In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1955 winner Marty. Is it better than Crash?
Clara (Betsy Blair) meets Marty (Ernest Borgnine) after being left on the dance floor by her terrible date. The two see themselves as similar and hit it off. It’s a date movie! Love is in the air! Kinda.
Marty is a fat — I mention the “fat” because he does a lot — butcher and the last single person in his family. His ma is ready to be rid of him, so she sends him down to the dance hall to meet a nice Italian girl. He meets Clara, a “dog” of a woman — I use that term only because every single character does even more than you can imagine for real it is crazy — who also has the audacity to be a schoolteacher. There’s a lot of 50s mores going on in this movie: Marty is obsessed with talking about how being a butcher makes him no good, everyone is worried about dying alone in their 20s, one character has to be talked down from saying every man should be 20 years older than their wives, etc.
The world of the 50s explains a lot of what’s going on, but it doesn’t explain Clara’s personality. Nathan Rabin invented the term “manic pixie dream girl” to describe a specific character archetype in film: poorly written female characters that exist solely to further the emotional development of sad, lonely men. Marty is plenty sad — he talks about suicide on his first date with Clara — but Clara isn’t even enough to be considered the shell of a personality that the manic pixie occupies. Clara is nothing; she almost never even speaks. She’s upsetting in a 2014 sense because she struggles in a world that can’t accept her, but she’s ridiculous even in a 1955 sense because she just seems so damn bored in her world.
The Best Part: Marty is a great character, even if the rest of his world is pretty damned mean-spirited. The movie goes pretty far to establish his happy-go-lucky attitude by raining emotional garbage on him from every direction, but it’s a testament to the performance that Ernest Borgnine still seems to be playing a real, unfortunate person.
The Worst Part: It seems like my “worst part” is “the female characters aren’t developed” fairly often, but in a movie like Marty it becomes really impossible to ignore. Everyone in the world of Marty is fairly simple and awful — aside from Marty, of course — but his blushing would-be bride is full-on tabula rasa. She gets no dialogue outside of some short responses and one monologue full of information Marty tells her to say. Betsy Blair does as much as there is to do, but damn there’s not much to do.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Let us consider a part of Crash we have not considered thus far: Could it be seen as a love story? It’s an absurd way to view a movie that is best summed up as “a defense of racism as the only justifiable ethos,” but it is the way we must view it to compare it to Marty. Both films have essentially only one married couple. In Marty it’s the main character’s miserable brother and his new bride. In Crash it’s a black television director and his wife. Both sets of couples are miserable, but only in Marty is it treated as a sad situation. In Crash, like all the other awfulness, marriage is treated as a sad, unavoidable result of living in the miserable world that Crash creates. In this way, yet again, Marty is a better movie because even a film about loneliness and almost giving up is more hopeful than a boot stomping on the face of joy forever.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai |
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.
Image source: Oscars.org