I bought the Criterion Collection's latest offering "The Golden Age of Television" this week after reading Terry Teachout's excellent review of it in the Wall Street Journal. I cannot agree more with him that Marty is the most substantive 53 minutes of television acting you will probably ever see. The show centers around Marty, a 36 year old butcher, played by Rod Steiger, who lives in New York City with his elderly mother in the early 50's. He is plain, honest, and to others, boring. His relatives and friends pester him because he is still single. But he is an extremely shy and awkward social specimen for whom approaching women is potentially destructive to his ego, or what little of it he still has. He eventually meets a woman, Nancy Marchand of Sopranos fame, who is a mirror image of him, inside and outside. Despite the hurtful insults of his friends and family, Marty is determined to make her his wife. The show ends with Marty defiantly standing up to his so called friends and proudly announcing that he will one day marry her.
What makes the show a gem is its portrayal of the psychological toll that emotional loneliness and rejection take on the lives of people who are not socially equipped to play the dating/mating game of life. Think of Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" writ large on the TV screen in grimy black and white. Not a pretty picture. Humans have a natural need for companionship. The pursuit of love and affection is a two sided coin. The rewards are as egotistically gratifying as are the pitfalls potentially ruinous. Think how it feels to date the most beautiful woman in high school or college. You feel like a million bucks and all of your friends and enemies look upon you with envy. Now imagine desperately wanting a girlfriend and then summoning up the courage to ask her out on a date only to be told "NO." And then having it repeated ad nauseum over the years. Or being a female frumpkin and sitting around a dance hall for two hours while other more seemingly glamorous people look upon you as outcast and even mock you. The effects of this conduct can cause permanent damage to even the strongest person's psyche. What makes the phenomena even worse is that men mask it by pretending it does not exist. Thus they adopt a veneer of "toughness" and cruel humor lest their friends think that they are affected by it all. The scene where Marty calls a woman he met two weeks ago and asks her for a date is like a knife going through one's heart. You can eerily sense that he is putting his manhood and ego on the line by asking her for a date. With each word, the risks are enhanced as his pride gets closer to the edge only to be denied once again. Another poignant scene: Marty takes his new friend home after a dance. He tries to kiss her and it appears that he is getting a bit physical. But it is clearly not malicious. He just has no clue how to act. He has listened to so many other men's exaggerated and made up tales of female conquest that he probably thinks that this is how men are supposed to behave. But in the end, his real self emerges. It is one of those movies that makes you feel good and might make you think twice before ever commenting about someone's else's lack of social grace.