In 1953, a teleplay about a Bronx butcher’s search for love was broadcast over the American airwaves, featuring Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront) in the leading role. Commencing as an episode of The Goodyear Television Playhouse, the thoughtful story struck a chord with watching audiences, with a film adaptation soon to come. Alas, its key performer refused to follow the production to the big screen, causing another actor to step into the part. From the moment Ernest Borgnine inhabited the titular character in Delbert Mann’s Marty, film history was made, with the feature turning him into a star.
Borgnine had entered show business less than a decade prior, on the advice of his mother. Lacking direction after returning from naval service in the Second World War, she encouraged him to make something of his talent for making a fool of himself, sparking a stint in theatre. 1953’s From Here to Eternity provided his big screen break, with a succession of bit parts in Vera Cruz and Bad Day at Black Rock following. However, it was Steiger’s decision that delivered Borgnine the opportunity of a lifetime, thrusting him into popular and critical consciousness.
As the lonely 34 year-old looking for companionship, Borgnine invested Marty with honesty and earnestness beyond his heavy-set, homely exterior. With sadness simmering behind his stoic expression in the film’s early scenes, he ensured the isolation of the seemingly jovial gentlemen was apparent as he seeks an end to his shameful solitude. Constant questions about his single status – from his customers, friends and particularly his mother (Esther Minciotti, The Wrong Man) – appear to bounce off his optimistic surface, yet the pain they cause can be seen in quieter moments. From these opening encounters, Borgnine’s ability to balance the conflicting emotions of hopefulness and heartache set the scene for the sublime performance to follow.
After declaring himself done with the dating game and the continual, crushing rejection that it brings, hard-working Marty relents to his mother’s protestations, heading out for another night on the town. With his best pal Angie (Joe Mantell, Storm Center), he ventures to the Stardust Ballroom, spending the majority of the evening standing miserably on the sidelines. Then, a sleazy, swift-talking stranger offers him money to take a blind date off his hands. Refusing due to his own honourable notions of propriety and politeness, he is instead compelled to see what becomes of the poor spurned girl at the centre of the proposal.
At first, he becomes a sturdy, stocky shoulder for humiliated Clara (Betsy Blair, Meeting in Paris) to cry on, before an awkward conversation strikes up between the pair. As the burly butcher spends more time in the slight, timid chemistry teacher’s company, he warms to her presence, with his feelings reciprocated. Ambitions and affinities are shared as they move to a diner, his home and then embark on a midnight stroll, with their impromptu altercation continuing into the early hours of the morning. A repeat engagement is planned for the very next day, with both brimming with enthusiasm.
Sadly, through fear and envy and just a hint of malice, Marty’s family and friends are unable and unwilling to share in his happiness. After witnessing her sister (Augusta Ciolli, Love with the Proper Stranger) abandoned by her son Tommy (Jerry Paris, The Caine Mutiny) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele, Man Crazy) that very day, Marty’s hostile mother is certain this new romance will bring about similar circumstances. His judgemental friends, too, speak crudely of Clara’s lack of aesthetic appeal, attempting to convince him to remain a responsibility-free bachelor for the rest of his time. Although initially swayed by their opinions, gentle, good-natured Marty finally decides to put himself first, pursuing Clara and a new life.
The success that followed the film was far from expected, despite the strength of the televisual source material. In bringing a story stemming from the experiences of director Mann (The Bachelor Party) and writer Paddy Chayefsky (The Goddess) to cinemas, records were set, as acclaim was showered upon the feature. It became the first film based on a television program to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and the first American offering to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in its own right. Further, Mann was crowned the first director to win the Oscar for his first helming effort, adding to the feature’s plethora of accolades.
However, as has been espoused this week after his passing at the age of 95, Marty will always be remembered for Borgnine’s affecting involvement. Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle awards for his efforts demonstrated the spectacular impact of his subtle simplicity in the slice of life drama, in a bittersweet yet beautiful portrayal. As the uncertain, unassuming protagonist plagued by self-consciousness as a self-proclaimed “fat, ugly man”, he is at all times delicately disarming. Warmth radiates from his winsome portrayal, as he perfects the all too rare role of the considerate everyman.
In the more than half a decade that followed his award-winning turn, Borgnine’s stature grew on both the big and small screens. Film roles in The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Poseidon Adventure and Escape from New York were complimented by countless TV appearances, including the lead in sitcom McHale’s Navy. In his later years, fellow television offerings Airwolf, The Single Guy and ER adorned his resume, as did voice work on animated series SpongeBob SquarePants. Yet, in the restraint and resonance it illustrated from a man not often recognised for either trait since, the smart, slightly sentimental Marty remains his career highlight.