Saturday, April 10, 2010

Beautiful Losers of Cinema, Part 1: Marty (1955)

As we go through the process of revising HAPPY FUNERAL, I find myself looking at films that possess similar thematic threads.

One archetype I've been studying is that of the "beautiful loser," a perhaps awful shorthand for that character who is beautiful in his brokenness. We can't help but love these compelling misfits, brimming with unrealized potential. You know the type- he can't quite figure out how to navigate his way through life, or is always allowing others to run it. It's the guy who says lines like "I coulda been a contender." It's the character James Dean and Marlon Brando made careers out of playing, and in our time, Juaquin Phoenix and Johnny Depp have had their own go at it... And back in 1955, Ernest Borgnine won a Best Actor Oscar for his own doughy take of it in

Ernest Borgnine in Marty

We first see Marty (from whom the film takes its name) working in a local butcher shop. He is a 34 year old bachelor, hectored by his own customers about his single life even as they force him to detail the various nuptials of his own siblings. He's a sad, but noble figure, clearly principled with a desire to better his life and surroundings, yet without a sense of agency in his own life, especially when it comes to the question of finding his life partner. It doesn't get better when he gets off of work and meets up with his group of friends at a nearby diner. Their trivial pursuits only further remind him of his own aimlessness.

Perhaps the moment most emblematic is this exchange with Angie, Marty's best friend:

Well, what do you feel like doing tonight?

I don't know. What do you feel like doing?

Well, we're back to that, huh? I say to you, "What do you feel like doing tonight?" And you say to me, "I don't know, what do you feel like doing?" And then we wind up sitting around your house with a coupla cansa beer, watching Hit Parade on television...

This conversation reminded me of a lot of the ones I would have with friends in high school- but maybe that's the point, the "beautiful loser" is stuck in an extended adolescence.

This sense of being stuck only worsens when Marty returns home to his mother. But instead of the anxiety he and his friends were trying to distract themselves from, his loving Italian Catholic mother confronts him with it directly:

Marty, I don't want you hang arounna
house tonight. I want you to go take
a shave and go out and dance.

Ma, when are you gonna give up? You
gotta bachelor on your hands. I ain't
never gonna get married.

You gonna get married.

Sooner or later, there comes a point
in a man's life when he gotta face
some facts, and one fact I gotta
face is that whatever it is that
women like, I ain't got it. I chased
enough girls in my life. I went to
enough dances. I got hurt enough. I
don't wanna get hurt no more. I just
called a girl just now, and I got a
real brush-off, boy. I figured I was
past the point of being hurt, but
that hurt. Some stupid woman who I
didn't even wanna call up. She gave
me the brush. I don't wanna go to
the Stardust Ballroom because all
that ever happened to me there was
girls made me feel like I was a bug.
I got feelings, you know. I had enough
pain. No, thank you.


Ma, I'm gonna stay home and watch
Jackie Gleason.

You gonna die without a son.

So I'll die without a son.

Yet in spite of himself, Marty does as his mother advices and as he has done innumerable times before, and goes off to the Stardust Ballroom. There again he is rejected in typical fashion, then forced to watch his best friend Angie dancing. But fate takes a turn when a guy tries to bribe Marty and pawn off his own homely date. Upright as always, the very suggestion offends Marty. Instead he watches as the guy moves on and finds another chump to hand his unwanted girl too. But the attempted hand off goes badly, and in a long take we watch Marty as he watches the transaction go sour. The young woman is devastated and the two jerks wander off bickering about the money. The young woman walks out to the balcony and Marty follows her. It's then the two connect.

Look at this lovely stream-of-consciousness discourse that stumbles out of the mouth of Marty, as he tries to console the dejected Clara:

Now I figure, two people get married,
and they gonna live together forty, fifty years. So it's just gotta be more than whether they're good looking or not. You tell me you think you're not very good-looking. My father was a really ugly man, but my mother adored him. She told me that she used to get so miserable sometimes, like everybody, you know? And she says my father always tried to understand. I used to see them sometimes when I was a kid, sitting in the living room, talking and talking, and I used to adore my old man, because he was so kind. That's one of the most beautiful things I have in my life, the way my father and mother were. And my father was a real ugly man. So it doesn't matter if you look like a gorilla. So you see, dogs like us, we ain't such dogs as we think we are.

Marty went on to sweep the Oscars that year and was a huge sleeper hit. A huge reason for Marty's success, I'm sure, was the formidable writing of Paddy Chayefsky, whose incisive dialogue is perpetually timeless and always in the now. These days, when cineastes think of Chayefsky, they think of Network (1976), but even back in the 50's, Chayefsky rendered powerful, nuanced dialogue and was king of the monologue.

To this day, Chayefsky's influence looms large. A notable example: Love the stylized and rambling dialogue of Paul Thomas Anderson? The poeticized monologues especially on display in Magnolia? Well look no further than Chayefsky to discover Anderson's own aesthetic roots.

Chayefsky is perhaps most noted for the words that come out of his characters mouths. He stays consistent to their voice and ever faithful to the language and expressions of his time. But look at how he takes these forms and elevates them to the level of music. Look at the rhythmic patterns underneath the monologue. Marty speaks from his heart and wears it on his sleeve. This is dialogue at its most "on-the-nose." But the earnestness works because it is truthful. And a lot of "rules" fall away when we are simply truthful- as long as that verisimilitude takes on the appropriate aesthetic form of its medium.

And in the case of this particular "beautiful loser," his earnestness gives earthiness and texture to our own pain and longing. The truth that shines through in Marty is that people can be beautiful in their brokenness. And that "beauty" is what we call resilience...

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