The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
U S Television 1953 and YouTube September 2021
A legendary gem from American television's Golden Age has been lurking in the vaults of YouTube, and I urge you to seek it out.
Paddy Chayefsky's 1953 drama was so immediately recognized as a classic that within two years it was remade as a multi-Oscar-winning film. But the original television version is superior.
Marty is a 36-year-old single New Yorker in a working-class Italian culture in which being unmarried is a shame and embarrassment approaching sin. Marty knows why he's single – because he's a fat, ugly loser – and he can do nothing but sit around with other losers waiting to die.
('What do you feel like doing tonight?' - 'I don't know. What do you feel like doing tonight?' became a widely repeated and parodied catchphrase.)
And then Marty is talked into trying a local dancehall, where he sees an unattractive woman being humiliated by another guy.
His warm heart overcoming his shyness, he asks her to dance, and we watch the beautiful moment of two unhappy people discovering the vague possibility of happiness.
In less skilled and sensitive hands this could be mawkish. But writer Chayefsky (whose later films, like Network and Hospital, would be far less delicate in tone), director Delbert Mann (a master of the medium at a time when television screens were smaller than modern tablets), and actors Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand (neither of them ever again to play such vulnerable characters) keep the tone quiet but deeply affecting.
Those who know the film, itself a classic, will almost certainly find this earlier version superior. For all the intensity he would bring to the film, Ernest Borgnine couldn't help generating some jolly-fat-man energy, while Betsy Blair was too obviously a pretty actress playing plain.
Rod Steiger gives a thoroughly underplayed and internalised performance, completely defining Marty first by unhappiness and then by the surprise and thrill of glimpsing a change.
And Nancy Marchand has the courage to let us see that she is a plain woman and of using that exposure to play a character physically weighed down by the pain of being undesirable.
Director Mann knew, even this early in the history of the medium, that television required close-ups and underplaying. He not only leads his actors to some of the most sensitive and subtle work they'll ever do, but puts his cameras in all the right places.
There's a sequence of the couple dancing that is a masterclass in television directing, as we get close enough to catch every slight change in their faces without being intrusive.
Meanwhile, Paddy Cheyefsky proves himself not only an insightful chronicler of small lives but also a master technician, as what seems at first just a local-colour digression about Marty's widowed aunt feeds back into the main story at just the right moment.
In the 1950s an American television hour, with the adverts removed, lasted 53 minutes. Marty may well be the best 53 minutes of television you will see this year.
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