CMU prof's book to focus on Ernest Borgnine's blue-collar portrayals

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Look closely at Vanity Fair's recent two-page celebrity spread of dozens of movie icons honoring Paramount Pictures' 100th anniversary, from Meryl Streep to Robert De Niro to Ali MacGraw to Martin Scorsese -- and you'll see only three members of what might be called "old" Hollywood: Kirk Douglas, Jerry Lewis and Ernest Borgnine.

That number is now down to two.

Mr. Borgnine's death Sunday at the age of 95 may have surprised some who didn't realize that he was still working almost up to the end (his latest film, "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez," is still being shown at festivals), and has drawn a blank from those who didn't grow up during the "McHale's Navy" era in the 1960s. Indeed, in a 2007 interview, Mr. Borgnine himself joked he had problems getting hired because "they keep asking, is he still alive?' "

But in fact, Mr. Borgnine's film oeuvre may be ripe for revisiting by a new generation of film fans, and Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of them.

Ms. Newman, 45, is finishing a book called "Striking Images: Workers on Screen and in the Streets," and in it, she argues that Mr. Borgnine was part of a small group of actors who portrayed working-class people sympathetically during the 1950s, "when it was all 'Leave it to Beaver' and the suburban middle class" on television and in films.

Indeed, she found during her research she kept coming back to the chunky, beetle-browed, gap-toothed Mr. Borgnine, who played the "working stiff," as she put it, in movies such as "Marty" (1955), which earned him an Oscar for lead actor; "The Catered Affair" (1956); "The Whistle at Eaton Falls" (1951); and "The Rabbit Trap" (1959).

Ms. Newman, who on her Twitter feed describes herself not just as a professor but as "mother, wife, artist, union organizer, radical, radio lover," says she was troubled "by the fantasy we keep projecting onto the 1950s. Time magazine had a cover story about the American dream 10 days ago, with a photo of a father barbecuing in the backyard. I wanted to suggest that the Borgnine characters and his life represented the large, interesting, multifaceted working class that has largely disappeared from public view."

And while Mr. Borgnine's roles as a heavy -- he tormented Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity" and Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock" -- were well known, he along with Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and a few other actors of that era found themselves cast as ordinary, hard-working men -- in some cases romantic anti-heroes well before Dustin Hoffman defined the term.

In "Marty," he played a lonely butcher who lived with his mother but still dreamed of love and marriage, and in "The Catered Affair" he and his wife, played by Bette Davis, struggled to pay for a wedding for their daughter. In "The Whistle at Eaton Falls," he played a worker in a plastics factory.

Steiger often got the roles Mr. Borgnine coveted -- Marlon Brando's brother in "On the Waterfront," Jud in "Oklahoma" -- but then again, Steiger wanted the "Marty" role but was already promised to "Waterfront."

Hollywood directors and writers Delbert Mann, Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan and Paddy Chayefsky, all socially conscious, politically leftist and influenced by neo-realist Italian films such as "The Bicycle Thief" and "Shoeshine," sought to depict gritty workplaces and their workers as complex human beings.

Thanks to Mann, Mr. Borgnine was able to escape stereotyping as a thug after "From Here to Eternity" when Mann was looking for a lead to play Marty in the film version of Chayefsky's television play.

"After playing Fatso Judson (who brutalizes Frank Sinatra in "Eternity"), Borgnine was thought of as a gangster, but Mann flew to Mexico, where Borgnine was shooting a movie, to have him read for the part. He did, while dressed in full Western garb, but he was talking in kind of a Western twang," Ms. Newman said.

Mann had the actor start over, and, as Mr. Borgnine recalled in his biography, he summoned up the memory of his own mother urging him to go into acting rather than sign up for another 10 years in the Navy.

"So he read the scene where Marty's mother is trying to convince him to ask a girl out on a date, and he says, 'I'm ugly, I'm just an ugly man in a suit. It doesn't matter.' And that had the director tearing up, so he got the part."

Ms. Newman says she first decided to write her book, which she hopes to publish in 2014, after seeing the 1956 musical "The Pajama Game" with Doris Day and John Raitt. "I was amazed they were able to make a musical in the 1950s about labor organizing, which doesn't necessarily summon up images of dancing and singing."

For all the research she did on the roles Mr. Borgnine played, Ms. Newman never did get to interview him.

"I guess I thought there might be more time. He just made a movie last year, but I guess it's fitting that he worked until he died. He lived the life he played in the movies and died doing what he loved, which was to be Hollywood's hardest-working, working-class actor."


Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949. First Published July 10, 2012 4:00 AM


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