Drama

We [heart] Ernest Borgnine

Marty (Ernest Borgnine) listens as his mother asks - AGAIN - when he's getting married. Image: bbc.co.ukEsther Minciotti asks Ernest Borgnine – AGAIN – when he’s getting married. Image: bbc.co.uk

We know what cynics say about the 1955 drama, Marty – and we don’t care.

Marty is a movie about an ordinary man, a butcher, who is unable to find love. If that weren’t bad enough, he’s continually scolded for his unmarried state by those in his Italian-American community.

But one night he meets a plain, unglamorous schoolteacher (Betsy Blair), with whom he begins an unsteady romance, despite – get this! – protests from those same family and friends.

Cynics would say Borgnine’s and Blair’s characters are drawn to each other out of sheer desperation and, once the excitement dies down the relationship will, too. That may be true but who cares? This is a movie, darnit, and we want a happy movie ending because this unremarkable butcher is touchingly portrayed by Ernest Borgnine.

Borgnine, born Ermes Effron Borgnino in 1917, spent 10 years in the navy before becoming an actor. He played a variety of characters during his 60-year career, including soldiers, cowboys and, famously, Commander Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy. But Marty remains our favourite Borgnine performance.

Marty is a tender, thoughtful movie that tears at the most vulnerable part of our psyche – the fear of rejection and abandonment, the fear that we’ll never be loved for who we are. Marty is the embodiment of this. As a result, we become very protective of Marty, and are thankful that Ernest Borgnine gives us such an honest portrayal.

Borgnine wins us over in the first minutes of the film. Here he is, at the butcher shop, cutting and wrapping meat for Italian women who want to know why he isn’t married. “What’s the matter with you?” they ask. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”

Borgnine remains pleasant and helpful, but we can see that these words are barbed. Yet, he doesn’t bark at these women; no, he is calm and patient, and we marvel at his self-control.

In one scene, we see Marty at home with his mother (Esther Minciotti), a tiny woman with a disposition as flexible as cement. She nags her son and continually bosses him around, but he takes it all in stride. Borgnine shows us a man who has lived like this for years and has resigned himself to it.

He’s also a man trying to make peace with his fate. “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother. When she presses him a bit too much, he explodes: “I’m just a fat little man. Just a fat, ugly man. I’m ugly. I’m ugly!” Then, calming down, he pats his mother’s hand and assures her everything will be okay. (Honestly, we can hardly think of this scene without a little lump in our throat.)

In another scene, Borgnine phones a girl for a date. Borgnine is nervous, and becomes increasingly so as the girl rebuffs him. The camera moves in slowly towards Borgnine as he stutters and grasps the telephone receiver. The camera chokes off his world, isolates him, intensifies his anguish. Welcome to Marty-Land.

The movie shifts when Borgnine reluctantly goes to a dance hall, and bumps into a man anxious to fob off his date on someone else. Borgnine is repulsed by this callous proposal, but he watches as the man gives his date (Blair) the brush-off. Blair runs from the room, and a sympathetic Borgnine follows her to ask if she’d like to dance. Blair, sobbing, collapses against the stunned Borgnine as he awkwardly comforts her. With this kind gesture, he gives hope to Blair – and to us.

Borgnine won an Oscar for his portrayal of the unpolished but warm-hearted Marty. His unfeigned performance makes us believe we can overcome any obstacle.

Surely even the most cynical would agree.

Marty: starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti. Directed by Delbert Mann. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1955, 93 mins.

This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.

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50 thoughts on “We [heart] Ernest Borgnine

  1. It makes sense that he was in the Navy for 10 years! But I digress…I thought I was too ugly to find anyone for a long time and MARTY hits me so hard I’ve only seen it once. He deserved that Oscar.

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      1. I did, yeah. I’ve been married for a while now, but sometimes I still think I’m ugly. I hate every picture ever taken of myself. I have issues. Forgot to say, Borgnine is another actor who seems like he was a great guy.

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      2. Someone on Twitter told me he worked with Borgnine, and said he was the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet.

        Thanks for having the guts to share your experience. For what it’s worth, I think you look great in your profile pic. Plus, you have a fab blog. My blog wants to be your blog when it grows up.

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  2. Wonderful post!!! I love the movie Marty. I think they had a happy life together. They were a perfect match, he felt very comfortable talking to her, and her quiet nature made her the ideal listener.

    Pam

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  3. What a GREAT guy. He was a hard-working actor but more importantly, it was obvious he was a genuinely nice guy who truly appreciated every thing – in such a loving-life and grounded way. Marty revealed his depth as an actor. WONDERFUL post, Ruth! Thanks so much for contributing to our blogathon!

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  4. Loved your tribute to Ernest Borgnine — he was so great in Marty, it was sometimes painful to watch. He really made you feel what he was feeling. Borgnine always seemed like such a cool person, too — like he was just loving life. Good stuff!

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  5. You did it. You had to go and make me cry.

    “Cynics would say Borgnine’s and Blair’s characters are drawn to each other out of sheer desperation and, once the excitement dies down, the relationship will, too. That may be true but who cares?” Cynics tick me off. How and why people come together is a mystery, and longevity in a relationship certainly doesn’t rely on excitement.

    Borgnine could do it all from the villain to the village idiot, slapstick comedy to the heartbreaking core of our “Marty”. A career well worth exploring and admiring.

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    1. Amen — wonderful movie, and one of these days, I’m going to have to track down the original TV production of “Marty” (where Rod Steiger plays the title character) to compare and contrast. (A kinescope was made, and I believe it’s either on home video or YouTube.)

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    2. The original teleplay would be very interesting to see, and Steiger would be terrific..but it’s hard to imagine him, rather than Borgnine as Marty.

      Patricia, I agree with you re: relationships. Sometimes you think a certain couple won’t last six months and they end up together for years, and vice versa. How people find and “discover” each other is truly a mystery… a very fun mystery!

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    1. Ernest B. IS easy to love and that’s part of Marty’s appeal, no? I really dislike that scene where he’s on the phone with that girl, trying to ask her for a date. I have great disdain for that girl, treating our Marty that way.

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  6. I love this movie and bought it a couple years ago. Borgnine was just outstanding as Marty, so very glad he won the Oscar for his portrayal. My kids, of course, know him primarily from his voicing of Mermaid Man on the Sponge Bob cartoon. What a long career he had- also did a great job as the brave taxi driver in Escape from New York.

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  7. Ruth, you have made me want to run to my computer and order this movie. I don’t normally like sad movies, but I love character driven movies. I can’t wait to see it. Thanks for the review.

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      1. Hi Ruth, I just wanted to tell you I got to see Marty last night. I absolutely loved it! There is something about watching someone who is so kind – always responding with patience to rude people – that just gets to me. And, when he ran after the girl who had just been jilted, that made me love him even more. You just don’t see that type of character in movies very much, or in real life for that matter. Thanks for a great recommendation and a perfect post about that movie!

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  8. The first time I saw Marty I cried off and on for days. Borgnine was a treasure and I think great in everything he did, but it was this role…it was made for him. Really lovely piece, Ruth.

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    1. Thanks, Jill. I was haunted by this movie the first time I saw it, and it still haunts me every time I see it. It’s a powerful story and Borgnine gives it the treatment it deserves. I agree — this role really was made for him.

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  9. Prior to MARTY, I “knew” Ernest Borgnine from repeats of McHALE’S NAVY, supporting performances in movies like ICE STATION ZEBRA, and dozens of TV guest star roles. I had a hard time visualizing him giving a performance worthy of an Oscar. I was wrong! Borgnine is marvelous in MARTY, perfectly capturing the quiet loneliness of the character. It opened my eyes to how good an actor Borgnine could be when given a worthy role.

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    1. Borgnine did end up in some less-than-stellar roles, although I thought he was great in all of them. It really is too bad that he didn’t have a lot of the Oscar-worthy roles; he was certainly talented enough for the challenge.

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  10. Ruth, you know how I was longing to smash a chair over Robert Ryan’s character in CROSSFIRE over at TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED regarding Sam Levene? Well, I felt the same way about the jerks in MARTY, wishing I could belt Marty’s meanspirited so-called friends and loved ones! Someone give me a chair! But in all seriousness, my friend, I’ve known many people like the people in MARTY, and I wept tears of joy when Marty finally told those jerks where they could stuff it! Ernest Borgnine was so darn good at every kind of character he portrayed; he truly deserved his Oscar and all his other accolades over the years. And yes, my daughter, Siobhan, learned about Borgnine’s career first from SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS and “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy!” We here at Team B HQ consider it to be the equivelint of a “gateway drug” for animation fans! Bottom line: I was moved by your post; superb job, my friend!

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  11. “Someone give me a chair.” That’s a good one, Dor! And I agree with you. Marty’s friends are just a bunch of schlumps with a distorted view of reality. They are prime chair-smacking material, and it was a relief when Marty finally told them off. Folks like that can be pretty tiresome.

    Borgnine was a real gem of a guy, wasn’t he? You always wanted to cheer for him, whether he was a thug or a Mermaidman!

    Thanks for stopping by and for your kind comments. 🙂

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  12. I too say DAMN THE CYNICS!! Borgnine’s is a great performance here and I’ll be damned if most people can’t relate in one way or another. Great commentary, Ruth – as usual. Also a great choice for the blogathon!

    Aurora

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  13. Borgnine always wins me! I love to see him in action, and I get really excited to see his name in the credits. He did many unforgettable films, like Marty and From here to Eternity, and was a great supporting actor in others. I never cease to be amazed of how he trained gladiators in Demetrius and the gladiators!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

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    1. I agree with you — when you see Borgnine’s name in the credits, you feel like you’re in for a treat. “From Here to Eternity” was another great Borgnine performance. It’s time I saw that one again!

      Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

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  14. Excellent post, Ruth! I love me some Borgnine, but (shame!) have yet to see this, his signature role. I’ll have to amend that oversight soon. Borgnine was just such a larger-than-life, big meaty slab of guy, capable of playing truly despicable villains (i.e., in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, etc.) as well as soft-hearted schlubs like Marty. McHALE’S NAVY is dopey, genial fun and worth checking out if you like broad 60s sitcoms, but his best work lies on the silver screen. And he was still working right up until his death (he has a fun cameo in the 2010 Bruce Willis oldie action fest, RED).

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    1. What?! You have not seen this movie? Jeff, you must, MUST right this wrong. 🙂

      Loved your description of “soft-hearted schlubs” — so true! Borgnine was always sympathetic, no matter what kind of character he played. I saw him the other day in “Bad Day at Black Rock”, and I was a little cheesed off that he didn’t have a bigger role.

      Thanks for dropping by.

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  15. A great review of a wonderful movie! I started to choke up when I saw that picture of Marty and Mom, knowing full-well of the climactic scene that was to come. My parents were big fans of Borgnine and neither could watch McHale’s Navy without mentioning what a great actor he was. It was as if, though they laughed at the sit-com, they wanted to make sure we kids knew he was so much more than McHale. Were they ever right!

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    1. That one scene with Marty’s mother is a really tough one to watch. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do that scene. One of the rawest, most gut-wrenching scenes I can think of.

      I liked that your parents always commented on Borgnine’s talent. He didn’t always get the greatest roles, but he left a wonderful legacy. So many people talk about what a lovely person he was.

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  16. I also love Ernest Borgnine and his role in Marty, but I’ll probably always best remember him as Jonathan on Little House on the Prairie when he befriended Laura Ingalls after her baby brother died. That episode always makes me cry! I also loved the interview he did with Robert Osborne for the Private Screenings series on TCM, a must watch for Ernest Borgnine fans! He just seemed like a genuinely nice man.

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    1. I’ve heard nothing but praise about Ernest Borgnine as a person. It’s so refreshing to hear that about a celebrity, isn’t it?

      Oh boy — that Little House on the Prairie episode always makes me cry, too! Can’t help it!

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