Marty (Ernest Borgnine) listens as his mother asks - AGAIN - when he's getting married. Image: bbc.co.ukEsther Minciotti asks Ernest Borgnine – AGAIN – when he’s getting married. Image: bbc.co.uk

We know what cynics say about the 1955 drama, Marty – and we don’t care.

Marty is a movie about an ordinary man, a butcher, who is unable to find love. If that weren’t bad enough, he’s continually scolded for his unmarried state by those in his Italian-American community.

But one night he meets a plain, unglamorous schoolteacher (Betsy Blair), with whom he begins an unsteady romance, despite – get this! – protests from those same family and friends.

Cynics would say Borgnine’s and Blair’s characters are drawn to each other out of sheer desperation and, once the excitement dies down the relationship will, too. That may be true but who cares? This is a movie, darnit, and we want a happy movie ending because this unremarkable butcher is touchingly portrayed by Ernest Borgnine.

Borgnine, born Ermes Effron Borgnino in 1917, spent 10 years in the navy before becoming an actor. He played a variety of characters during his 60-year career, including soldiers, cowboys and, famously, Commander Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy. But Marty remains our favourite Borgnine performance.

Marty is a tender, thoughtful movie that tears at the most vulnerable part of our psyche – the fear of rejection and abandonment, the fear that we’ll never be loved for who we are. Marty is the embodiment of this. As a result, we become very protective of Marty, and are thankful that Ernest Borgnine gives us such an honest portrayal.

Borgnine wins us over in the first minutes of the film. Here he is, at the butcher shop, cutting and wrapping meat for Italian women who want to know why he isn’t married. “What’s the matter with you?” they ask. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”

Borgnine remains pleasant and helpful, but we can see that these words are barbed. Yet, he doesn’t bark at these women; no, he is calm and patient, and we marvel at his self-control.

In one scene, we see Marty at home with his mother (Esther Minciotti), a tiny woman with a disposition as flexible as cement. She nags her son and continually bosses him around, but he takes it all in stride. Borgnine shows us a man who has lived like this for years and has resigned himself to it.

He’s also a man trying to make peace with his fate. “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother. When she presses him a bit too much, he explodes: “I’m just a fat little man. Just a fat, ugly man. I’m ugly. I’m ugly!” Then, calming down, he pats his mother’s hand and assures her everything will be okay. (Honestly, we can hardly think of this scene without a little lump in our throat.)

In another scene, Borgnine phones a girl for a date. Borgnine is nervous, and becomes increasingly so as the girl rebuffs him. The camera moves in slowly towards Borgnine as he stutters and grasps the telephone receiver. The camera chokes off his world, isolates him, intensifies his anguish. Welcome to Marty-Land.

The movie shifts when Borgnine reluctantly goes to a dance hall, and bumps into a man anxious to fob off his date on someone else. Borgnine is repulsed by this callous proposal, but he watches as the man gives his date (Blair) the brush-off. Blair runs from the room, and a sympathetic Borgnine follows her to ask if she’d like to dance. Blair, sobbing, collapses against the stunned Borgnine as he awkwardly comforts her. With this kind gesture, he gives hope to Blair – and to us.

Borgnine won an Oscar for his portrayal of the unpolished but warm-hearted Marty. His unfeigned performance makes us believe we can overcome any obstacle.

Surely even the most cynical would agree.

Marty: starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti. Directed by Delbert Mann. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1955, 93 mins.

This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.

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Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

50 Comment on “We [heart] Ernest Borgnine

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