' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Ernest Borgnine

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Memoriam: Ernest Borgnine


“Marty” was my Grandfather’s favorite movie – the Grandfather from my mother’s side. I did not watch many movies with my Grandfather. My love of sports stems in just about every way imaginable from him, but there were not, as I recall and as I was told in the ensuing years, many movies that struck his fancy. This was primarily because he detected an awful lot of bulls*** in movies. That was not his word and that was not my mom’s word when she would explain to me years after his passing why he was not a movie zealot like she and I were/are. But I could easily tell that’s what they both meant. He thought movies were too much of too much, too overstuffed, too incessantly and needlessly melodramatic. In the few movies I do remember watching with him he wasn’t the sort who sat there pointing out plot holes – no, he was the sort who thought the emotions as presented rang false in the way of so much Hollywood high fructose corn syrup.

That’s why he dug “Marty.” “That,” my mother would say quoting her father (and, yes, placing great emphasis on "that"), “is the kind of movie Hollywood should be making." And that was because “Marty” was not a movie that subscribed to bulls***. In fact, when I finally saw it years later and wrote a review of it for this very site I wrote it from the perspective of pitching remake to a fake Hollywood exec who decided to completely undermine the original because, of course, a remake WOULD subscribe to bulls***. That the original “Marty” slipped through the cracks is still sort of a miracle and that Ernest Borgnine, who was the son of Italian immigrants (just like my grandfather) and served in WWII (just like my grandfather), could go from such humble beginnings to - in his words - "(having) Grace Kelly handing me an Academy Award" is pretty miraculous too.


I have often wondered whether or not my grandfather liked (or even saw) "From Here To Eternity." (I've never had the courage to ask my mom because, frankly, I'm scared to know the answer.) It was a film about military men on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a film in which Borgnine played the intimidatingly vicious "Fatso" Judson, Seargent of the stockade, who beats Frank Sinatra's wayward Private Angelo Maggio to death. And this leads Montgomery Clift's Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt to seek out Judson and avenge his friend. I read Patricia Bosworth's comprehensive biography of Clift just a few months back and in it she detailed how Clift and Borgnine spent 12 straight hours - 12!!! - shooting just that scene. Borgnine said: "We went all out and gave it everything - both of us. We tried to wrestle our knives away from each other - we used plastic knives so there was never any real danger, but the falls were real. There weren't any mattresses, or pads, to land on. When we fell we really fell. We hit the pavement hard."

"From Here To Eternity" was about a man - Prewitt - who wants everything to do with the army but doesn't want anything to do with the bulls*** of the army. And he spends so much of the film slogging through and refusing to give in to that bulls***. Until he meets Borgnine's Judson for the knife fight and, as Bosworth notes, "Fatso, of course, doesn't know why he's being killed. When Prewitt sees that in the dying man's eyes, he realizes what senseless thing he's done." That's when it all goes wrong, and that's a message - despite the film's melodrama - that I think my Grandfather would have respected.


My Grandfather and I never really talked movies because they weren't his thing and they weren't yet my thing way back when he was still alive. But if we talked about them now he could say his favorite movie was an Ernest Borgnine movie and I could say one of my favorite movies (I'm taking it with me to a desert island, remember?) was an Ernest Borgnine movie.

Borgnine passed away on Sunday at the age of 95. That's a good long life. And I know that at the absolute least he has one fan up there.

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