Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Delbert Mann
Paddy Chayefsky was born Sidney Chayefsky in the Bronx to Russian-Jewish immigrants. While serving in World War II, he got the nickname “Paddy,” which stuck with him for the rest of his life. During this time, he was wounded by a land mine in Germany, which led to permanent scarring and his shyness around women, an element that would inspire the character of Marty. He’s always been a gifted child in matters of language arts and began writing plays as an adult. After being sent to recover in a London hospital, he penned a musical, No T.O. For Love, which toured around Army camps eventually opening in London.
It wouldn’t be until 1953 when Chayefksy television playhouse presentation of Marty aired that the masses suddenly noticed him. Chayefsky’s naturalistic dialogue was incredibly new at the time. This was the same era where method acting and the desire to present the grittiness of life were becoming popular in the theater. John Cassavettes was making his independent films in New York City centered on the same goal, to show people at their most human. The popularity of this teleplay led to its adaptation on the big screen, where Chayefsky’s career really soared.
Marty (Ernest Borgnine) is a single butcher living with his mom in the South Bronx. He gets along with everyone and is beloved by his neighborhood. However, they badger him relentlessly about getting married and having kids. Marty has dysmorphia, seeing himself as ugly and, therefore, unable to be loved. Things aren’t helped by his male friends who continuously push only a particular type of woman as attractive and tell Marty he needs to marry someone twenty years younger, so she stays “beautiful longer.” Surrounded by all these toxic things, he’s approached by a man at a dance who is trying to ditch his date for someone else. He tells Marty she’s “a real dog” and that he’ll pay Marty five bucks to take her off his hands. Marty is appalled and rejects this but starts to feel bad for her. He intervenes and meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a soft-spoken woman in her thirties who works as a school teacher. Both of them are so scared of the world and the risks that come with Love, but throughout this night, they get to know each other and find a comfort they were both seeking.
Marty holds the honor of being the first winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or prize. Interestingly, it is such a modest film, there’s no flashy stylization & the acting it so muted and played with realism. Its success both in the box office and critically led to a trend of “slice of life” type movies in America. Funny enough, this was a more popular form of the Italian neorealism going in Europe. The difference is that pictures like Marty were much more sentimental and romanticized while dealing with their subjects. While a film like Bicycle Thieves may be a better piece of art, Marty is incredibly accessible to broad audiences.
This is a love story without the bells and whistles. It’s two people figuring out how to communicate with each other, discovering they enjoy each other’s company, and looking forward to the unknowable future. Marty is 35, and Clara is 29, ages that, according to the people around them, make them undesirable and lucky to get anyone. The start of Love is not desperation by either of them, it is a genuine attraction to someone who can look at the other and see the beauty within each other. Marty consistently shows discomfort at how his friends talk about women, but he’s convinced he’s wrong because they are in the majority.
The reality is that so many friends and family around Marty are pathologically codependent. His best buddy Angie needs Marty to be single, so he has someone to look down on. Marty’s mother needs him to stay single because she’s been booted out of his sibling’s house and is being fed ideas about the fear of growing old by a friend. No one can look at anyone else and see who they are. They live in terror of other people finding happiness because they believe it is a finite resource. Fear of risking themselves by living keeps them petrified, and they try to claw others with them.
Marty feels like an extremely mature film dealing with topics we don’t get much in movies anymore. When a serious Hollywood drama is released, it’s usually centered around some epic event like a World War. We don’t really get many great mainstream slice of life pictures in America anymore. Chayefsky writes with such sensitivity about human beings that it’s a fresh breath of air.