Betsy Blair in Marty (1955) - Supporting Actress Sundays

And you thought I'd forgotten... Yes, the 1955 Smackdown was more than two weeks ago. But, sheesh, times is hard for us toiling in the salt mines of academentia, what with the exams and the essays and the student meltdowns and the meetings. (Oy, the meetings!) And then you factor in the holidaze? Well, it's a wonder I keep myself standing through the day, let alone maintain my commitment to my beloved independent research projects (like Supporting Actress Sundays). But, thankfully, I had an easily undervalued but exceptionally precious gem of a performance to keep me at my post. Of course, I'm talking about...

...Betsy Blair in Marty (1967).
approximately 26 minutes and 27 seconds
17 scenes

roughly 30% of film's total running time

Betsy Blair plays Clara, the quietly frumpy 29 year old girl who catches the eye of a loud and dumpy 35 year old boy (Ernest Borgnine in a gregarious, dear performance).

Blair's Clara catches Marty's eye in the Stardust Ballroom where she's caught at the center of an awful scenario. Clara's on a date with a guy she's been set-up with by a friend's boyfriend. The date is a smarmy player who makes no secret that Clara's beneath him, so he starts soliciting single guys at the dancehall -- offering $5 to take Clara off his hands. Marty rebuffs the offer, appalled at the premise, but watches as the deal plays out.
Marty stands as the single witness to Clara's public humiliation, and he follows her to the patio and asks her to dance, an invitation that causes Clara to crumple -- weeping -- in the big lug's arms.
The two dance and -- as they do -- they talk and Marty delivers one of the worst come on lines in history ("You're not such a dog as you think you are") and, in a turn both sudden and giddily tentative, the two misfits begin to maneuver the terrifying, thrilling, and unfamiliar territory of liking someone and having that person like you back.
The subsequent scenes follow Marty and Clara on what is possibly the first "great date" that both have ever experienced. It's quite a night. They walk on the streets of NYC.
They share a few laughs one second, their hopes and dreams the next, with a deep dark secret in between.
There's a misfired kiss...
...and one that lands.
Clara even gets to meet Marty's mother. All in the space of a few hours. In this concentrated turn of a date, Blair and Borgnine stage the extraordinary sweep of early love, all while being humble, unremarkable, occasionally annoying regular people. But while Borgnine's exuberant decency -- he's like that big, slobbery adult dog who still behaves like a puppy -- is at the center of this film, it's Blair's quiet, vulnerable integrity that trains its orbit. Just two regular-ish folks getting a go at Hollywood romance and, remarkably, it remains a treat.

Blair’s breathy warble of a voice belies the sharp clarity of her Clara. Indeed, Blair's performance just brims with integrity. Her Clara embodies a startling mix of pride and realism and aspiration, seemingly without the bitterness that might seem her right as a smart, professional, unglamorous woman. This comes through perhaps clearest in, what is for me, the most thrilling scene in the film: the sequence where Marty and Clara have exited the dancehall and Marty's just jabbering on.
At first, Clara seems mostly relieved to have escaped the torture of the dance hall before she becomes a little stunned at Marty's loquaciousness. Her eyes are all "this guy can really talk" and, as Borgnine's Marty keeps yammering -- stopping himself to say "I really should stop talking" over and over -- Blair slowly notices how nervous he is, and how excited he is to be with her, and how he's behaving like an insufferable buffoon all because of her and the way she makes him feel. As these epiphanies cascade, Blair's Clara melts and warms and begins to get giddy herself, until she beams with a beauty -- at once cinematic and utterly normal -- all too rare in 1950s film.
Using mostly silence and smalltalk, Blair deftly charts a complex emotional journey for this smart, opinionated, profoundly lonely woman, in whose eyes Marty transforms from life-preserver to mildly annoying schlub to prince charming. Blair's work is eloquent, humane and moving. A simple empathic approach that makes her subsequent humiliation -- when Marty, cowed by his friends and family, doesn't call like he said he would -- all the more devastating.
But, of course, Marty gets a grip and calls Clara in the film's final moments and it's a true, Hollywood ending: a happy one.


CanadianKen said...

Just like Marty, you finally got around to making that call to Betsy Blair. Nice job. And you've made me like the film a little bit more in retrospect.

Pursey Tuttweiler said...

I love your review and your site. I stumbled upon it while googling Betsy Blair images. She died yesterday at age 85.