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Studio executives in Hollywood during the mid-fifties evaluated the prospects for a big-screen rendition of Paddy Chayefsky's acclaimed teleplay Marty (1955) in very much the same way that the story's hero was sized up by the girls he'd approach at the Stardust Ballroom. That is, to be rejected as a loser after a cursory once-over. A story with no name stars, about two painfully ordinary people spending an evening talking, that America got to see for free on television a few years before? Where's the box-office in that?
From the time of its original airdate on NBC's Goodyear Television Playhouse, Marty had a champion in producer Harold Hecht, who had been Burt Lancaster's agent, and after the post-war change of the studio/star system, his production partner. Hecht had known Chayefsky since the writer's initial, unsatisfactory foray into Hollywood in the late '40s, and was certain of Marty's potential. Chayefsky, stung by his previous experiences, demanded unprecedented concessions -- exclusivity on the rewrites, full consultation on casting, the right to name original TV director Delbert Mann to the project -- and to his great surprise, got them.
When Rod Steiger balked at the seven-year services contract that came attached to the chance to reprise his broadcast role, Hecht and Chayefsky had to find themselves another Marty. They had to look no further than the set of the then-shooting Hecht/Lancaster production Vera Cruz (1954), where Ernest Borgnine was portraying another in the string of sadistic thugs to which he'd been typed.
Borgnine recalled his reading for Chayefsky and Mann to Shaun Considine in Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky (Random House): "I turned away because I had started to cry.... When I turned back to Paddy, who was playing the mother, I saw he was crying too. And out of the corner of my eye, I could see Del was also close to tears. That gave me the most wonderful feeling in my life; to think I had accomplished something that could affect people this way." Indeed, Borgnine would deliver a heartbreakingly honest performance that still stands as the best of his career.
Chayefsky expanded upon his simple story of a pleasant, portly Italian butcher from the Bronx who could be resigned to his unluckiness at love if he wasn't always constantly hectored by everyone from his smothering mother (Esther Minciotti) to his clientele to find a nice girl and settle down. His social life consists of hanging out with similarly aimless, aging bachelors, whose circular banter ("I dunno. Whatta you want to do tonight?") would go on to become a part of Americana.
During a typical Saturday night spent wallflowering at a dance hall, Borgnine looks on incredulously as a shy schoolteacher (Betsy Blair) is callously dumped by her date. After his gentle overture, the pair talk the evening away, find themselves connecting over their similarly unhappy situations, and part with Borgnine's promise to get together tomorrow. Borgnine, however, finds himself cowed by the admonitions of his mother and the jeers of his buddies, each of whom were unimpressed by the plain Blair. Faced with the prospect of an empty future, the gentle butcher is finally backed into a stand of doing what's right for him.
Amazingly enough, the plug was almost pulled on Marty midway through production, as United Artists became concerned with cost overruns on larger-budgeted, higher-profile Hecht/Lancaster productions then on the boards. Borgnine recalled that the film solely owes its existence to accounting advice: "Their tax man told them that there was a new tax law that said you have to finish the picture, show it once, and then you can shelve it. So they said, 'O.K., finish it.'"
The UA brass was sufficiently happy with the quality of the finished product to promote it as a second feature, but Chayefsky was adamant about giving Marty an art-house opening in Manhattan. The reviews were glowing and the New York receipts excellent, but the picture struggled when it opened in other cities, in part because of the film's urban setting and in part because there was no funding left for promotion.
The film's salvation came when it received the nod to become the American entry shown at that year's Cannes Film Festival. In addition to receiving the Office Catholique International Cinema award, Marty became the first U.S. film to ever take the Festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or. UA tripled its promotional budget, and the film would go on to garner the Best Picture Academy Award, as well as Oscars for Borgnine, Chayefsky and Mann.
Producer: Harold Hecht, Burt Lancaster
Director: Delbert Mann
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky
Art Direction: Ted Haworth, Walter M. Simonds
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Editing: Alan Crosland, Jr.
Music: Roy Webb, George Bassman
Principal Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Marty Pilletti), Betsy Blair (Clara Snyder), Esther Minciotti (Mrs. Pilletti), Augusta Ciolli (Aunt Catherine), Joe Mantell (Angie), Karen Steele (Virginia), Jerry Paris (Tommy).
by Jay Steinberg