Monday, July 9, 2012

Ernest Borgnine, 1917-2012

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Ernest Borgnine, who passed away Sunday at the age of 95, was an Academy Award-winning actor who was too often overlooked by critics who wrote about the great movie stars; indeed, his Oscar (for Marty in 1955) seems to be a footnote or point of trivia for many. Yet Borgnine had his own flair on-screen, one that should be recalled.

There are several factors why Borgnine is not generally thought of as one of Hollywood's great icons. Undoubtedly one of the reasons was his physical appearance, as he was not blessed with typical movie star good looks. Another notion may have been the fact that his acting style was not the subtle approach taken by such celebrated performers as James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Perhaps his credibility as a serious actor took a hit due to his years of appearing on television in McHale's Navy. Or the reason could be as simple as time, as many of today's critics and film bloggers weren't even born when Borgnine was at the height of his career.

I will admit to not liking his performances in some films; he seemed to be a bit of a caricature in his role as Trucker Cobb in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a film with several wonderful ensemble performances. Yet his rugged physical appearance and deep, often threatening voice certainly added instant credibility to his roles as Fatso in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch (1969). You just didn't want to mess with his characters in these pictures!

Then there was his sensitive side, most famously represented by his portrayal of Marty Piletti in Marty; this is the role that he is most remembered for. But another lovely performance he delivered was for a segment of the collaborative film September 11 (2002), a world wide study of what that terrible day in 2001 meant to filmmakers around the world. Borgnine portrayed an elderly widower (the actor was 85 years old at that time) who lived in a small apartment in New York City; his devotion to his late wife, seen in his arranging of flowers for her or laying out her dresses on her bed, is quite touching. Sean Penn directed this short and he was able to get Borgnine to deliver a performance of wonderful humility and heartbreak. It's a side of Borgnine few had seen until then and it's a lovely acting job.

So while there will not be as many loving tributes to Borgnine as there have been for more iconic actors, we should at least remember that here was a movie star who worked for more than 60 years in the cinema, right up until the end of his life. He left us with a number of memorable performances, which is more than enough reason to remember his career.

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