Friday, July 13, 2012

Honoring Ernie

Werth:  Hiya, Wise!

Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  I thought you'd be a little more glum this week after hearing about the passing of Ernest Borgnine.

Werth: It's always sad when a Hollywood legend heads for the heavenly box office, but it's also a chance to salute that artist's accomplishments. And with a talent as big as Borgnine, there's a lot to celebrate.

Wise: Although often remembered today for the broad humor of his WWII-set sitcom McHale's Navy (1962), Borgnine was a talented actor, deploying his gap-toothed smile and hulking shoulders indelibly in countless roles, whether comedic or dramatic.

Werth: I would say that Borgnine's television career actually took a backseat to his film success with classics like From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Catered Affair (1956) pre-dating McHale and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and Escape from NewYork (1981) coming after. Perhaps most laudable is the movie he won the Best Actor Oscar for, Marty (1955).

Wise: Oscars trump Airwolf every time.

Werth: Marty is one of those movies that I can't believe ever got made. It tells the story of a Bronx butcher (Borgnine) who gets harrassed by everyone from his brother, to his mother, to his customers about being a 34 year old bachelor. Choruses of "What's the matter with you?" dog him wherever he goes.

Wise: I'm sure Clifton Webb could relate.

Werth: Marty winds up at a dancehall where he rescues fellow sad-sack Clara (Best Supporting Actress nominee and wife of Gene Kelly, Betsy Blair) from being dumped by her date. The two begin a conversation with talk about how neither one of them is such a dog, their thoughts of suicide and crying, and how kindness is what's important in a relationship.

Wise: Try putting that in your OkCupid profile.

Werth: The movie has shockingly little to push its plot forward. It literally is the story of how two plain people find each other in a world obsessed with looks and coupling. Previously a television movie aired in 1953, Paddy Chayefsky authored the simple plot and dialogue, making Marty and Clara unassuming heroes for anyone who's ever felt forgotten or overlooked. Without being maudlin or preachy, Marty celebrates those in the world who aren't lucky enough to have big dreams and ambition, but still yearn for a human connection.
It's a beautiful exercise in restraint and Borgnine brilliantly worked a soft side into his typically hyper-toughie character. It's a film totally bereft of glitz and glamour and it rightfully earned four Oscars including Best Director (Delbert Mann) and Best Picture.

Wise: In Bunny O' Hare (1979) Borgnine plays Bill Green, a junkman with a past who turns up to scavenge the plumbing fixtures from recently foreclosed houses before they get bulldozed.  Things get complicated when he starts to feel sorry for the titular character, a mild-mannered widow played by Bette Davis.

Werth: What?  Davis is mild-mannered?

Wise: Bunny is also a non-smoker.  Which do you think was the bigger challenge?  Anyway, the two embark on a road trip in Bill's rattletrap camper, and they form a grudging friendship after Bunny discovers Bill's past as a bank robber and convinces him to teach her how to pull heists to get revenge on the bank that took her house.  Instead of keeping the money, Bunny sends it to her deadbeat adult children, Lulu (Reva Rose) and Ad (John Astin as a creepy playboy with a gambling habit and a penchant for bimbos and silk bathrobes).

Werth: I hope people who are currently having mortgage problems are paying attention. 

Wise: Of course their crime spree doesn't go unnoticed by the local police, especially Lieutenant Greeley (Jack Cassidy).  Greeley vows to haul in the criminals despite being distracted by his Nixonian paranoia toward hippies and by his fixation on his recently hired, pert-nosed criminologist assistant (Joan Delaney).

Werth: Joans are very distracting. Just ask Bette.

Wise: Photographed in a cheapo 70's aesthetic with awkward camera moves and flat lighting, the film is about as visually interesting as the kind of home movies that turn up in a rummage sale.

Werth: Sort of the Me Decade's cinéma vérité.

Wise: More like cinema charité.  Still, it's impressive what two pros like Borgnine and Davis can do despite the mediocre film that surrounds them.  He transforms from a suspicious loner to noble daredevil, while Davis blooms from a downtrodden housewife into woman who throws off drudgery in favor of happiness.  Their romantic chemistry doesn't exactly shoot off fireworks, but both actors give deeply humane performances and elevate this junky fluff into something special. 

Werth: I don't know if Ernie gets Film Gab where he's at now, but I hope he knows how much happiness he brought to millions of movie lovers everywhere. Rest in Peace Mr. Borgnine

Wise: And thank you.

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