Marty was the very first winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 1955. Along with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, it’s also one of the only films to win both the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme d’Or. However, the really interesting aspect of Marty is that it’s a perfect example of the screenwriter as the auteur instead of the director.
The auteur of the film is clearly Paddy Chayefsky, a playwright and screenwriter who really flourished during the original Golden Era of television, which mostly consisted of filmed dramatic plays. Chayefsky would gradually move into cinema after the best TV work dried out, most notably with the flat-out prophetic masterwork known as Network. He was a very strong individual who often butted heads with his directors—in particular, with Ken Russell over Altered States, to the extent that in the end he used his first and middle names, Simon Aaron, on the film.
Marty is about a good-natured Bronx butcher played by Ernest Borgnine, a macho guy on the outside but a deeply shy man underneath all the bravado. He is still living with his mother, and she has no desire for him to settle down, meet a girl and move on. He soon meets his equal in Clara (Betsy Blair), but his mother and friends deride her, including her supposed plainness. Marty has to decide if he wants to continue his relationship with a woman who makes him happy.
The film is decidedly simple in story and execution, so it’s no wonder to discover that it was originally one of Chayefsky’s teleplays. The director of the teleplay and film was Delbert Mann, who also did a good chunk of Chayefsky’s work on TV and film—more than any other director. The casting of Marty changed from the small screen to the big screen, however, because Rod Steiger wanted his independence and refused to sign a multi-picture deal. Ernest Borgnine effortlessly stepped in, and made it his own. Borgnine really shows his depth as an actor here, which sometimes could get lost in the many supporting roles he did throughout his long career. It was the only time he ever won an Oscar, and indeed his only nomination.
The majority of the supporting cast reprise their roles from the TV version. The only other big change was Clara: originally, Nancy Marchand was set to reprise her role, but Betsy Blair lobbied hard for the role and eventually won out. Blair was Gene Kelly’s wife, and was blacklisted during the HUAC era because of her communist sympathies, Kelly had similar views, but he far too big of a star to go after, so they went after his wife instead. He even threatened to pull out of a film for MGM after they threatened to sack her from Marty because of the blacklist—it worked, and marked one of the earliest wins against blacklisting in Hollywood.
Marty is a great character study, and in the end it’s just a sweet love story with two fantastic leads. It’s not brilliantly shot or anything, but with the wonderful script by Chayefsky there isn’t much more you need. It’s interesting to counter this relatively good-natured film with the absolutely biting satire of Network, the film he is best known for.
Weirdly enough, it’s been released under the Eureka Classics label and not Masters of Cinema, especially given the awards it won. The disc includes a new interview with Neil Sinyard, the original trailer (which was presented by the film’s producer, Burt Lancaster), the original teleplay with Steiger, and archival interviews with the cast of the teleplay and Delbert Mann.