Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Movies I Like: Marty

Why haven’t I written this post before I have no idea. I have talked all around Marty without writing directly about it. Just an oversight, I guess. Sorry.

I’m not sure how many times I have mentioned the great Paddy Chayefsky in these posts, but I’m sure it’s plenty. Whatever the number it isn’t big enough. The man was The Man. He was the dramatists’ dramatist. He was the best of the best.

Paddy was one of the cluster of great writers who wrote for early television in 1950s. There were shows called Playhouse 90, The Philco Television Playhouse, and Kraft Television Theatre. These all featured plays written for television. The writers of these plays are some of my writing heroes: Rod Serling and Reginald Rose at the top of the list, along with Chayefsky, because their work was so profoundly humanistic. 

Marty was one of these television plays, but was popular enough to made into a film.

Marty is about a single man living in New York City, in a traditional Italian-American neighborhood, with his mother. Marty is told that he should be ashamed of himself for not being married. He’d like to get married, but can’t connect with women. Marty is about a man that finds out that he has worth. He’s not a handsome guy, but he is a compassionate one, and in the end that is what connects him with a woman.

It sounds so simple – even trite – but it is a masterpiece.

Chayefsky believed that television was such an intimate medium that small drama played best on it. Marty is a small drama about real people with real concerns. Marty is a person the audience can connect with and this small drama is big enough for the big screen. We are moved by the honestly of the writing. It is sometimes so painfully honest that we cringe with empathy. Our hearts go out to Marty.

There is a “rule” that screenwriters should not write scenes where people talk on the phone. I understand why the rule exists – these scenes can be boring and static. They can be a cheap way to get out expository information. But if you want to see a scene that takes all the validity out of that “rule,” watch the scene in Marty asks a woman out over the phone. It is masterful.

I directed that scene once and it was the simplest thing I ever directed – it was all on the page. All the actor had to do was read it.

Marty was cited at the time for its naturalistic sounding dialogue, but that is a relatively easy thing to master. What’s hard is getting to the emotional truth below the lines, and of course, few people understood how to structure scenes and stories as well as Chayefsky.

If you want to know more about how, and why, Paddy Chayefsky constructed stories the way he did, I will remind you, for the very last time I promise, to read his book Television Plays.  I cannot stress enough just what a valuable resource it is. Few people are as articulate about how they do what they do.

Anyway, treat yourself – see Marty.  If you are not moved, you may want to remove that chunk of coal where your heart used to be.


imyjimmy said...


Ok, that's it! You've mentioned Television Plays way too many times for me to not get it.

You should also mention Art and Fear sometime, that book helps a lot too.

My roommates all watched Marty a couple months ago and we all laughed very hard at times. It was a real treat, and after the movie was over we all talked about friends of ours who should watch this movie--it's human nature to want to spread good stories.

hallisb said...

I really must watch this movie soon. I've seen you mention it too many times, and I know I'll really enjoy it. Television Plays along with The Golden Theme are waiting for me at my sister's place back east. Amazon's ETA had me doubting they'd arrive in time for my impending vacation, I decided to play it safe and I look forward to reading both.