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A Real Contender: Reflections on Ernest Borgnine

For some wretched reason every time I’ve ever seen Ernest Borgnine in a movie, I’ve always thought of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Specifically I think of his line “I could have been a contender.”

I think my problem with one of Eli Kazan’s best movies is that I was never able to believe Brando could have been just a contender. In that film and several others he was the heavyweight champion of the world. But Borgnine? He was the perennial contender.

Ernest Borgnine won an Academy Award on the notion that only he could have been a contender, but that he should have also won the goddamn thing. That’s why I can’t be cynical about the ending of Marty. It’s silly and sentimental, but through Borgnine’s performance as a middle-aged, lonesome butcher, particularly the moment in the film where he finds his dream girl, is one of the few moments in a film that kills me every time. I think that’s because he came from an old-school mentality of throwing himself into every character. There are no articles about Borgnine being so into a character that it’s considered charmingly eccentric and/or annoying. Character actors get away with much more than the marquee names do. Borgnine was one of the very few actors who could be a leading man or one of those actors who may or may not be the evil mastermind behind the whole thing.

Or he could just be the janitor.

I drive my friends’ nuts. The role he is most likely to be remembered for these days is Mermaid Man on SpongeBob Squarepants. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to watch one of those episodes (and thank God Tim Conway is still alive), and not ramble to those sitting nearby that the guy who does Mermaid Man’s voice is an Academy-award winner.

Seriously, I’ve been bugging those close to me about that useless trivia for years.

I can only feel but so bad about Borgnine’s passing. He won an Oscar, worked extensively in films, TV and radio for much of his career and died with a few bucks to his name. If he had any regrets, we didn’t hear about them. All the same I do feel a very strong sense of loss at his death. If for no other reason than for the fact that he was one of the last living links we have to the old Hollywood system.

It’s not that I’m waxing romantic for those days. It’s just that I’m a fan of living examples of history, who were at their best when they were hanging with the coming decades as though it wasn’t a big deal. Film remains a fairly new invention in the scheme of things, so God knows who will be remembered when we’re all dead and long gone. That thought is never very far from my mind, and the film geek in me keeps a small list upstairs of the actors, writer, directors and other such visionaries who will hopefully find their way into the museums.

When I saw Borgnine’s Oscar-winning performance in “Marty” at fourteen, he hit that list with a fucking bullet. Blame it on sentimentally, or blame it on the fact that Borgnine nailed his everyman role in such a way that not a thing about it is dated. What matters most to me is that he caught my attention early on, to the extent that I could always spot him in films and TV shows I saw him in.

Roger Ebert once wrote (and then later retracted) that any film with Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh was redeemable by virtue of the fact that they were in it. I think Ernest Borgnine should be included in that thought. The great actors are those who can wake you up in the middle of the worst movie of all time. Ernest Borgnine picked up business for many an awful movie, and because of his death the list of people who can elevate a bad movie just grew smaller.

The thing that bugs me the most is that knowing as time marches on, Ernest Borgnine will become a trivia question. When that happens it’ll be a shame. He was one of the best in his field.