Sunday, October 27, 2013

MARTY - 1955

Among its Best Picture comrades of the 1950s, Marty ranks as a true curiosity. It doesn’t boast any fetching stars on its marquee. Nor is the story some colossal saga, prodding its characters to traverse an emotional mine field that results in some profound self-discovery. It certainly doesn’t feature any candied musical numbers or sprawling panoramas of exotic locales. Instead, Marty is a modest tale concerning drab, everyday types as they do battle with one of mankind’s most common adversaries: loneliness. But keep cool my babies and hold the phone. Of course I mean “drab” and “everyday types” in a positive, complementary manner of speaking. I take offense that you might have intimated otherwise. 

In a way, Marty feels like a refreshing break from tradition and form, in the Best Picture context of things. But more than that, it’s an intriguing film because it presents characters and scenarios as they really are, not as they would otherwise be once filtered through a slanted Hollywood lens that tends to dress up reality to make it more stylish. I feel like mainstream films from that era didn’t often embrace unvarnished character studies of simple life and the people that give it motion. Heck, few films in this day and age even swivel the spotlight on the average among us. It’s too bad they don’t, because Marty is a gem-of-a-film arranged with a bouquet of real life experiences in a way that seldom graces the silver screen, let alone is given a shot a doing a victory lap on the Academy’s stage. Heretofore, the only Best Picture champs on Oscar’s genealogical charts that come close in evoking the trials of everyday folk are Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives. But since this is my blog, I’m ruling both of those films out as playing the part of a true cinematic microscope examining the trials of the mundane because they were both fueled by the extraordinary events of WWII. 

In an ironic twist, I think the simple and unremarkable nature of the story and its actors are what makes Marty such a memorable film. When nestled amongst the flashier and more dramatic denizens of the Oscar firmament, Marty standouts precisely because it lacks glitz and glamour. But don’t be deceived my dear fellows, Marty still generates an inner glow that radiates an appeal traveling along the wavelength of the familiar. It’s like Harvey Pekar said in the film American Splendor, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

Directed by Delbert Mann, who would later serve as the president of the Directors Guild of America, Marty stars the lively Ernest Borgnine and the comparatively more subdued Betsy Blair, who was married to Gene Kelly and later blacklisted from Hollywood for her Communist ties. Marty became a sleeper hit among critics, the public and the Academy, receiving eight nominations, eventually charming voters enough for wins in the categories of Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture in 1955. The film was co-produced by Burt Lancaster, who previously worked with Borgnine on From Here to Eternity, providing yet another illustration of the contracted nature of the Hollywood globe. And by way of one more fun fact: Marty also retains the unique distinction for being the first, and so far only, film based on a television production to go off arm in arm with the Academy’s top prize. 

The film is the story of a pudgy, lovelorn, good-natured fellow by the name of Marty Piletti. Unmarried and  socially awkward, Marty begins to feel the cold hands of his routine life in the Bronx as a butcher living with his mother slowly make their way around his neck. After being harassed by his mother to go out one Saturday night to a local dance hall “full of tomatoes,” Marty encounters Clara, a plain, yet bright schoolteacher nursing a bruised heart after being callously ditched by her blind date. The two pass the evening together, dancing, dining and discoursing; eventually developing a mutual attraction by the time Marty escorts Clara to her front door. Upon parting company with Clara, Marty promises to call her the next day for another outing. However, darting comments directed at Clara by Marty’s mother and his pals soon wither his intentions, throwing Marty into a disheartened dilemma over left feeling he has to choose between family and friends or Clara, whom he barely knows.

On the Netflix sleeve for the disc, it contains a brief synopsis of the plot for Marty. In the summation, it describes Marty as “approaching middle age.” Later on in the film, Marty reveals his age to be 34, which sent a slightly depressing shiver through my extremities as I just so happened to turn 33 recently. Does this mean I’m approaching middle age? Be honest old sport, you can give it to me straight. Despite what ol’ Jacky Nicholson may say, I can handle the truth. Regardless, the thought of being 33 years of age, maybe, definitely approaching middle age and feeling the cold shadow cast by the encroaching specter of permanent single status slightly blurred the lines of entertainment and reality when viewing Marty. I suppose this should be interpreted as a compliment to the film’s ability to be right on target to the degree that it can traverse decades of time and still retain a high level of being relatable.

In large part, this relatable quality is due to the praiseworthy performance of Ernest Borgnine. He is aces when it comes to suffering with a smile on his face as people interrogate and chastise Marty for remaining single, as though it were some conscious choice rooted in bloated selfishness. Despite the insensitive comments he weathers, Borgnine employs his sunny disposition to great effect, manufacturing a friendly twinkle while serving customers in his butcher shop as they unwittingly lob darts at him.  Borgnine is also spot-on at channeling Marty’s frustration in continually striking out in the arena of romance, eventually feeling maxed out to continue playing the dating game. For Marty, his grief is augmented by the fact that so many around him have been able to tie the knot with seemingly no effort at all, leaving him to feel that marriage is some taunting, elusive feat, like the pursuit of some mirage in the desert. Borgnine is commendable in expressing Marty’s heartbreak and sorrow without resorting to histrionics about how his life is dramatically falling apart. Borgnine’s performance is too subtle and mature for that, which leads Marty to begin accepting his membership into the world of bachelorhood with his held high, if the events of his life should conspire to that end. 

But conditioning his mind to accept the possible reality of being single is where the film draws considerable credibility in paying attention to the mindset of a man contemplating his life in solitary fashion. For Marty, this inspection generates a dreadful sense of anxiety as he fears his will to continue in his search for someone to marry is packing up and shipping out. It’s a sincere sound of the alarm for Marty, as he feels he is conceding a large slice of his will to live. No man with a sure footing in life genuinely feels that their existence is enhanced by living alone for themselves, and Marty has long ago realized this fact. In this situation, the film touches upon the inescapable truth that life’s true joys can only be extracted when you put the needs of someone else ahead of your own. The degree of sacrifice required to have a successful marriage is the degree that produces the greatest amounts of happiness in life. Marty has reached an age where he has come to know and truly appreciate this reality, further reinforcing his distress that hope is drifting away from him. In the end, this realization is what supplies Marty with the strength to defy his friends and family and act on his feelings to call up Clara and ask her out again.   

As mentioned in the earlier paragraphs of this post, Marty is a unique film for a variety of reasons. But perhaps its most distinct quality is that it focuses on the emotional difficulties men can experience when romance remains a fleeting ambition. It’s rare to see a film that explores relationship anxieties so prevalently from a man’s perspective. Too often, I think relationship-driven films often tag their male characters with a sense that the stakes are never really that high for them. I feel that too often men are portrayed as being emotionally incapable of being impacted when they stumble in their romantic pursuits. In so many films, the story’s end could have the central romantic plotline go either way and the guy would still move on with relative ease. Obviously not every film takes this approach; I get that. In fact, one recent example that comes to mind is James Gandolfini’s character in the film Enough Said. Unfortunately, I think this is more the exception, not the norm. But all debate aside, Marty moves the needle closer to the truth in this regard because it presents the fragilities and vulnerabilities of an ordinary man for whom the stakes are quite high in relation to the outcome of romantic events, especially as he approaches middle age.
Favorite Line: In the final line of the film, Marty resolves to cast aside the comments of his friends and family by calling up Clara. Before closing the door to the phone booth to make the call, Marty spiritedly informs his pal Angie, “You don't like her. My mother don't like her. She's a dog. And I'm a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees. I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013


I first saw On the Waterfront in a film class back in college. I remember it completely wowing me for a number of reasons; chief among them being how current and modern the film felt, due to the style of the acting and directing, as well as its core themes. It felt ahead of its time; a complete break away from all the other “classic” films on the syllabus screened that semester. Interestingly, in their musings about On the Waterfront, many contemporary critics detour from their praise of the film to highlight the somewhat dated nature of its subject matter concerning mob control coursing through labor unions in the early 1950s. While some truth may reside on this point, I say the fact that the modern-day landscape has shifted in appearance from the 1950s is irrelevant criticism. The issues of corruption, greed and the abuse of power are still rampant, and in some spheres have become almost customary problems that are often justified or excused altogether. Given that the film deals with these issues in a context that may seem somewhat antiquated does nothing to tarnish the relevancy of the dilemmas faced and lessons learned by its characters. Regardless of the context, it’s the retention of this apposite quality that has crafted an enduring strength, allowing On the Waterfront to still be a force 60 years after its release. 

Directed by the legendary and controversial Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront inscribed another chapter in his frequent collaborations with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. Further widening the film’s marquee were memorable turns by Lee Cobb, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint, who made her film debut with the role. On the Waterfront hooked 12 nominations from the Academy, eventually loading up eight victories, including Best Picture for 1954. All five of the film’s leads were recognized with nominations for their work, with Brando and Saint taking home the honors for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (not a bad debut, indeed). Unfortunately, Cobb, Malden and Steiger over crowded the Best Supporting Actor category, apparently carving up the voting bloc between them, leaving them all empty-handed by the time the curtain was lowered on Oscar night. Another notable nominee whose name failed to make the winner’s list is Leonard Bernstein, whose ingenuous score charged On the Waterfront with suspense and force. So now the next time you’re listening to R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and it comes to the part of the song where Michael Stipe yells, “Leonard Bernstein,” you’ll know he scored one of the greatest films of all time.  

Filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, where everyone is seemingly a wiseguy or chump, On the Waterfront follows Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), an inarticulate ex-pugilist-turned-dockworker without much to do except stroll around with an upturned collar, kicking at the occasional piece of trash in his way. However, thanks to the connections of his older brother Charley “The Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), Terry is able to curry favor with Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb), the mob-connected union boss who controls the docks. Friendly exploits Terry’s somewhat na├»ve and undiscerning nature for a variety of errands. But after unwittingly coaxing a popular dockworker into an ambush to render him unable to testify against Friendly, the drum of Terry’s conscience begins to echo in his ears, slowly turning out his squatting ignorance towards the events around him.

Further turning this tide of change are Terry’s encounters with Father Barry (Karl Malden) and the murdered dockworker’s sister, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), who both become embroiled in this waterfront war by their determination to bring justice to the docks. Terry’s ambivalence regarding whether or not to testify against Friendly is given an extra coating of complication as he begins to helplessly fall for Edie: If Terry decides to uncork the gritty truth, Edie will inevitably discover the role Terry played in her brother’s death, throwing any hope of a chance with her into serious jeopardy. But the even higher stakes for Terry are planted internally, as he is forced to decide whether or not he will remain a bum or have the courage to emerge a contender. 

Ultimately, On the Waterfront is about redemption and the choices people are confronted with that either directs them toward that end or further entrenches them along their already crummy paths. Save for the union boss, Johnny Friendly, every major character in On the Waterfront is essentially faced with the same dilemma of redeeming themselves from continuing to turn a blind eye to the fraud and depravity that has sprung up all around them like nauseous weeds. The level of gravity and risk attached to this dilemma varies between characters, with Terry having the most to give up and therefore the most to lose. Bud Schulberg’s script seamlessly braids these events together into one strand, supplying the film with suspense and intensity through the anticipation of what will happen as each character grapples with their set of choices. In and of themselves, none of the characters boast any special accomplishments on their life’s resumes. They aren’t important people leading high-profile lives. However, it’s the combination of these ordinary qualities placed under extraordinary pressures that makes On the Waterfront so compelling to follow. It reminds me of Michael Mann’s The Insider about a family man provoked into deciding whether he’ll risk everything by agreeing to give a whistleblowing interview to 60 Minutes on his former employer, a powerful tobacco company. At one point, in a meeting with Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, the would-be whistleblower and his wife retreat to a nearby restroom to organize the overwhelming volume of thoughts and emotions orbiting their situation. In response to their temporary departure from the meeting, Wallace callously complains, “Who are these people?” To which Bergmann replies, “Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure, Mike. What the hell do you expect? Grace and consistency?” It is par for the course that when unassuming people are forced into navigating astonishing pressures, the bulging seams threaten to burst. This sense of realism is what enforces On the Waterfront’s compelling nature; a fact resolutely driven home by the character of Terry Malloy.

Much has been made about Marlon Brando’s seminal performance as Terry, and the truth of the matter is that all of the acclaim is merited. Even today, Brando’s turn as a disappointed man faced with a shot at emancipation from his regrets still carries a contemporary quality to it. His approach in realizing Terry takes on a more naturalistic and cool method that seems to be a departure from the typically more melodramatic and stylized hallmarks of so many performances up until this point in cinema. In his review of On the Waterfront, Roger Ebert gave a nice articulation of Brando’s trailblazing methods, writing that “Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh, alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kid of heightened riff on reality.” 

In On the Waterfront, the best example of Brando mincing decades-old on-screen mannerisms is during the scene between Terry and his brother Charley. The latter is charged with knocking off the former before he can sing in court against Johnny Friendly. Unaware of Charley’s orders, Terry finds himself riding in a cab with his older brother to a secluded location where the hit can be carried out. Along the way, Terry and Charley engage in conversation about the past, which is where Brando delivers the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech. At the height of the scene, Charley pulls a gun on Terry out of desperate frustration, which elicits a subtle and gently powerful reaction: Brando softly strokes the barrel of the gun away, as his face registers a mixture of love and anguish, of heartache and remorse towards his brother in fully realizing the loss of their relationship. It’s a truly an unforgettable scene in a truly unforgettable film. And insofar as I’m concerned, On the Waterfront still wows me more than a decade after first watching it in college. 

Favorite Line: Perhaps one of the most famous lines in cinematic history is the previously mentioned speech Terry delivers in the back of the cab to his brother Charley. It’s a great line because it’s filled with so much disappointment and regret. But apart from that, Brando delivers it with such authenticity that it creates a genuinely heartbreaking moment. “You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.”