The final scene of Marty (1955) opens with the title character (Ernest Borgnine) leaning against the wall of a seafood restaurant, one arm raised, loosely grasping a pole that juts out from the side of the building. He stands silently as his friends mill about in front of him, debating what they should all do next–a movie? A card game? A burlesque? Marty keeps his gaze firmly fixed on the sidewalk, an implacable, almost bored expression on his face. He has a lot to think about, after all; he’s met a girl he really likes (Betsy Blair), but he has allowed the jealousy and disapproval of his mother and his friends to poison his feelings about Clara. The unhappiness emanating from him is almost palpable. The camera moves in slowly as the conversation continues, tightening on Marty’s face as he closes his eyes, shaking his head slightly. A muscle ticks in his jaw. The conversation grinds to a halt: “What do you feel like doing?” “I don’t know, what do you feel like doing?” And in an instant, Marty explodes. Comparatively speaking, it’s a controlled explosion–no screaming, no over-the-top eye-rolling or wild gesticulation–but for a man who has spent the entire course of the film repressing his true feelings, this glorious moment of self-realization might as well be a nuclear bomb.
“What are you doing tonight? I don’t know, what are you doing tonight? The burlesque, Loew’s Paradise, miserable and lonely, miserable and lonely and stupid! What am I, crazy or something? I got something good here! What am I hangin’ around with you guys for?”
As his friends protest loudly, Marty rushes into the restaurant and heads determinedly for the payphones in the back. His pal, Angie (Joe Mantell), follows him inside, stridently asking, “What’s the matter, Marty? What’s the matter with you?” Marty, digging into his pocket for a coin, whirls around and confronts his friend.
“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!”
Marty rushes into the phone booth, sits down, and grabs the receiver in one fluid motion. Dialing the number, he turns back to Ang, who gazes at the floor, looking chastised. While he waits for the call to connect, Marty redirects the criticism he has long received on his own unmarried state to his friend:
“Hey, Ang–when are you going to get married? You oughta be ashamed of yourself. You’re thirty-three years old, your kid brothers are married. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”
As Clara picks up the line, Marty delivers a tentative “Hello?” and, with a slight smile, excuses himself and slides the booth door shut between himself and Ang. “Hello, Clara …”
In the space of two minutes, Ernest Borgnine makes your heart break a little, makes you cheer, makes you feel. It was a talent he displayed many times over the course of a seven-decade-long career, but never was he more effective than he was in playing this relatively small, entirely ordinary person. As Marty, Borgnine embodies the “Everyman” in a way few actors are capable of doing. In another actor’s hands, Marty could have been a piteous figure, rather than someone to root for; he could have been an unredeemable schlub, instead of an unexpected romantic. Instead, Borgnine brings out the very best in the role. We identify with Marty because, in many ways, most of us are Marty, seeking love and approval in spite of the obstacles placed in front of us.
But most of all, we identify with Marty because Borgnine’s portrayal is searingly honest. There is no artifice about his Marty; his emotions are always swirling, sometimes repressed almost painfully, sometimes rearing forth in a tormented gush of words. And yet he’s optimistic, kind, and somewhat charming, generally willing to accept what life has to offer with a smile. There’s so much more to this plain Bronx boy than merely what’s on the surface.
The same could be said of Borgnine himself. Though he was never what anyone would call a “pretty boy,” the actor was never pigeonholed into playing these types of unassuming characters–his roles ranged from heavies to heroes to adventurers, on both big and small screens. By all accounts, Borgnine loved his job, and it showed in the obvious care he put into his performances. Many a co-star reported over the years that Borgnine was the first one on the set each morning, and the last one to leave every evening. Now that’s dedication to your craft.
When Ernest Borgnine passed away earlier this week at the age of ninety-five, we lost yet another legendary talent from the “Golden Days” of Hollywood. More than that, we lost a genuinely kindhearted man, one who loved his fans, young and old, and who seemed at once grateful for and humbled by the opportunities he had earned over the years.
It’s always sad to lose one of the good guys. Ernie Borgnine was about as good as they come.
He will be missed.