Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Farewell Ernest Borgnine

Obviously, nobody was better at being Ernest Borgnine than Ernest Borgnine. But that great actor, who has died at the age of 95, did have the honour of defining a cinematic type. No doubt, when burrowing through photographs, casting agents …

Mon, Jul 9, 2012, 16:22

   
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Obviously, nobody was better at being Ernest Borgnine than Ernest Borgnine. But that great actor, who has died at the age of 95, did have the honour of defining a cinematic type. No doubt, when burrowing through photographs, casting agents occasionally remarked: “No, no, no. I want an Ernest Borgnine type.” What does that mean? Someone craggy, not conventionally attractive, a bit rough and battered, but whose oddly sweet face suggests the presence of an indestructible integrity. Good luck locating somebody to replace him.

A working-class Italian, who served a full 10 years in the US Navy, Borgnine first broke through as the staff sergeant in Fred Zinnemann’s soapy, but still watchable, From Here to Eternity. A year later, in 1954, he popped up in Johnny Guitar and Vera Cruz. It seemed obvious where Ernest was heading. He was good enough to never have to worry about finding work. There would always be a place for a character actor of his class. Of course, he would never secure a lead. Movies aren’t like that.

What do you know? In 1955, the big-screen version of Paddy Chayevsky’s TV play Marty offered Ernie the part of a lifetime. For his lead performance as a shy butcher romancing a plain girl, he won the Academy Award for best actor. The picture is one of only two to win both the best film Oscar and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (The other, since you ask, is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend). It’s a slight film, but — thanks mainly to Borgnine’s poignant turn — it still works very well today.

After that, Borgnine did indeed settle into the habit of playing character roles. But what roles they were. He was characteristically weather-beaten in The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra and Escape from New York. In 1969, he appeared in one of the greatest films ever made: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. As ever, he was slightly sad, slightly mad, but basically good at heart.

Comparisons have been made with Rod Steiger. These usually hang round superficial similarities in their appearances: both were short, fat men. But Borgnine was less mannered, less methody than that other, equally brilliant actor. He could be properly nasty on screen, but his natural persona was that of the decent man trying desperately to cope with appalling circumstances. It’s hard to imagine Steiger gaining late fame as a character on the superb SpongeBob SquarePants. But Ernest did indeed manage that remarkable achievement. He was the voice of the fantastically hilarious, distressingly old Mermaid Man. He had fans that were born a full 90 years after he first landed on the planet. There are plenty worse ways to end your career.

We salute you, Ernie!

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