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The loss of Ernest Borgnine this week is particularly shocking. Not just because it was so soon after the death of Andy Griffith, another actor who thrived on both big and small screens, but because it seemed like he would live forever. Borgnine was 95 at the time of his death Sunday and was still working. From From Here To Eternity in 1953 to his Emmy-nominated part on ER in 2009, Borgnine gave every role his all.
Although his role as Sgt. “Fatso” Judson in From Here To Eternity helped establish the gap-tooth, square-faced Borgnine as a bad guy in many films, his most remembered role could not be far from that image. In Delbert Mann and Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, Borgnine starred as the title character, an unmarried 34-year-old Bronx butcher. His unforgettable performance earned him his only Best Actor Oscar and propelled the film to a Best Picture win.
Marty started as a teleplay by Chayefsky, one of the greatest American screenwriters, and was directed by Mann. The 50-minute show starred a pre-On The Waterfront Rod Steiger in the title role, giving a touching performance of this fat man who struggled to get out of his shell to find a girl. Borgnine brought something different to the role during its transition to the big screen. While Steiger would have done well in the role for sure, Brognine guaranteed that the film version wouldn't be just a 90-minute adaptation of the play.
The story centers on Marty Piletti, who has never been able to find a girl that likes him. He gets pressure from his friends and his mother to try to find someone to live with, someone to love. For Marty, though, life without anyone to love is OK. He retains a positive outlook on life, even if he ends up spending the entire night at home, caring for his mother. However, his mother convinces him to go to a dance, where he meets another ugly duckling, Clara (Betsy Blair), who was abandoned by her date. The two appear to hit it off immediately, which makes Marty nervous. He has never had this kind of relationship with anyone.
Unfortunately, Marty's mother, warned by his aunt, suddenly realizes the danger of living alone and tries to botch his relationship with Clara. Then his friends try to keep him from calling her back. Seeing Borgnine as Marty deal with these pressures and finally make the ultimate decision is the tipping point of the film. It is at that final moment, just as the film ends, that makes this a great film.
Marty is a great film because of the end. It is a film that knows where it needs to end. As one of the shortest films to ever win Best Picture, Marty makes you realize that good stories do not need long, drawn-out endings that add nothing. The story of Marty is how that “fat, ugly man” finally decides to move on with his life and how he reaches that decision, not what happens after it.
Compared to other films of the mid-'50s, Marty is a small film. It's in black & white when color was fast becoming the norm. It's in the square, Academy ratio when CinemaScope and VistaVision were everywhere. In the middle of the film, there is a long sequence of two people just talking. Marty is the ultimate proof that words and emotions can be as powerful as images, even in an overly visual medium such as film.
If you haven't had a chance to enjoy Marty before, TCM will be airing the film on July 26 at 9pm during its 24-hour salute to Borgnine. Do not miss it.