Saturday, April 11, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Marty" (1955)

Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: April 11, 1955
Director: Delbert Mann
Written By: Paddy Chayefsky
Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Besty Blair, Ester Minciotti
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 90 minutes

Oscar Nominations: 4
- Best Supporting Actor (Joe Mantell)
- Best Supporting Actress (Betsy  Blair)
- Best Cinematography (Black-and-White)
- Best Art Decoration-Set Decoration (Black-and-White)

Oscar Wins: 4
- Best Picture
- Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine)
- Best Director (Delbert Mann)
- Best Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

- Love is a Many-Splendored Thing
- Mister Robets
- Picnic
- The Rose Tattoo

And the winner is...

Marty is a great movie. An exceptional one that paints a picture of a regular man finding true love. He isn't necessarily the best looking, but he still is quite the charmer. So why exactly did this film win? Was it just a slow year? More than any film from surrounding decades, Marty has a strange singularity to it that doesn't quite fit into any category. It isn't a highly stylized story or a societal commentary drama. Its running time barely exists and in today's Oscar-consciousness wouldn't likely be at all a contender because 90 minutes is chump change meant for random art house movies. Sure, there's endless charm to be found in Ernest Borgnine's performance, but what exactly is it about Marty that is exceptional?

To understand, let us explore the plot briefly. Borgnine stars as the titular 36-year-old Marty, who is the ideal Italian Catholic who loves his mother and drives around with his friends looking for girls. Still, he gets told consistently that the right girl will come along. There isn't so much of a twist as he meets Clara, played by Betsy Blair. She changes his life and through dating he begins to have a changing view of his lifestyle. He is no longer a cynical, morose man without any hope of a future. Suddenly life seems great. The film ends not with a big revelation, but him telling his friends the line that they have been telling him for years. If nothing else, it is an excellent example of how concrete Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay writing was and would continue to be throughout the decades, including the noteworthy media satire Network.

The film is actually a little baffling when considering that love stories aren't the Academy's biggest draw anymore. In fact, the story of an unattractive man finding love has evolved into a TV trope. Of course, this is all likely due to execution of the story. There's plenty of existentialism with surprising dives into realism that is anchored by Borgnine's performance. He is a charismatic and underrated actor overall whose sentiments here manage to make the schmuck routine feel relative because there's truth in it. While the romance is basic, everything else about him is rather interesting. Sure, Martin Scorsese would go on to explore the Italian culture more closely in his films, but this perfect balance of ethnicity, religion, culture and romance is something that feels of its time in the best ways possible. It is enlightening and uplifting without being forceful about it.

If this makes sense, wait until you hear everything that this film did. For starters, it was the first American film to win the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes (the festival's original highest honor was called The Grand Prix du Festival International Film before 1955. Among the winners was 1945 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend) and the Best Picture statue. The film was also an adaptation from Chayefsky of the highly successful TV series of the same name, thus making it the first film adaptation of a TV series to win. Delbert Mann was also the first director (there have been six total) to win Best Director for his debut feature. It is also the shortest film in Oscars' history to have won Best Picture. Not too bad for a small film that was only 28 years into the existence of the Oscars.

Unlike most films that will be discussed, there isn't much directly to say about Marty other than its surprise success. There isn't any great set pieces or any big behind the scenes stories that will alter your opinions. In fact, it still remains odd that in a franchise-driven culture that this film is so excellent despite being an adaptation of a TV series. Of course, the shock of premiering forces like Chayefsky and Mann add to the overall appeal that turns the ordinary life into something exceptional. Even the fact that the film cost $343,000 proved that it didn't take a lot of money to make something of quality. In fact, the film made back over ten times its budget upon its initial release.

As seen in later Best Picture nominee Quiz Show, the film Marty was a big deal at the time. The main plot hinges on a contestant having to improperly guess who won Best Picture in 1955. Afterwards, he gets grief for his error that was in fact staged. So while Marty may not have special effects or big musical numbers, it does have more heart than almost anything else of its kind. It depicts the underdog finally having his shot at happiness and succeeding. It is a feel good film without feeling forced into it. It proved that length isn't important and that story could be more interesting. As they said in Quiz Show, you can't forget Marty.

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