50 years in a marriage with someone (this being before today's staggeringly high divorce rates), that person had better be more than just a pretty face. It's certainly a smart idea, but not one that his girl-chasing friends - or those who just want to push him into marriage already - seem to be interested in considering. As I noted earlier, Marty is 34 years old at the movie's open and Clara is ::shock:: 29 years old already! While his age is perhaps less damning, she's heading dangerously close to spinsterhood. But the movie doesn't condemn either of them too much for waiting to get married beyond the expected age. What I can't stand is the final scene of the movie when Marty gets on his best friend's case, telling him he should be ashamed of himself for not being married yet when all his younger siblings have already found someone to wed. Doesn't Marty recall the hurt and rejection he felt when people said the same thing to him literally the day before?

Whether the movie intended to do this or not, for all it's talk of getting married and settling down, it doesn't paint a rosy picture of wedded bliss. Marty's cousin Tommy and his wife Virginia start out the movie miserable because of Caterina's presence in their tiny apartment and her constant nagging of how Virginia runs the household and cares for the baby. But when they drop off Caterina to live with Marty and his mother, Tommy and Virginia instantly turn on one another, fighting about everything from being a mama's boy to not preparing a decent dinner. Meanwhile, Caterina's laments about old age exceed just aches and pains - she says it's a terrible time of life because with grown children out of the house, there's no longer anyone to cook for or clean up after. With a woman's whole life expected to be wrapped up in caring for her husband and children, she has nothing left to do with herself when she's widowed and her children are married. When Clara suggests a hobby might help, her advice is pooh-poohed as though it's crazy talk; there simply is no hobby for a woman beyond cooking and cleaning. The movie may try to paint a warm and fuzzy picture with Marty and Clara meeting after years of loneliness but around the corner it promises nagging arguments and eventual despair when this so carefully crafted life no longer has meaning. It's not exactly uplifting. But that may all be me simply reading too much into this short black-and-white film about an aging bachelor. And given that Marty and Clara are going about things in slightly less traditional way (and knowing that Clara is college educated with a career of her own), perhaps they will have a much happier fate.

One thing I can definitely say is that this movie is finely acted with characters that felt realistic. Tommy turning on a dime from relieved that his mother is moving out of his home to guilt that manifests itself as anger toward his wife feels very true to life. Even though he's a side character, Tommy comes across as having complex emotions and motivations. His wife Virginia likewise shows a multitude of emotions in the few scenes in which she appears. Marty is the nominal hero and you're mostly rooting for him, even he is so socially awkward at times that he comes across saying rather rude things to Clara when he means to be complimenting. For instance, more than once he basically says she isn't pretty but that's not the most important thing for a relationship. This is not exactly the line to woo most women over. Clara is similarly nervous and shy but has her own moments of honesty and surprising spunk (i.e., when she refutes Theresa's lament that Caterina is placed in an unfair position because of Virginia). Marty's single male friends are kind of lame and borderline misogynistic, but they are sadly all too recognizable.

My absolute favorite characters in the movie had to be Theresa and Caterina. With their old world sensibilities, their complaints about old age, their personal triumphs as seen through their children's lives, their talk of who's passed away now, and their desire to feed people no matter their protest, I felt like I was eavesdropping in on conversations between my late grandmother and her sister. Indeed, the whole movie with its close-knit Italian-American multi-generational extended family living together in tiny New York apartments felt like I was given a glimpse into the early married life that my grandparents had together and always talked about when they reminisced. It made me feel happy, sad, and nostalgic all at once.

The efforts of all these fine actors did not go unnoticed by the Academy. In addition to the nomination and win for best picture, this movie was nominated for best actor (Ernest Borgnine as Marty), best supporting actor (Joe Mantell as Marty's best friend), and best supporting actress (Betsy Blair as Clara, though it's a mystery to me why she's considered supporting when she's one of the movie's leads). However, only Ernest Borgnine took home the golden statuette for his acting in this movie. The movie was also up for best cinematography, art direction/set decoration, director, and screenplay, winning the last two. Marty was also the first movie to win both the Best Picture award and the Cannes Film Festival's highest award. So this was definitely a movie that made a big splash at the time of its arrival, although I'm not sure that it continues to stand the test of time with its portrayal of old world values and gender stereotypes. However, that's just my opinion - 20 years ago it was still considered significant enough to warrant a place in the National Film Registry.

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