Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 11, 2012
Ernest Borgnine died three days ago, July 8, 2012, at the age of 95. He was only seven years younger than Luise Rainer (still going at 102), one year younger than Olivia de Havilland (still going at 96) and a good ten months older than Olivia’s sister, Joan Fontaine (still going at 94) and yet, I don’t think of him as a classic era film actor so much as a modern actor who alternated between classic and contemporary cinema. He could’ve started in the thirties in his twenties but he didn’t start until the early fifties when in his thirties. Somehow, this made all the difference and while Luise, Olivia and Joan remain locked in the classic era for me, Ernie seems modern, like an actor I saw in contemporary films in my teens. He seems that way because he was an actor I saw in contemporary films in my teens and now that he’s gone the world has lost one of the few actors that served as a kind of liaison between classic and contemporary cinema. Ernie himself lamented the great actors like Spencer Tracy going away and now we lament and mourn his loss, the loss of a profoundly gifted actor.
I first saw Borgnine in The Poseidon Adventure in 1972. It was my first big blockbuster experience in the theater and I loved every second of it. My parents took my sister, brother and me and it was such a kick that it still resides in my memory with such warm nostalgia that simply watching it again a couple of years ago with my wife and the youngest, I got a sense of well-being that everything was right with the world. Sure, it’s a soap opera and a predictable, cliched thriller but I don’t really care. It holds a strong place in my heart and Ernest Borgnine is a big part of that. Borgnine plays a cop with a former prostitute for a wife (Stella Stevens) and watching it again I realized how much presence he had as an actor. There he is with such greats as Gene Hackman, Shelly Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons and Stella Stevens and he stands out. He doesn’t just hold his own, he stands out. After The Poseidon Adventure I started looking for Ernie in more movies.
I found him in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. What a movie and what a showcase for the talents of so many great actors including, of course, Ernest Borgnine. The vision of William Holden and Ernest Borgnine standing up to, and almost outlasting, what seemed to be the entire Mexican army, struck a chord with me (and a few million other people) immediately. It played over and over in my head and Borgnine seemed perfectly suited to play the type of guy who complains and gripes as much as anyone but, in the end, gets the job done (at least until he’s killed). That’s how he felt in both The Poseidon Adventure and The Wild Bunch and I was content to expect that to be the Ernest Borgnine calling card every time I saw him. But then…
My mom had always been a big fan of Marty and she told me about it on several occasions. Not that I could see it (this was before cable and VCRs made such things easy to do) but I could hear about it and imagine how good he must have been. When it finally came on tv (PBS most likely) years later I wasn’t disappointed. My goodness, what a great performance! What a terrific, moving, deeply felt portrayal of an average joe, looking for love and friendship and finally bucking the useless set of rules society has thrown in his face to go for the girl he loves. In the original television version, which I haven’t seen, the title character is played by Rod Steiger and while I have no doubt as to the immense talents of Steiger or to the belief that he probably did an excellent job, I cannot, nonetheless, think of anyone as Marty other than Ernie. That’s unfair to Steiger, I know, but I love Borgnine so much in the role I don’t want to see anyone else take it on.
The character of Marty may have been a different role than the ones I was used to (the tough guy who comes through for his partners in the end) but it still felt close. Marty comes through, too, just in a different way. And then I discovered how good Borgnine was at playing a jerk. Yep, just when I thought I had him pegged I saw From Here to Eternity and, man, what colossal horse’s ass he is, a big, loud bully, making life miserable for Maggio and Prewitt.
After that I saw Bad Day at Black Rock, which has since become an all-time favorite of mine, and wondered, “Will he be the stand-up guy that helps Tracy, the rough and tumble type with the heart of gold, or the bullying jerk type?” Well, all Spencer Tracy had to do was sidle up to the bar and order some food for me to get my answer: Jerk, in the third degree. What kind of guy can play a lovable butcher everyone wants to make happy and a sadistic thug intent on driving Tracy off the road and play both with complete credibility? Ernest Borgnine, that’s who.
I saw him not long after in The Catered Affair and he took yet another turn. He felt like Marty again but after a long marriage, a happy one no doubt, but a long one filled with disappointment and money problems. He wants to give his daughter a great wedding but he also wants to buy his own cab and cabby license and has been saving for years. His wife, played by Bette Davis, wants the wedding nice even if no one else does and insists he use his savings to pay for it. The movie’s standout is Barry Fitzgerald, endlessly entertaining as Uncle Jack Conlon, but the most detailed and pitch perfect performance belongs to Borgnine. It’s not often (not often at all, really) that someone can make Bette Davis look outgunned, but by God, Ernie did.
And I could go on and on with so many more great performances but the fact is, as I said at the start of this piece, Borgnine felt like a modern actor to me, not a classic era actor and that’s because he was so willing to play the good or the bad guy in one movie after another. Character actors last because they don’t feel entitled to the hero lead every time out (or ever). Borgnine also fit in perfectly with action casts in movies like The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. He did a lot of tv and movie work right into the 21st century but in 1981 he played Cabbie in Escape from New York and, in a weird way, became the link between the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Modern Age of the Writer/Director. There he was in a cab, just like his character in The Catered Affair, only now he was driving around a massive prison that used to be New York. Borgnine must have thought he was acting in one of the silliest movies ever made (but, in my book at least, a damned entertaining one) and yet he gives a performance so energetic that he still sticks with me more than any other character, even Snake Plissken.
When I got news of Ernest Borgnine’s death, I put up a link to “Bandstand Boogie” on my facebook page, so connected with that song is he in my mind. It’s the song his cabbie character plays over and over in his cab. It makes me think of him every time I hear it (I don’t hear it often but more often than you’d think). We’ll miss Ernie, sorely, and I think a lot of younger movie fans ought to seek him out and get to know him. He provides one of the most rewarding cinematic friendships anyone could ever have.
Rest in Peace, Ernie.
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