Ernest Borgnine has died at the ripe old age of 95. Forty-something North Carolinian that I am, Andy Griffith’s death bothered me more, but it didn’t matter as much. Ernest Borgnine was a talented actor, who genuinely deserved his academy award for best actor in Marty, anchored a far more important film that was never going to win any Oscars in The Wild Bunch, and in the surrounding time appeared in some of the greatest schlock movies ever made.
Once upon a time, Hollywood gave us actors who played themselves: No matter the part, the actor shone through. Today such performers are relegated to character actor status (or as the second best television criticism site called them, “Hey it’s that guy!”), but once the screen was loaded with actors whose personalities shone through so hard they typecast themselves: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Alec Guinness, Sean Connery, Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mr. T., and the greatest of them all, Humphrey Bogart. These were BIG actors, who appeared in BIG movies, not method-acting mushmouths like Daniel Day Lewis and Liam Neeson, nor inhuman cyborg scientologists like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon.
Borgnine was one of them. Yes, in every movie, he played Ernest Borgnine, and in every movie, he played Ernest Borgnine to perfection.
What more could one ask from an actor named Ernest Borgnine?
To appreciate the Borgnine ethos, I suggest the following films:
The Wild Bunch: This is a perfect film. It wasn’t the techno-urbanization of America that damned near killed the western. It was this film, along with Sergio Leone and Mel Brooks. Despite Clint Eastwood’s worthy attempts to bring it back, the western is still ailing. That’s because The Wild Bunch, the story of a band of American outlaws on their way to one glorious last stand in Pershing-era Mexico, said about everything that the genre has to say, and did so at the end of the period. William Holden is the star, but the movie wouldn’t be what it is without Borgnine as his surprisingly serious partner.
Marty: Hollywood still makes plenty of movies about ordinary Joes, but these are dull, Pinteresque dramas filled with meaning and boredom. In this well-deserved Oscar-winning performance as an ordinary Joe with serious family and romantic troubles, Borgnine combines humor and sadness in a way bigger actors couldn’t. Highly recommended.
Escape From New York: “Snake Plissken?!? I thought you were dead!”
And finally, Jeff Krulik’s wonderful documentary, Ernest Borgnine On The Bus, in which we learn that Ernest Borgnine was a whole lot like Ernest Borgnine, driving across America righting wrongs in the way that only Ernest Borgnine could:
— Patrick from Popehat