There are many large Best Picture winners, and when watching the Best Picture winners I saw the burning of Atlanta, the sinking of the Titanic, the rise of Communism in China and the Holocaust. It was with great relief that I found the smallest of the Best Picture winners to be a delight to watch.
Everything about the film is small. It is the shortest winner to date, it is set largely over a couple of hours during one evening, the characters are plain and the setting is remarkably ordinary. It is for these reasons that the film works.
Ernest Borgnine plays Marty, a single, plain-looking everyday butcher in New York, whose family are eager for him to meet someone. At a dance one night he meets Clara, played by Betsy Blair, a shy and dowdy schoolteacher. They form a connection and show that the path towards love is not as glamorous as Hollywood would have you believe.
As this film is so unglamorous, it relies entirely on the strength of the script and acting to hold the attention of the audience for the duration. Borgnine is a great talent. Two years previously he made a memorable part out of Fatso in ‘From Here to Eternity’, a part which was essentially the villain of the film. In ‘Marty’ he plays a thoroughly likable ordinary man in a totally understated manner. There are no long monologues for him to deliver, no melodramatic moments: just a totally balanced and believable performance.
Like no other film of its era that I have seen this film offers a snap shot into the lives of other people. There is no grand acting from Borgnine or the supporting characters, and it is almost as if, through the help of the script and clever direction, that we are watching the characters closely without being noticed, not for decades, but for one night. Everything that we need to know about the two strangers we find out when they do, and this gives the film an intimacy that very few films are able to achieve. When they first meet, she is nervous and barely talks, and whilst he chatters awkwardly, it is impossible to not want them to end up together. Everytime they smile at each other or they find something in common the viewer is genuinely happy for these characters, and I think that is because of the film’s intimate nature that it makes Borgnine and Blair seem less like actors and more like real people.
Today ‘Marty’ is not one of the most well known Best Pictures, and admittedly it does lack the punch of some of the grander epics of the day. However, for those wanting to see an example of 1950s realism and watch the early days of a relationship between two likable, but ordinary people then this is a delightful and charming little film which never strays into oversentimentality.