Cmu Prof's Book to Focus on Borgnine's Blue-Collar Portrayals

By Carpenter, Mackenzie | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Cmu Prof's Book to Focus on Borgnine's Blue-Collar Portrayals


Carpenter, Mackenzie, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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. …

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