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It was Walter Matthau who explained to Ellen Burstyn, upon handing her the Best Actress Oscar she hadn't been present to accept days earlier, that the chief difference the award would make to her career was this: "When you die, the newspaper obituaries will say, 'The Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn died today.'"
It's a famous quip, one that is proven true virtually every time a former Oscar-winner -- or even a nominee -- dies, even when their celebrity is such that a puny golden statuette hardly seems their most culturally significant achievement. In the case of a character actor like Ernest Borgnine, who passed away over the weekend at the decidedly ripe age of 95, that single Academy Award win is an essential elevating prefix: "Marty," the modest 1955 character study for which he won, may not be the most widely seen work of his career, but the Best Actor Oscar it reaped remains a validating distinction for the kind of valuable anti-star on whom obituarists don't always spend too much column space.
"Marty," a modest, soft-shuffle romance between a shy, overweight butcher and a dowdy schoolteacher, remains one of the Academy's most low-key choices for Best Picture. (It also remains the last film to win both the Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes.) Borgnine's Best Actor win for the film, meanwhile, was equally atypical, particularly coming off a run of variously iconic leading men like Brando, Bogart and Cooper taking the prize: actors who looked and sounded like Borgnine didn't generally get to headline movies, much less win leading awards for them.
Indeed, he would have only the one opportunity: Borgnine remains one of a handful of men to have won Best Actor at his only nomination in any category, and leading roles didn't exactly come rushing in its wake. Marty and Borgnine alike had one invitation to dance, and duly took it.
But while "Marty" remains by far the most generous offer, and consequently the richest, most shaded performance, of Borgnine's career, his CV takes in any number of titles that are treasured memories for disparate generations of moviegoers and couch potatoes: "From Here to Eternity" (which runs second to "Marty" for the title of his best work), "The Wild Bunch," "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Dirty Dozen," "Gattaca" and the small-screen exploits of "McHale's Navy," "Airwolf" and even "SpongeBob SquarePants."
Most impressively of all, Borgnine's work rate seemed, if anything, to increase with age: his list of screen credits, however undistinguished in recent years, runs busily all the way up to this year. That Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award he won in 2011, however fiercely protested in some quarters, certainly didn't come for lack of effort.
But why wasn't that recent award met with unanimous approval? And why is the title most prominently listed in some of the obituaries dedicated to him not "Marty," but a film he never actually appeared in -- or, to get to the nub of the matter, he never even saw? Yes, much as it would dismay him to see the gay cowboy romance continually welded to his name, Ernest Borgnine's identity for many movie geeks too young to remember, or feel much for, his prime career work is unhappily likely to remain "That Old Guy Who Refused To See 'Brokeback Mountain.'"
Borgnine hadn't bothered the Academy at all since his solitary moment in the sun with "Marty," but precisely one half-century later, he inadvertently opened a rather ugly can of worms for them with his cheerful declaration that he hadn't seen the then-comfortable frontrunner for Best Picture, had no intention of seeing it, and knew a number of colleagues in the Academy who felt precisely the same way -- among them, such actors as Tony Curtis and Robert Duvall, who voiced their own displeasure. ("If John Wayne were alive today, he'd roll over in his grave," were his words, though one rather hopes that Wayne wouldn't be in his grave to begin with.)
The remarks were, of course, unprofessional -- in a perfect world, Academy members should see all nominees before voting, though we know that's all too rarely the case -- but it was, of course, the unapologetic homophobia inherent in his resistance to the film that rankled with many a cultural commentator. The defence suggested that Borgnine had no obligation to see, much less approve, a film that didn't line up with his personal values, however outdated they were. The prosecution might have conceded that point, but countered that by making a public statement of his sight-unseen distaste for the film, Borgnine was effectively campaigning against it -- a passive, but nonetheless hostile, act of prejudice.
This entire kerfuffle would likely have been a swiftly forgotten storm in a teacup had "Brokeback Mountain" gone on to win Best Picture, as most expected it to. But when Jack Nicholson, eyebrows raised to the skies, announced that the winner was "Crash," Borgnine's comments came in for renewed, magnified scrutiny, as pundits wondered just how representative his views were of the Academy's elderly, male, (usually) silent majority, and just how much of a hindrance that latent conservative streak could be to the social and cultural relevance of the Oscars.
Of course, whether the Borgnines of the Academy were any happier with "Crash" -- a far more overt exercise in liberal tub-thumping than the largely apolitical "Brokeback" -- as a victor is another question entirely, but the more contentious social issue had been averted for that year. Meanwhile, "Brokeback Mountain" held on to a kind of noble outsider status that critics would likely have chipped away at had it won -- so perhaps, ironically enough, Borgnine's hurtful comments wound up doing the film a good turn.
The outcome of this is that Ernest Borgnine has been adopted by awards analysts as a kind of poster boy for the Academy's most conservative instincts: "What Would Ernest Borgnine Do?" asked James Rocchi in an Oscar predictions piece a few years back, and it's a line that resurfaces in various permutations across the Oscar blogosphere when the Academy makes any seemingly staid or regressive decision.
To the best of my knowledge, the 94 year-old Borgnine never voiced an opinion on "The King's Speech" -- I like to imagine he thought it a bit frilly, if he saw it at all -- but his name still surfaced in the conversation when the cosy period piece beat David Fincher's metallic, youth-oriented, critically adored "The Social Network" to the punch. The Borgnines did it, whether Borgnine did it or not. That's an unusual Oscar legacy for a one-time nominee-winner to leave behind, but it beats a simple prefix.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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