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Eleanor Ringel Cater

Ernest Borgnine — An appreciation for one of the best ‘bad guys’

By Eleanor RIngel Cater

Ernest Borgnine died last week at age 95.

I’m not sure anyone ever did bad guys any better.

How shall I count the numerous ways he was nasty on screen?

Let’s see: He beat Frank Sinatra to death in “From Here to Eternity.” He threw harmless hobos off trains (it’s the Depression) as the vicious conductor in “Emperor of the North Pole.” He stabbed Royal Dano in the back in “Johnny Guitar.” He conceived the deadly mission that sent most of “The Dirty Dozen” to their deaths. He was a vicious Viking king, raping and murdering and messing with Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings.” He was one of the meanest of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” He hassled good-guy Jimmy Stewart in “The Flight of the Phoenix” and good-guy Gene Hackman in “The Poseidon Adventure.”

And he poured a bottle of ketchup on Spencer Tracy’s dinner in “Bad Day at Black Rock.” And Tracy’s character only had one arm.

But…when Borgnine won his Oscar back in 1956, it was for playing the quintessential nice guy—a gentle, harmless Bronx butcher in his mid-30s, with self-esteem issues. Marty still lives with his mother and, yes, he’s not exactly the leading man type. Then one Saturday night he goes to a dance where he meets someone as lonely as he is: Betsy Blair.

Now, Blair is not on the same dog level as Borgnine. She was once married to Gene Kelly…so…

But in Hollywood-think in the 1950s, a pretty woman would look like Elizabeth Taylor or Grace Kelly. So, Borgnine says to her when they start talking at the dance, “You aren’t really as much of a dog as you think you are.”

Not the sweetest come-on…

The entire movie builds to his being able to call and ask her out despite family and friends on both sides who discourage the 2 from getting together.

On Oscar night, Borgnine, as a nominee, was also a presenter. After handing over the award for best screenplay, he sorta hung around on-stage and was joined by host Jerry Lewis. Lewis said, “Whatya feel like doin’ tonight?” and Borgnine replied, “I don’t know. Whatdya feel like doin’?

It brought the house down because the exchange had become, well, like “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Everybody knew it was what Marty and his best pal said to each other night after night in the movie.

By the way, the actors he beat that evening were James Dean, James Cagney, Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy. Small world.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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