Is it a waste of time to critique the gender politics of old films? Haven’t things changed since then? Or is it too easy to simply presume that contemporary films are always less offensive? The issues in Marty are still common today, and besides, this film does deserve credit for the ways in which it is actually quite progressive.
The regrettable fact about onscreen stories that involve a character learning to love someone regardless of what they look like is that that the ‘ugly’ person is usually a man. Beyond that, ‘ugly’ women who are significant characters, especially those who get to be in a relationship at some point, are often played by conventionally beautiful actors who should have everything going for them, looks-wise, in our culture. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to see these women as unattractive simply because other characters keep saying they are, or because they’ve been styled in a less flattering way. Meanwhile, there’s a far greater variety in how male actors are allowed to look, even those who get major roles.
Marty blatantly shows these double standards in its casting of the good-hearted but ever-overlooked Marty and Clara with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. I have no wish to say anything unkind about Borgnine’s looks (and if you do, I will cut you), but he wasn’t a matinee idol. Meanwhile, Clara is supposed to be just as ‘ugly’ in the world of this film, but this is entirely a matter of styling and not at all convincing. As the Hollywood Homely entry on TV Tropes points out, Blair had been a model and was once married to Gene Kelly, and yet in this film her character is constantly referred to as a ‘dog.’
Apart from all that (oh, and a decidedly unendearing moment when Marty throws a tantrum because Clara doesn’t let him kiss her), Marty has some interesting things to say about women. It strongly advocates that they should live their lives for themselves, not just for their family. It does this by showing the sad circumstances of two elderly women who devoted themselves to husbands they outlived and to children who are now too old to need their mothers as much as their mothers need them. This film recognises that being a devoted wife and mother is not necessarily rewarding.
Clara may want a loving husband, but she also has a job that means something to her. Even if things don’t work out with Marty, he’s encouraged her to do what she wants with her life, not what she’s supposed to. A few years earlier, Margo Channing in All About Eve famously expressed the prevailing beliefs of the time when she spoke about a woman’s true career being marriage. It’s notable that Marty suggests something different.
Lastly, here’s a few reasons to watch Marty. It may be sentimental, but writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also penned Network and The Hospital gives it an edge. Borgnine puts in a lovely performance. And the best thing about Marty is surprising, given that it’s adapted from a play: it has a great sense of place. With many scenes filmed on the streets of New York, or on real-seeming sets, this film feels like it’s happening in a community. You get shown what these people do with their weekends, how they get around, and the places they go if they want to find each other. Marty is an interesting look back at life in New York in the fifties, and although it’s dialogue heavy, it certainly doesn’t feel stagebound.