Monday, 9 July 2012

ERNEST BORGNINE: AN APPRECIATION


Like most kids of my generation, my first exposure to Ernest Borgnine came on the TV show McHale's Navy, one of those comedies in a genre which quickly, during the Vietnam War, lost its appeal (though offbeat variations on the war-is-fun theme survived, like Hogan's Heroes, or F Troop, which could be read as a fantasy of the Vietnam experience, with friendly Indians replacing Viet Cong). But my memory of McHale's is positive, with the interchange between Borgnine's frustrated McHale and Tim Conway's bumbling ensign the key to the comedy. They would reprise their collaboration thirty years later in a Sponge Bob movie.

It wasn't much later, however, that I discovered Marty, one of my mother's favourite movies (I dunno, whadda you wanna do Marty? was one of her catchphrases), and one of Borgnine's best performances. Many years later, living in Belsize Park, I became friendly with Betsy Blair (see this appreciation of her here) and she told me about what a wonderful man Borgnine has been to work with—their chemistry still jumps off the screen in a non-glamorous way that's almost totally gone from movies today.


Then came what I'd call Borgnine's renaissance, the high points being The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In the former he more or less set the template for the rest of his career—playing the good-natured sidekick or foil in a big-name, big-budget cast or film. He did it in Ice Station Zebra, in disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, in Sam Peckinpah's Convoy and many others—often he was the most watchable thing about an otherwise bloated movie. But as Dutch in The Wild Bunch he embues the sidekick with great depth. He provides the moral conscience of the film, seems to relish the nihilism of the Bunch's finish, and also plays subtly with the romantic nature of his partnership with Pike Bishop. It's probably my favourite of all his roles. His embrace of nihilism reflects the quality which made him so memorable: under the surface of affability there lurked an explosion of violence or humour--in his best films you never know which is going to appear, and in Marty the brilliance is that under the surface lurks a great sensitive vulnerability

Although you might also say he defined his screen persona in his first creative golden age, with a series of films around Marty. He was Fatso in From Here To Eternity (1952), in Johnny Guitar and Vera Cruz (the prototype Wild Bunch) both in 1954, along with a brilliant piece of cowardly bullying in Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) which made that year a pretty good one for his performances.

I also liked Borgnine because he was a local hero: born in Hamden, Connecticut and went to Hillhouse High in New Haven, he not only spent ten years in the Navy after high school, but then went to drama school in Hartford! And after a spell in stock in Virginia, landed a role as a nurse in Harvey on Broadway: from Harvey to From Here To Eternity!

He did lots of TV, TV movies, voice-overs: he's a better J Edgar Hoover than Leonardo (though maybe not as good as Broderick Crawford) in the very obscure Hoover. He also played Italians in a couple of sports movies, Vince Lombardi in a 1973 TV movie called Legend In Granite and Angelo Dundee in the 1977 film The Greatest.He was a good actor who could do serious, but never seemed to take himself seriously. And he lived to 95 and seemed to have a great deal of fun—his book tour at age 90-something was a hoot, you can see the you tube clip on Fox if you like hearing naughty words in the morning! And he was married five times, including, back to back, to Katy Jurado and Ethel Merman, which is some sort of Daily Double! The marriage to Merman lasted only 32 days—Borgnine claimed that was due to his being more popular than her, due to McHale's Navy; Merman's chapter on the marriage in her autobiography was a blank page.

There is something about the final shootout of The Wild Bunch which resonates in terms of American myth as well as Peckinpah's violent cinema. And it's Borgnine's presence that stops it from going over the top--he provides both the comic relief and the tragic undertones: Oates does the nihilism, and Holden is doing what Joel McCrea did at the end of Ride The High Country. 'C'mon you lazy bastard' says Pike Bishop, and Dutch does come on, to die.

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