Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
By the mid-50s, Hollywood was fully engaged in The Battle of The Box. The enormous influence of new medium of television was threatening to keep moviegoers at home, so the major studios responded by pumping out elaborate, gigantic full-color widescreen epics that the limited ratio of television wouldn’t be able to capture.
Ironically, even as Hollywood battled the box, the Academy voters in 1955 chose a micro-budgeted romantic drama based on a Paddy Chayefsky play written – (gasp!) – for television! Marty had been a television play presented on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1953 starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand. When the feature film version was went into production, Steiger didn’t want the part because he didn’t want to be locked into a studio contract; so the title role was given to an odd choice, Ernest Borgnine who had thusfar spent his career playing heavies and was most recently famous for beating Frank Sinatra to death in From Here to Eternity.
The film version was a massive success, a box office hit and one of only two films to win the top prize at Cannes and the Palme d’Or – the other being The Lost Weekend.
Sixty years later, the movie holds up beautifully; coming out of an industry that thrives on youth and beauty, it is a surprisingly tender story of homely Bronx butcher Marty Piletti (Borgnine, who would win Best Actor) who takes barbs from the older people in the neighborhood because he isn’t married. He’s the last of six children, 34 years-old and is constantly nagged by his aging mother because he remains alone. Inwardly, Marty fears that no girl will ever accept his offer for a date until he works up the nerve to ask out Clara (Betsy Blair), a plain-jane schoolteacher that he meets at a local dance.
Even in the sweet but nervous company of Clara, Marty is still a self-doubting loner persistently worried about what his date will think, and his fears of abandoning his mother for marriage.
The story is surprisingly human, never turning its characters into clichés but instead looking straight through and seeing them for their pure humanity. This is the kind of movie, like Rocky 21 years later, that looks at a perceived “lovable loser” and tries to see the human being inside. The intimacy is what we remember, the tiny house-keeping details of lives being lives, of personalities that form social interactions, of people the form a specific community. This is a lovely film, a human film, a specific film and a very touching film too.