Wouldn’t have thought that Ernest Borgnine, the odious peripheral villain of Bad Day at Black Rock and From Here to Eternity, would land a role like this: a slightly-schlubby, earnest, lonely thirtysomething who goes out to a dance hall one night, at his mother’s behest, and meets a woman played by Betsy Blair. Her name’s Clara. Clara’s a teacher, just as lonely, and the two hit it off. Marty’s nervous energy makes him a chatterbox and she just sits there quietly for the most part, listening, seeming to only voice a personal opinion when she’s sitting with Marty and his mother and she says that she doesn’t think a grown man should live with his mother. She’s reviled by Marty’s mother from that point forward.
So it’s easy to gripe about whether Clara’s a very fleshed-out character next to Marty.
Then again, the movie’s called Marty.
Another gripe I’ve got is that I watched this just a few hours after watching The Man with the Golden Arm, in which Sinatra plays a heroin addict who’s all over the place with his sobriety, relapse, withdrawal and so on – Sinatra gives a harrowing performance in a harrowing movie and, deservedly, got nominated for Best Actor at the 1956 Academy Awards. The award would’ve made for a nice complement to his Best Supporting Actor trophy he earned after From Here to Eternity a couple years earlier.
But he lost that trophy to Borgnine and, as I said, it came as a disappointment at first cuz I was thinking, Look at Sinatra, he’s all over the place, totally exhausting himself with the role. Then you look slightly to your left and there’s Borgnine just kinda sitting around, standing around. Doesn’t appear to be exerting himself all that much. Nothing so impressive about the performance at a glance.
But the Academy was right in this case. I was wrong. I’ve gotta shake this habit of looking at the actor who’s doing the most stuff and just figuring that they’re the most talented person on screen, or compared to their rivals in more tranquil movies.
I’ve made it clear at this point that I’m a bachelor coming up fast on thirty and that I work in an office where over the past few years I’ve gotten chummy with a few other bachelors, all of them older than me, and while there’s an argument to be made here that the movie wants you to pity Marty rather than just understand him, appreciate him, I do think that what makes the role such an achievement is how real Marty feels. He doesn’t seem exactly like one of the thirty- or forty-something bachelors I work with, who, even when they talk a big game about how much they enjoy their solitude, do voice a desire for romantic company, he does seem as real as them.
We’ve got a love story here that begins with a guy at work, at a butcher shop, and he’s getting reamed by one of the old ladies in the neighborhood who’s telling him he oughta be ashamed of himself for not being married yet. So we know right away that this is probably gonna be a romance. But then the story movies on and we find Marty at a bar where, sitting with friends, the topic of dating comes up again. The loneliness of not having a date. The travails of trying to find one. Then he goes home and calls a girl up and, hearing only his side of the conversation and watching his heroic mustering of courage and then the slow sinking of his face, we get a sense of the travails inherent to finding love. Then he gets into a fight with his mom about how he’s ugly and has no winning attributes and he’s doing the whole nihilistic thing we sometimes do when we’ve been single for a long time, railing on and on about how we’ll be alone forever, yadda yadda.
And somehow none of this feels like it’s leading us toward a love story.
I’ve never seen any clips or stills from Marty, knew nothing about it save the two- or three-sentence summary on Amazon, but I knew it was a story about misfits falling in love. All through these opening scenes I could see and appreciate how the director was setting us up for a heartwarming love story. We could see how he’s in a kind of low place and that it’s a fit runway for taking off into a character arc.
But each scene just feels like we’re spending a little time with this guy at the different pit stops of his routine. And I’m making note, too, of what somebody once told me about how it’s harder to be convincing in a subtle role than convincing in a boisterous one. It’s easy for Leonardo DiCaprio to bite the head off of a fish in The Revenant and make you believe that he’s distressed by it. Harder for somebody to bite the head off a popsicle stick and convince you that they’re actually tasting a raw fish head.
As I get deeper into these writing projects, whether it’s a novel or blog posts or book reviews, I feel like I’m kinda building barricades in a way that isn’t necessarily bad. I could gripe about how I’m closing myself off from being social, but I think I talk plenty at work and via social media; and anyway, I feel like this is the sort of thing I wanna be doing for the rest of my life, just consumed by reading and writing assignments. The work almost becomes a companion when it’s going well. Weird as that sounds. I’m also seeing somebody on a regular basis, though. Kind of a friend with benefits. Maybe without her I’d feel way needier and lonelier.
The part of my life where I do feel kinda lonely, I guess, is with the writing. I get down about this once in a while without anybody having to steer me toward it, but the other night my roommate asked me what’s the worst part of writing. I had to think about it for a minute – which was a weird indulgence because I never feel like anybody’s sincere about these questions, they’re just being polite and it’s best to dispense with the inquiry quickly and with as little thought as possible so that you don’t get caught up in a spiral of your own self-interest – but the conclusion I came to is that the worst part of writing is probably the silence. Not the silence in which I do the work, the proverbial “clean well-lighted place”, but the silence with which the work is met. You invest so much time and hope and self into these writing projects and you put them out in the world to one degree to another, whether that means sharing it with friends or sending it to agents or putting it up on a blog, and nobody reads it.
And it’s not their fault, of course. They’re distracted by a million different things, more than ever, most people don’t have much time for leisure reading. The little time they can spare for it is probably going toward more tried-and-true outlets.
And maybe it’s not even your fault, as the writer. Could be that you’re doing your best and generating good pages but you’re writing something that’s too niche. I imagine that somewhere on the planet there’s a borderline Shakespearean science writer who scribbles dense texts about astrophysics or somesuch. So she’s got no readership except for the people in her own field – who might not be equipped with the eye or temperament to appreciate what she’s doing with the language.
Keeping these things in mind, I’m able to not get down on myself too hard. For the most part. But there are times where, after such a stretch of getting zero attention at all, I start to wonder if I’m not very good at this. There’s solace to be had in knowing that there are blogs with way larger readerships than mine where virtually all of the writing on display is terrible. Or mediocre. And that’s fine to because it means the writer is striking some other chord with her readership.
The friend with benefits I mentioned earlier, the woman who hangs out so often and with whom I’ve been rolling around so long I’m basically lying to myself when I say she’s not my girlfriend: she was actually sleeping next to me while I watched Marty on a Sunday morning recently. She wakes up for forty seconds here and there in the mornings when I’m moving around. She’ll smile, squinting, make a remark and then close her eyes and she’s available for light conversation until falling asleep again. So she’s asleep, but she’s present.
I definitely wasn’t feeling lonely while I watched this.
But I did kinda feel lonely. It was the kinship I felt with Marty himself. When he explodes at the dinner table at his mom’s insistence that he go out and try to meet a girl, we realize that his low-key frustration about dating is actually an ever-boiling issue just beneath the surface. A little bit of prodding can make him erupt.
And I’m kinda like that on the topic of writing and publishing and forging a readership outta nothing. I’m motivated and excited by the journey of getting it done, constantly thinking of new ways to engage the reader rather than expecting her to just be interested in what I’m doing, and it’s cool. I really do enjoy it.
But I think that, like Marty, there’s a need and frustration and loneliness just under the surface. Waiting to burst into a rant at the slightest provocation.