Ernest Borgnine, ever the spry 95-year-old, came through Portland last night for a brief chat to introduce a special screening of Marty. Ben Mankiewicz from Turner Classic Movies, who were the promoters for the event, hosted. Mankiewicz ably assisted Borgnine with his anecdotes. Amusingly, the actor had trouble remembering names as forgettable as Spencer Tracy and Jerry Lewis. The stories were no less awe-inspiring for the faulty memory. With a guy like Borgnine, you love him all the more for not being hung up on all that Hollywood jazz.
It was my first time seeing Marty, at least in this format. I had previously seen the TV version starring Rod Steiger, but for Delbert Mann's 1955 cinematic version, the great Paddy Chayefsky fleshed out his script to accommodate a little more breathing room, particularly for the side characters. Borgnine replaced Rod Steiger, and honestly, he's far more believable as the lonely, beaten 35-year-old who can't get a date and would rather not pursue love any longer lest he get knocked down one more time. Chayefsky's script is a flawless portrait of loneliness, depicting two isolated souls finding joy and comfort in each other's company. For as much as Borgine The Persona might fit the character physically, it's hard to see this gregarious figure as ever having felt the pain and rejection that Marty feels; yet, true or no, Borgnine the Actor gets it down to the very last detail. His portrayal of Marty is both tragic and funny, and never moreso than in the man's groan-worthy pick-up techniques. For her part as the romantic interest, Betsy Blair is heartbreaking and earthy. It would be a mistake calling her innocent. That trait has been replaced by cautiousness.
There are many elements of Chayefsky's script that serve the classic Hollywood structure--the ending of the film version, in particular, strikes one as a pat attempt to satisfy the audience, which I don't recall feeling in the television staging--but he also straddles the divide between the old ways and the oncoming liberation. Marty's friend keeps talking about heading to 72nd Street, and it's obvious that there are prostitutes there; likewise, another acquaintance refers to potential sexual conquests as "money in the bank." In much the same way, Marty vacillates between drama and comedy. At its core, however, there is no identity crisis: there is a sad realism that is unavoidable. Marty's two biggest problems in life are the contempt that inevitably follows familiarity (i.e. his friends don't want him leaving the role as their schlubby pal) and the toxicity of family (i.e. once your relatives are comfortable with you where you are, they don't want you changing either). The bleak shadow that falls over Marty is that whatever happiness the butcher and the school teacher might find together, everyone around them wants to ruin it. I am not sure whether to quote Morrissey ("We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful") or the Sisters of Mercy ("Pain looks great on other people, that's what they're for") on this one.
All in all, a good movie and a good night. May we all have Ernest Borgnine's indomitable spirit if we make it to be even half his age.
Current Soundtrack: Billie Holiday, "(In My) Solitude" [listen]; Best Coast, "Boyfriend (Lindstrom Remix - extended version); Suede, Royal Albert Hall - 24 March 2010