Francis P. DeStefano
Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in History from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history.
“Marty,” a low-budget black-and-white film about a second-generation Italian American butcher in the Bronx, was the sleeper hit of the 1955 Academy Awards. It won four Oscars including: Best Film, Best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Screenplay for famed writer Paddy Chayefsky, and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine.
It was also a milestone in another sense, because it marked the first appearance of an Italian American in a leading role in an American film. Borgnine’s breakthrough was as remarkable as Sinatra’s and Di Maggio’s, especially since he was not portrayed as a gangster or Mafioso.
Ernest Borgnine worked in films and television almost to the end of his long life in 2012. He could play “heavies” like the sadistic bully in “From Here to Eternity,” or comic characters like the lead in the TV series, “McHale’s Navy,” but his best and most famous role was his portrayal of Marty.
Borgnine portrayed a second-generation Italian American who, like most of that generation, had become largely assimilated into the American way of life. Marty had served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and had taken a job in a butcher shop after the war. He lived at home with his widowed mother, who spoke broken English, but his own English was strictly New York. “Whadda ya gonna do tonight, Marty?” “I don’t know Ange, whadda you gonna do?” He was completely at home in the Bronx of the 1950s. He was familiar with the teeming activity on Fordham Road but never would have considered going to nearby Fordham University. In the evenings, he and his friends searched for “tomatas” on Manhattan’s 72nd Street. or the famed Stardust Ballroom, but for the most part they stayed near home in the neighborhood bar. Of course, they would never miss Sunday Mass.
Marty works in the butcher shop that he aspires to buy from its aging owner, but life seems to be passing him by. His younger siblings are married and raising families, but he is not. Customers in the shop tell him he should be ashamed of himself. It’s not that he hasn’t tried, but he can’t even get a date. Rejection after rejection has resigned him to his fate and he sees himself as a fat, ugly man who will probably never marry.
Nevertheless, one night he and his best friend decide to relieve the boredom by trying to see what they can find at the Stardust Ballroom. Once again, Marty experiences rejection, but then notices a young woman suffering an even worse humiliation when her date leaves her flat. Marty consoles the woman, a plain-looking science teacher from Brooklyn, played by Betsy Blair. It is the beginning of a romance.
Inevitably, his friends don’t like the girl. In the parlance of the day, she’s a dog. Even his mother, who so wants him to find a nice Italian girl, dislikes her. She’s a college girl, and everyone knows that college girls are one step from the street.
The thing about this film that makes it so appealing is that it is about ordinary people — their lives, concerns, hopes and loves. Plain, ordinary people can have a fine romance. The first kiss is one of the great love scenes in film history. A kiss meant a lot in those days.
My father and mother were of that generation, as were my wife’s father and mother. No one in either family was involved in the mob. Our uncles and aunts were all ordinary people.
My father worked in my grandfather’s grocery store until he worked in a defense factory after the start of WW II. One uncle was a policeman, while another was a civil engineer for an electric utility. My wife’s father took over the family fruit and vegetable business along with his two brothers. Most of her other uncles were plumbers. Most of the aunts were housewives, although they usually were employed until the first child arrived.
Most of that generation were ordinary, hard-working people who managed to make the difficult transition from the Old World to the New. No one ever did a better job of telling their story than playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and no one ever did a better job of portraying them than Ernest Borgnine did in “Marty.”
Alan Alda conceived, wrote, directed and starred in Betsy’s Wedding, a film that received little critical acclaim when it first appeared back in 1990. Even today, rating services consign it to the mediocrity bin. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is a charming comedy with an excellent cast that included Madeline Kahn, Joe Pesci, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony La Paglia, among others. Moreover, in its own way, it gives an insight into the fate of the third- and fourth-generation Italian immigrants to America.
Eddie Hopper, played by Alan Alda, is a third-generation Italian American who has made it into the middle class. He owns a small construction business, a nice home in the suburbs, as well as a vacation home on Long Island. His father, played by Joey Bishop in a couple of dream sequences, had changed the name to make it more familiar to American ears.
Although Eddie comes from a large and very ethnic Italian family, he is married to Lola, a Jewish woman, played beautifully by Madeline Kahn. It used to be called a mixed marriage. Indeed, they had been married in a civil ceremony so as not to show favor to either family. Nevertheless, the marriage is a success. Eddie is still passionately in love with Lola, while she is happy as a homemaker who also runs a small flower business. However, she still regrets not having broken the glass, a necessary fixture of a traditional Jewish wedding.
They have two grown daughters who are even further removed from their ethnic heritage. The youngest is Betsy, a fledgling fashion designer with an avant-garde taste in clothes. Moreover, she has fallen in love with the only son of a billionaire venture capitalist who, as Betsy informs the family, buys and sells companies. Their engagement and subsequent wedding planning provide another battle of cultures.
Connie, the eldest daughter, has also broken the mold. She is a policewoman who enjoys arresting criminals. She is still single and lives in her own apartment but is somewhat envious of her younger sister’s impending marriage, especially since there is no man on her horizon.
Pride keeps Eddie from accepting his wealthy future in-law’s offer to pay for the wedding. The kids want a small intimate affair, but Eddie has a large family, and the waspish in-laws have many friends to invite. Complicating matters is the fact that the young couple are not religious and do not want any mention of God at the ceremony. Not only will there be no priest or rabbi, but also a secularized meaning must be found for the breaking of the glass.
Paying for the wedding is going to break Eddie, especially since he has overextended himself on a building project where financing has dried up. He reluctantly goes to his wife’s brother-in-law, Oscar, played by Joe Pesci, who is a scheming commercial real estate developer with ties to the Mob.
Eddie’s father had always hated the mob and the stain it put on the great majority of Italian Americans. His proudest moment had come when Toscanini, Sinatra, and DiMaggio had all been on the radio the same day. But now Oscar arranges financing with a mobster who agrees to finance this relatively small project as a favor. Eddie’s project also gives the mobster an opportunity to launder some money and provide a job for his young nephew, Stevie D.
Although the nephew, played by Anthony La Paglia. is a young mobster, he is a throwback in his own way to the age of chivalry and courtly love. He is a classic Italian of the old school. In overseeing Eddie’s project, he falls for Eddie’s elder daughter, the policewoman. It’s another culture clash. Initially, she rejects his advances, “I’m a cop, and you’re not.” But he answers, “Connie, I could be anything you want me to be.”
At the end, all the characters come together at a riotous and touching wedding held outdoors under a huge tent during a rainstorm. Generational, ethnic, and cultural differences are all resolved, and love conquers all.
Films like “The Golden Door,” “Marty,” and “Betsy’s Wedding” open a window into the Italian American experience, but I suspect the experience of other immigrant groups is not too much different. *