by Greg Carlson
There I was, in the back room of a movie-themed bookstore during its final weeks of existence, going through several stacks of press kits, lobby cards, back issues of Premiere magazine, and photographic stills in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough, something different from the reprinted poster art or plastic-encased glossies that you can get at any collectibles shop. After going through what felt like the tenth crate, I came across some copies of hand-drawn illustrations of several Golden Age movie stars, the kind that the classy Hollywood or New York City restaurants would hang in their lobby or cocktail lounge back in the day. After narrowing my selection down to three drawings, I passed over Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy for an illustration of a young and relatively handsome Ernest Borgnine.
Why did I gravitate towards Ernest Borgnine? The only movie I have of his in my permanent DVD collection is Escape from New York, and he’s not the first (or even the third) person you think of when someone mentions that movie. Perhaps it was the convergence of two of my favorite things – movie memorabilia and the visual arts – that influenced my decision. His gap-toothed smile, pug-like features, and wide eyes make him easy to caricature. As a young boy raised on Mad and Cracked magazines, he was a striking figure in many a movie satire (“The Poopsidedown Adventure”, “Will-Odd”), despite not knowing his name or body of work. I would briefly cross paths with Borgnine’s illustrated mug again during my college years, via the offbeat Old Hollywood-meets-underground-comics mindset of Drew Friedman. Like lobby cards and movie novelizations, hand-drawn illustrations/caricatures of celebrities, whether used as promotional materials or to accompany a celebrity profile or movie review, are slowly becoming a lost art, replaced by authorized photographs (cheaper – no artist’s fees) or, for the new generation of stars, Marketing Department-approved memes that will look good when viewed on a mobile device.
The acquisition of this illustration motivated me to seek out more Ernest Borgnine movies. As it turns out, I had a lot to choose from – as with many actors destined to play “the character,” Mr. Borgnine was literally working up until his death at age 95, taking on any role that could use his well-worn features or distinguished tough-guy-with-a-hint-of-humor voice. After investigating the fine print in the lower right-hand corner of the drawing, I realized that this illustration was created by Burt Lancaster’s production company, used to promote Mr. Borgnine’s Academy Award-winning performance in Marty, which I had only knew from that key scene in Quiz Show. I figured this would be my gateway film.
Barring the ‘50s technology and ideals, Marty holds up surprisingly well, an Eisenhower-era rom-com that guys could enjoy. Borgnine plays the titular character as a lovable, vulnerable lug, 34 going on 14. As he spends yet another night with his fellow overgrown bachelors, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and extolling the literary genius that is Mickey Spillane, I was reminded of the sweet-natured man-children from Judd Apatow’s early films, whose independent swagger masks their insecurities. One can see why Borgnine won the Oscar. After several early roles playing the tough guy, he got a role to show off his dramatic and comedic skills, making Marty a three-dimensional person with fears, anxieties, and insecurities, something that no macho man had ever addressed on film at the time. An early scene that shows Marty, alone in his mother’s dining room, attempting to ask a woman he barely knows out on a date, shows a versatility that I had never seen before in any film from that era.
For my next film, I figured I’d jump ahead a decade-plus to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, a film which, despite being made under the Old Hollywood guard, is occasionally referenced in those New Hollywood ’70s cinema documentaries and books due to the presence of anti-heroes, changing times, moral grey areas, and excessive violence that can be seen as an allegory for the Vietnam War. As Dutch Engstrom, William Holden’s right-hand man, Borgnine creates a nuanced character, the voice of reason among the pack of wild renegades, the “heavy” who uses his mind and consults with Holden’s Pike Bishop during tense situations. He knows that the times of 1913 are a-changing, and wants his posse to avoid confrontation in order to collect their reward and head out for a new life. It was a complete departure from the image I had in my head of Borgnine as the hot-headed tough guy who would solve any problem with his fists or available blunt objects (see his role as Staff Sergeant James R. Judson in From Here to Eternity.)
While I probably won’t be binge-watching McHale’s Navy or Airwolf soon, I’ll definitely be selecting more classic and near-classic movies from Borgnine’s extended filmography. Moreover, I’m glad that it was a classic black-and-white illustration that motivated me to seek out his films, rather than an online click-bait Top 10 list, or belated praise from a hip pop-culture website. I can only hope that after I’m gone, the next generation of cinephiles will uncover an old Pop Art painting or Al Hirschfeld caricature of an actor/actress that will serve as an introduction to their body of work.
About Greg Carlson: I’m a huge movie fan who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. My top three films are (in random order): “Time Bandits”, “Repo Man”, and “Taxi Driver.” In my spare time, I like to hunt for vinyl records and kitschy items old-school-style, via thrift stores and estate sales – eBay and Craigslist are not part of the strategery.