THR Film Critic Todd McCarthy Reflects on Ernest Borgnine's Legacy

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The actor, who died Sunday at age 95, helped pave the way for character actors to become leading men.

Although he was very far from being a small guy, Ernest Borgnine represented a rare example of an actor whose performance as one of society's “little men” won an Academy Award. Even more significantly, he created one of the first cracks in the door that had long blocked character actors, notably those normally cast as heavies, from promotion to star status in major films, even though he himself slipped back into such one-dimensional roles within a very short time after winning the best actor Oscar for Marty in 1955.

Before World War II, best actor Oscars went either to leading men or “grand actor” types like Lionel Barrymore, Charles Laughton and Paul Muni. Until Marty, Borgnine was best known as the sergeant who sadistically beat Frank Sinatra to death in From Here to Eternity, and the only precedent for a tough, beefy guy like him to break through to award-level leading man status was Broderick Crawford, who had emerged from the obscurity of B Western thugdom to triumph in All the King's Men in 1949.

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Unable to capitalize on their success in a sustained way in feature films, both actors early on turned to television, where they enjoyed real popularity, Crawford in Highway Patrol, Borgnine in McHale's Navy (the latter had served in the Navy for a decade, through the end of World War II). But while Crawford thereafter faded into a haze of barrooms and lousy European movies, Borgnine, despite his bulk, remained in excellent health and, through more bad films than good, sustained an evident high level of enthusiasm and professionalism.

Borgnine was a favorite of the equally burly director Robert Aldrich, who used the actor six times, perhaps most memorably as the nightstick-wielding conductor who hounds Lee Marvin in Emperor of the North, and conspicuously as a self-portrait in The Legend of Lylah Clare. At the same time, Borgnine's part-time bad-guys status in Westerns such as Johnny Guitar, the modern-day Bad Day at Black Rock and Aldrich's own Vera Cruz laid the groundwork for his fine work in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, in which he provided a perfect balance to the leaner, more classically weathered roughness of William Holden and Robert Ryan.

Still, for all his unquestioned professionalism, there is scarcely a film or a role he's done in the past 35 years that sticks in the mind; Borgnine was around, ready and willing, but the good parts weren't there. Marty was a fluke, not in terms of Borgnine's performance, which was everything is could have been, but as an opportunity. Borgnine only got the role (for which he was allegedly paid only $5,000) when Rod Steiger, who had played it to acclaim on television, declined to repeat it.

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Twelve years later, however, Steiger (another former Navy man, as it happened) made the same transition, from character actor heavy to best actor Oscar winner, with In the Heat of the Night.

With somewhat greater frequency than was the case in pre-1960s Hollywood, other character actors have followed in Borgnine's wake to break through their initial stereotyping to top-billed Academy recognition: Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, Art Carney, Robert Duvall, F. Murray Abraham, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Forest Whitaker spring to mind. Since that time as well, the notion of what constitutes a leading man has expanded, twisted and morphed in all sorts of ways.

At the time, Marty was the closest thing that existed to a Hollywood independent film, produced by Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster for United Artists and shot in small-screen black-and-white at a time when nearly all major productions were in widescreen and color (indeed, only more “authentic” black-and-white film, The Apartment, ever won the best picture Oscar, prior to the self-consciously period use of monochrome in Schindler's List and The Artist).

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As a kid I was startled by, and still cannot forget, Borgnine's savage glee upon jumping to his certain death to do battle in an animal pit in The Vikings. A few years later, I came to a great appreciation for the simplicity and authenticity of the actor's work in Marty when I studied it, and the film, intently as I prepared to direct a high school production I had adapted for the stage. I thought that Marty's fumbling, bumbling attempt to court the homely woman would not be a difficult challenge for similarly awkward and unpracticed teenage actors to enact, but I soon learned that mere personal experience does not automatically translate into credible artistic expression. Technique and control are required so, after encouraging a degree of improvisation and trying a few different ways of staging this key scene, I was forced to insist upon slavish imitation of the way it was done by the man who had mastered the part and remains inseparable from it.

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