Ernest Borgnine: the heavy as hero (however briefly)

Ernest Borgnine, who died last Sunday at 95, was an everyman star, but not the kind Hollywood ever got used to. The studios’ idea of an Average Guy was someone like Jimmy Stewart, not a hulking middle-aged man with bushy eyebrows and gap-toothed grin. This was a heavy, right? The sadist who beats Frank Sinatra to death in “From Here to Eternity,” the small-town bully jiu-jitsued by one-armed Spencer Tracy in “Bad Day at Black Rock,” the untrustworthy officer in “The Dirty Dozen” (a case of miscasting — Borgnine was an enlisted man if anything). Had the actor come to fame before World War II, he would have been just another goon in the background.

Instead, he came up at a time when audiences had tired of pretty faces and wanted something rawer, lumpier, more real. Rod Steiger starred in the original 1953 teleplay “Marty,” but when it came time for the 1955 film version, director Delbert Mann cast about for a lead who really looked like he could have been a butcher from the Bronx. Borgnine played the role — an unpretty man finding love with an unpretty woman (Betsy Blair) — with a decency and tenderness that still disarms a modern viewer. More than any other movie of its era, “Marty” revealed glamour as a fraud (temporarily, it turned out) and comforted audiences with the enduring strength of the ordinary. Says Marty to his date, “See, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.” In 1955, that felt like the fresh wind of truth.

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