Last night, we watched the 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Marty”, starring Ernest Borgnine. The year this movie was released was the same year my parents graduated from college and got married. My mother could have played the heroine, a gentle, intelligent young woman with a narrow Celtic jaw and a fabulously stylish but thrifty wardrobe. Except she was just 20 when she got married, and Clara in the movie is a dangerously spinster-approaching 29. Marty is “the stocky fellow”, an Italian butcher and a bachelor at 34. My dad was “that cute boy on crutches” who was a little soft around the middle due to a bum knee that kept him from vigorous exercise. The social game of the day in New York City was to go to The Stardust Ballroom, a dance hall “loaded with tomatoes”. Marty and Clara are the kind who get turned down for dances. He owns up to the fact that they are “dogs”, but awkwardly, tenderly, they begin to treat each other like real human beings. They speak honestly together while Marty’s Italian family covers up true emotions with white lies and secrets and his buddies pretend machismo. The two of them create a little oasis of sanity in the desert of social confusion. And it’s charming, really.
All of us who grew up believing “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skin smiles who married young and then retired” (Tara Mclean) might find a champion in Marty, who recognizes a chance for happiness in being himself, like Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof” who asserts that “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness”. Why does our society put so much pressure and competition into the process of discerning your identity and living authentically? I suppose that our economy runs on producing that neurosis. “You couldn’t possibly find love or happiness without our product!” Maybe there’s a lurking sense that civilization is actually advanced by feeding that neurosis in order to produce those marvelous, gorgeous, socially admirable types. God forbid that the misfits should breed. And so, the universal theme emerges: misfits and nerds are humans, too, and we all belong in that category, really. The “in crowd” and the “out crowd” are fantasies. We are ‘the crowd’, that’s all.
The Italian mothers in Marty’s neighborhood keep up this refrain: “You oughta be ashamed of yourself. 34 years old…when are you gonna get married!” Shame. God, what a horrible thing to put on someone. I am a mother, I oughta know. I used it enough. Now I feel like shouting out, “Never mind what I said before! Be happy!!” Aren’t we all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as we aren’t harming anyone? Ah, yes, it can get complicated. The pursuit of my happiness might impinge on the pursuit of your happiness. It happens. I can’t be a happy Italian mamma unless all my sons are married to Italian women and producing grandchildren that I can feed. Maybe happiness has to be a responsibility that doesn’t require someone else’s participation. Can I be a happy Italian mamma all by myself, cooking for myself, caring for myself, doing things I enjoy, entering into relationships by mutual agreement, not by obligation? Marty’s aunt keeps saying, “I’m 56 years old, a widow. This is the worst time of life. I’ve got no one to cook for, to clean for…” Marty’s girl suggests that she take up some “hobbies” and the old women stare at her as if she’s just shot a hole in her own forehead. God forbid I should take responsibility for my own happiness! No, make that “God require that I should take responsibility for my own happiness”.
Be happy, people! Live happy, love happy.