Tag: Betsy Blair

Marty (1955)

Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine are two shy people out on a date in Marty

Director: Delbert Mann

Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Marty Piletti), Betsy Blair (Clara), Esther Minciotti (Mrs Piletti), Augusta Ciolli (Aunt Catherine), Joe Mantell (Angie), Karen Steele (Virginia), Jerry Paris (Tommy)

Strange to think today, but until Parasite, only one other film had won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Picture. That film was Marty and if that fact seems odd today when you watch the film, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary a film about a regular guy with an average job and boring life was back then. Films were about larger than life guys doing big manly things. They weren’t about butchers who lived with their mamas and can’t get girls.

Our butcher is Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) and one night he meets Clara (Betsy Blair), an equally shy chemistry school teacher. They spend the whole night talking, and Marty excitedly plans to call her the next day. Problem is, a brief meeting with his mother (Esther Minciotti) is a disaster – not least because she’s worried Clara could mean her being thrown out of Marty’s home like her sister (Augusta Ciolli) has been – and Marty’s best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) doesn’t think Clara is much to write home about. Under these peer pressures will Marty make that call or not?

That plot summary by the way effectively covers 95% of the film. Today Marty seems so lightweight and slight it’s almost a puff of air. The film was adapted from a one hour TV play, and beat a host of Broadway adaptations (Picnic, The Rose Tattoo and Mister Roberts) to the big one. Today of course a TV play would never be adapted into a movie (in fact if anything Paddy Chayefsky’s play would probably be expanded into a ten episode Netflix drama), but in 1950s America a TV play would have been screened once and then disappeared forever. What better for Hollywood but to assume the one-off delights of TV could be as mined as easily as the best work on Broadway?

So Marty was made and won and it’s a decent, reasonably charming movie even though it’s really hard to see what the fuss is about now. The main delights lie in the script by Paddy Chayefsky, one of the greatest screenplay writers of American film history here winning the first of his three Oscars. The script is simple, well observed, full of cracking little lines, creates some marvellously rounded characters and is careful not to overbalance the overall low-key effect of the film. 

Chayefsky has teed the whole film up so well that most of those involved simply run with the great material they have been given. None of the actors – or Delbert Mann, who received a generous Best Director Oscar – ever hit these heights again. But then that’s about right for a film that is all about the triumph of the little guy (or at least the little guy getting a small day in the sun). Mann marshals the actors (some of whom were in the original TV production) to good effect and basically doesn’t get in the way of the script.

The story itself covers just two days in the life of Marty, but it’s still a gift of a part for Ernest Borgnine, who won an Oscar (surely to the chagrin of Rod Steiger who played the role on TV). The role subtly subverts Borgnine’s persona – Marty has the build for muscular action that matches the series of smarmy, working-class heavies Borgnine had played up to this point (characters much like some of his friends in the drama) but he moves with the nerves of a timid man. Borgnine is as gentle and careful as the picture itself, a shy man who has given up on good things happening to him but comes alive when he meets someone who sees him for who he is rather than what he is not.

That first long date – it takes up well over half the film’s runtime – sees him slowly go through stages from nerves, to stumbled confessions to an excited jabbering as he is so excited to be with Clara he keeps failing (accidentally) to let her speak so keen is he to share everything with her, through to a protective regard and a euphoric celebration. The only slight dated misstep is Marty’s reaction when denied a kiss – which he goes for with the entitlement of a Mad Men era male – but it’s swiftly course corrected in the film as another sign of Marty’s clumsy lack of knowledge of how relationships work. Throughout all this Borgnine is charming, heartfelt, tender and sweet and deserving of recognition for the role.

Opposite him for most of the film is Betsy Blair, who won the role after vigorous campaigning from her and her husband Gene Kelly (who announced he would refuse to do his next film if she was not cast). Mousy, timid and shy but looking for warmth and affection in life, Clara is just like Marty: a woman who isn’t sure what the next step in her life is but is certain that she doesn’t want to spend it growing old alone. It’s another heartfelt performance. The cast is rounded out by the sort of solid minor supporting players who don’t usually stand out, with Joe Mantell getting an Oscar nomination repeating his role as brash best friend Angie from TV. Stand out though is Esther Minciotti (also repeating her role) as Marty’s loving but domineering mother.

It all comes together into something very small, sweet and low-key and if it’s strange to see what the fuss is all about, it’s probably because there have been so many more movies made about ordinary people since then that this first trend setter now looks like nothing too special. But with a marvellous script and some wonderful performances from actors who never got an opportunity like this again, it’s truly a magic moment for all concerned, a once in a life-time film before most of them returned to jobbing roles once more.

The Snake Pit (1948)

Olivia de Havilland struggles with her sanity in the engaging The Snake Pit

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Virginia Stuart Cunningham), Mark Stevens (Robert Cunningham), Leo Genn (Dr Mark van Kensdelaerik “Dr. Kik”), Celeste Holm (Grace), Glenn Langan (Dr Terry), Helen Craig (Nurse Davis), Leif Erickson (Gordon), Beulah Bondi (Mrs Greer), Lee Patrick (Asylum inmate), Betsy Blair (Hester), Howard Freeman (Dr Curtis)

Virginia Stuart Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) wakes up on a park bench with no idea where she is – and only the vaguest idea of who she is – and reckons she could be anywhere from a zoo to a prison. She’s actually in an asylum – or Juniper Hill State Hospital – and has been for some time, struggling with a schizophrenia and anxiety-related condition and with no idea of when – or if – she will ever leave. She is treated by the kindly, professorial “Dr Kik” (Leo Genn) and generally fails to recognise her husband Robert (Mark Stevens).

The Snake Pit is a very earnest but dramatically engaging and even quite moving story of one woman’s struggle to try and preserve her mental health, despite being stuck in a system that is a complete lottery with some patients lucky enough to be cared for and others dumped and forgotten. Litvak’s film is a passionate expose on the conditions that lack of funding and public interest had allowed to prosper in mental institutions in America, with parts of the facility little better than a Dickensian work-house, others like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It was a passion project for Anatole Litvak, who bought the rights to the book personally and pushed the studio to fund the creation of the film.

The story is centred around Virginia’s experiences of the asylum as she moves from ward to ward – low numbered wards being reserved for those considered likely to leave, with the ward number increasing as the prospect of the patient ever getting out of the asylum (or ever getting any focus from the doctors) decreasing. The staff are harassed, overworked, underpaid and frequently struggle with being heavily outnumbered by the patients, having only a few minutes a day for each one. They are also a mixed bag – there seems to be very little in the way of training – with some dedicated and caring, others seeing the patients as at best irritants and at worst little more than objects. Virginia’s real problems start when she gets on the wrong side of Ward 1 nurse Davis (Helen Craig), an officious, domineering bully who treats her patients like pupils in a finishing school and punishes ruthlessly any deviation from her rules.

Litvak’s film exposes the conditions here, but apart from the odd individual largely avoids attacks on the staff. Instead it seems to be the general air of indifference and disregard that society has for those who end up in these places that seems to be taking the brunt of the blame. Litvak’s direction is impeccable as he uses a combination of interesting angles, sympathetic close-ups and clever transitions and fades (which serve as a neat contrast for Virginia’s own struggles to understand where and when she is). In one particular tour-de-force moment, Litvak’s camera pulls up-and-away from Virginia in the middle of the hellish Ward 33 (the Snake Pit of the title), pulling away to make the ward indeed appear it is at the bottom of a pit with the patients a mass of figures within. 

Litvak’s film also benefits hugely from the simply superb performance by Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland brings the role such commitment and such emotional performance, that she is largely to thank for making the story (and not just the setting) as engrossing as it is. De Havilland is gentle, vulnerable, scared but mixes it with touches of determination and also carries with her a sensitivity that makes her as much a caring and gentle figure as it does a victim. She appears in almost every scene and dominates the film, handling the moments of quiet panic as well as she does the moments of immense distress. Her increasingly sorry state as she progresses down through the wards is heart-rendering, and her confusion and fear makes her someone we care for deeply, even while her concern and care for her fellow inmates – particularly a violent patient, played by Betsy Blair, who she takes under her wing and helps recover some of her equilibrium – makes her admirable and less of a victim.

Though lord knows she suffers enough, from claustrophobic locked-in baths (her screaming fit as she fears drowning being all-but-ignored by her dismissive nurses who have heard it all before) to being strapped into a straitjacket for god knows how long (after being provoked into an angry outburst by Nurse Davis). Around this she also undergoes bullying medical examinations from doctor’s unfamiliar with her case to watching her fellow inmates being mocked and laughed at my visitors. That’s not even to begin to mention the ECT treatment she undergoes at the start of the film (“to bring her back” from the edge of disappearing into a fantasy world), a series of detailed and observed procedures which are clinically sinister. 

Despite its many strengths, the film is dated in many ways. The original book avoided all reasons for Virginia’s illness. The film works overtime to give a “reason” for why she is, and of course this is rooted above all to issues related to Virginia’s failure to relax into the “proper” role for a woman in this man’s world. Her conditions are clumsily linked back to a troubled relationship with her mother and father, that led to a lack of development of maternal feelings. Guilt over a failed engagement has made her uncomfortable with marriage and nervous of men. Many of these revelations come out through a series of slightly clichéd therapy sessions that, for all the skill of Leo Genn’s performance as the doctor, carry the “and now we know all the answers” certainties of film psychiatry. 

Attitudes like this date The Snake Pit – so what if Virginia perhaps isn’t wild about marriage and isn’t sure if she wants children – and the film works overtime to suggest what will make her better above all is settling down into the sort of conventional life represented by her dull-as-ditch-water husband Robert, flatly played by Mark Stevens. While the film shows that healing like this takes time – and a lot of it – it also can’t imagine a world where a woman might find a life outside of the domestic norm healthier for them. But the film remains an emotional and moving one – moments like the one near the end where the patients listen enraptured, with enchanted faces, to a singer singing about home carry real emotional force – and it has a simply superb performance from de Havilland. Litvak’s film maybe slightly dated, but it’s still an impressive piece of work.