Directed by Delbert Mann
The United States of America
Whenever I have conversations with friends about my favorite movies of all time, I find myself fumbling over my selections. It used to be so much easier back before I became a serious film buff. Now, the list seems to change every week. But despite all of my revisions, there is one film that always ranks among my favorites. That film is Delbert Mann’s Marty. The film starred Ernest Borgnine as Marty Piletti, a depressed and lonely thirtysomething butcher from the Bronx. It always seems to catch people off-guard when I mention Marty alongside more famous classics like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). When pressed for an explanation, I usually chuckle and say, “Well, that film saved my life.” At that point, I usually manage to divert people’s curiosity by changing the subject. Most people assume that I’m joking. But the truth of the matter is that I am dead serious. Marty saved my life. In light of Borgnine’s death, I feel like sharing my story for the first time. This won’t be like my traditional Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear reviews. This article is about my personal relationship with a film that too many people have forgotten.
I have struggled with depression my entire life. The earliest I can remember feeling clinically depressed was around twelve years old. For four years I fought against a mental illness without the help of psychiatry or medication. The entire time I suspected that I was depressed, but nobody really believed me. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. The truth was as a child I had a tendency to be a drama queen. I overreacted to simple situations, threw tantrums over trivial problems, and generally made a nuisance of myself. So you can understand how people would be suspicious of claims that I might be depressed.
It wasn’t until I had my first panic attack that my parents took me to a doctor to get tested for clinical depression. For the next three years I bounced from one medical prescription and therapist to another with various degrees of success. The lowest point of this era was when I was hospitalized in a clinic for mentally disturbed teenagers after a suicide attempt. But then I graduated from high school and moved on to college. Things began to get better as I made new friends, but I was barely there for a few months before I had to be hospitalized a second time for trying to hurt myself. During this incident I had a mental breakdown so severe that I disturbed my dorm-mates. This resulted in my expulsion from the dorm. For the rest of the year I lived at home. Because I didn’t have a driver’s license, I had to be driven by my parents to and from my classes every day, a roundtrip that took two hours.
It was around this time that I started getting into movies in a serious way. A college film club’s screening of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) sand-blasted my mind so severely that afterwards I knew that I had to make films. I started to watch as many films as I could. Sometimes I would watch 5-7 films a day. Of particular interest to me were the films that had won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I made a goal to watch as many Best Picture winners as I could. Eventually, I came to Marty, the 1955 recipient.
I immediately identified with Marty. He was working a dead end job, was over-weight, desperately wanted someone to love, but could never catch a break. There was a scene where Marty calls a friend that absolutely broke my heart. In one long, unbroken take, the camera slowly zoomed in on Borgnine’s face as he realized that the person on the other end of the phone wanted nothing to do with him. I’ve always found one-sided telephone conversations corny. But watch Borgnine’s face. Watch the disappointment. Watch his sad acceptance of a fate that, to him, seems inevitable. I’m not so sure if he was acting.
By the time Borgnine starred in Marty, he had already been in Hollywood for four years. During that time he had made a reputation as a mean tough-guy in such films as From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). But Borgnine’s onscreen persona couldn’t be further than reality. A warm, likable fellow, he was the gap-toothed son of Italian immigrants and grew up during the Great Depression. He served 10 years in the United States Navy where he served in the Pacific Theater on-board the USS Lamberton. He only took up acting because his mother suggested it, reportedly saying, “You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself, why don't you give it a try?”
And yet, this cheerful man was type-casted as a brute, as a thug, as a murderer. He was 38 years old when he starred in Marty. At that point, I wonder if Borgnine considered his career set in stone. That sad resignation permeates the film. And yet, Marty is always cheerful. He meets a lonely school-teacher who manages to see beyond his exterior. They quickly fall in love. However, everyone in Marty’s life, from his friends to his family, tries to talk him out of the relationship. Eventually, the bullying was too much and he stood her up.
In the film’s final moments, Marty sits at a bar in silence while his male “friends” lounge around, complaining about how there’s nothing to do. And then, something amazing happens. He yells a line that changed my life:
"You don't like her. My mother don't like her. She's a dog and I'm a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees and I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad!”
And the film ends with Marty calling the schoolteacher.
I won’t claim that my life has been perfect since I first watched Marty. I’ve had many, many ups and downs. But I honestly believe that without Marty I wouldn’t be here today. That film did more to help me fight depression than any medication, therapy, or doctor ever has. It reinvigorated my life. Suddenly, suicide seemed insane. There was a schoolteacher out there for me, too. All I had to do was find her.
And I will find her.
And it’s all thanks to Marty and the eternal Ernest Borgnine.
Rest in Peace.