Friday, February 14, 2020

"Marty" and the Precision of Dialogue

Ernest Borgnine as Marty.
Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely 34-year-old butcher who lives with his mother in The Bronx. He has made sacrifices for others, especially his family, at the expense of his own happiness. He has all but given up hope of finding a meaningful relationship with a woman. As he tells his mother, he is tired of being hurt.

Marty's life takes a turn for the better when he meets Clara (Betsy Blair) at the Stardust Ballroom. Clara, a quiet school teacher, has been jilted by her date because she's a "dog." Marty asks her to dance and the two wind up spending the night together. They confide the most intimate secrets to one another. At one point, Marty is so excited at talking with Clara that he literally can't stop.

The next morning, Marty is giddy with the seeds of love. However, his mother and best friend both express reservations about Clara, implying that she's not good enough for Marty. When it comes time to call her, he isn't sure what to do.

Made in 1955, Marty is one of those personal dramas that Hollywood used to excel at making before space adventures and superheroes dominated the boxoffice. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, one of the great television dramatists of the 1950s, expanded his own 1953 teleplay. In the book The Craft of the Screenwriter, Chayefsky explained the secret to his naturalistic dialogue: "My dialogue is precise. And it’s true. I think out the truth of what the people are saying and why they’re saying it. Dialogue comes because I know what I want my characters to say."

Marty and Clara.
A great example is a lengthy scene in which Marty starts talking about everything and anything as he and Clara exit the ballroom. Realizing he has been dominating the conversation, he tries to stop only to continue again. It's not just what Marty says, but the way he says it and how Borgnine delivers it that make the scene ring true.

Marty provides Ernest Borgnine with the role of a lifetime and he deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar. He had already established himself with strong supporting performances in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Still, it's safe to say that Marty elevated Borgnine to bigger parts (co-lead in 1956's Jubal) and paved the way for an enduring career.

Betsy Blair and Gene Kelly.
Sadly, his co-star Betsy Blair did not fare as well. Actually, Blair almost wasn't cast as Clara due to her left-wing political views. She lobbied hard to co-star in Marty, but gained little ground until her then-husband Gene Kelly got involved. In her autobiography The Memory of All That, she recounts a conversation in which Kelly told MGM executive Dory Schary that he wouldn't make It's Always Fair Weather if Schary didn't help Blair. She wrote: "(Schary) called the American Legion in Washington right there and then, in front of Gene, and he vouched for me. And so I was in Marty."

Although nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Blair lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. That's a shame for Blair is every bit as good as Borgnine. Her post-Marty career is pretty much forgettable, although there were a few bright spots. Interestingly, both she and Borgnine appeared in variations of Othello:  Blair was in the contemporary jazz drama All Night Long with Patrick McGoohan and Borgnine co-starred in the aforementioned Western Jubal with Glenn Ford.

In addition Borgnine's Oscar, Marty won for Best Picture, Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Best Screenplay (Chayefsky). Rod Steiger originated the role of Marty Piletti in Chayefsky's live TV drama with Nancy Marchand as Clara.


  1. I recently watched Marty for the first time in years. I recalled the painful emotions and tended to avoid it. I was so glad I watched it as the craft and the honesty made me appreciate it anew.

  2. I love the film Marty and good dramas about people (recently discovered Rod Serling's Patterns). And I say that as someone who's a big fan of space adventures and superheroes. I wish the entertainment industry would realize there's room and interest for all kinds of stories. Somehow I can never seem to care as deeply about the characters in modern dramas the way I do in films like Marty.

  3. You're spot on about the dialogue in this film. The script is so well written – nothing is wasted. Marty is almost a perfect movie.