The hopeful eight

OscarBestPicnoms

It was with some satisfaction that I belatedly watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD, thus putting myself in the position of being able to say I have seen all eight of the pale-faced Best Picture nominees at the 88th Academy Awards. I can thus now fruitlessly compare them. They seem like as accurate a barometer of this year’s crop (and thus last year’s movies), so I am about to do just that, although what I think should win is entirely theoretical, as I am not one of the 6,300 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and thus hold zero sway in this regard.

What I think will win is also fluff. What do I know? I have feelings in my bones, and I am a seasoned Oscars watcher of many decades, so have some predictive form, but I don’t want to know what’s going to win. I’m glad about that. It would be boring. I like surprises. I actively want to be wrong. Despite being statistically made up of mostly old, white American men, the Academy is still capable of delivering a bookmaker-upsetting surprise; even causing a relative upset. I enjoy the start-of-year awards season and the resulting quality bottleneck, as I am usually entertained and exercised by its vagaries and waves. I relish the controversies the Oscars throw up. This year: lack of diversity. Meet the new controversy, same as the old controversy.

I don’t blame the august Oscar voters for Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Hollywood is to blame, with its deep-seated patriarchy and its demographic timidity, not to mention its unbreakable Plexiglass ceiling for women and the equivalent of “voter ID” for black actors, creatives and technicians. All of this bleeds into the reductive treatment of all Hispanics (sexy, smouldering, hot-tempered, etc. – it may be positive discrimination of a type, but it’s not so far round the dial from Trump’s rapists), although at least one of the Hopeful Eight was directed by a Mexican.

It’s the entertainment industry’s fault, not the mainly white, mainly male, mainly over-50 demographic of a club of movie professionals, which, by dint of inducting anyone who wins an Oscar and then has the ability to not die, means the Academy is full of people who aren’t black or Hispanic, and a vicious circle is hard to extract yourself from. The problem isn’t with the Oscars, or who wins them, but with American cinema itself, where people tend not to be of colour, or women, and especially not women of colour, like Jada Pinkett Smith, who is among those who’ve threatened to boycott the colourless Oscars ceremony. If I were a black actress, I’d kick up a right stink and then make damn sure I attended. Being invisible is playing into the racists’ hands.

MadMaxFuryR

You keep hearing the truism that male Academy members “give the films to their wives to watch,” which may or may not explain the popularity of certain movies. I hesitate to make sweeping generalisations about what women or men want. Romantic comedies may be machine-tooled to appease women, but men also like them, and women also hate them. Equally, noisy action movies: aimed at teenage boys or men who wish they were still teenage boys, but not necessarily only appreciated by the intended gender or age group. The high nomination tally of Mad Max: Fury Road – which, by the way, is a “male” film by type (action, noise, explosions, petrol) but, interestingly, dominated as much by female characters as the eponymous male one – is a tonic. That it’s only really picking up “technical” awards (so named as if acting, writing and directing aren’t technical) – four wins out of seven at the Baftas for costumes, make-up, editing and production design – should not concern us. It’s doing well and it’s an action movie.

Brooklyn

Max is one of three Best Picture Oscar nominees whose poster is dominated by a woman’s face; also, Room and Brooklyn, both based on novels, one written by a woman, the other a man, one Irish-Canadian, the other Irish, which is a cheering ethnic skew. I first saw Brooklyn trailed at a tiny cinema in Bantry, County Cork, and felt the Irish love (I dislike being English and wish I was Irish). Though an Irish/UK/Canadian production by funding that’s set in Brooklyn and partly shot in Montreal, its Irish authenticity is deep, with the scenes set in novelist Colm Tóibín’s Enniscorthy also shot there, and only two of the principal Irish parts played by non-Irish actors (the bankable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent). Since it’s about homesickness within the Irish diaspora in America, it could prick a few glands among the immigrant Academy members, but it’s not going to win.

Nor is Bridge Of Spies. I have no ill feelings towards it, but it’s a bit stolid and unsurprising. Cold War. Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance (not in it enough). Snow. Germans. Spies. It’s well enough made, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to invent it. (Its score by Thomas Newman is actually something of a beaut, but it’s not the equal of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score for Carol, which, by the way, despite being a good fit for the wives of the lazy male Academy members, looks to be this season’s big loser. I don’t really get why.)

Room

I admire Room; its stars, its writer (Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel with precision), its director, another Irishman, Lenny Abrahamson. It will I think win Best Actress for Brie Larson, but it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. Too gloomy. Too grubby. Too creepy. All the things I love about it. The Big Short, too, is a poor fit for traditional Best Picture thinking; I thoroughly enjoyed its manic energy, but I fear the financial crash and subprime mortgages will not sing in the minds of the panel. (“Aren’t we, like, in some kind of recovery?”)

If Best Picture is between any two films, it’s The Revenant (which I have raved about here) and Spotlight. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s The Martian is going to find much traction at the Oscars. I got it into it, but found it tonally disconcerting. Was it a drama? Was it a comedy? (It was canny of Fox to put it forward for the “Musical or Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, where it picked up Best Film, thus unrealistically raising its producers’ expectations.) I wondered aloud if Matt Damon might pip Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the Baftas; that his have-a-go solo performance might sway our less macho voters. But no. There’s no beating Leo’s suffering; he’s a vegan who ate raw liver and raw fish for his art – give that man a statuette and the rest of the week off.

The Revenant is unassailable. There’s an outside chance – the “Crash wild card anomaly” (see: the year Crash beat Brokeback Mountain) – that Spotlight will beat The Revenant to Best Picture and break the Oscar algorithm. Tom McCarthy’s never going to win the Director category, as Spotlight is intelligent enough not to let the direction show (part of its consummate mastery), whereas The Revenant is something like a two and a half hour Oscar begging reel. Look! Natural light! It must have taken ages!

Spotlight

I still harbour a tiny hope that Spotlight, having won Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo, might win Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of one of those: true story, set in the past, talky, righteous, no sex, no violence (other than the violence wrought on children by priests, which we do not directly see), and an “issue” that bypasses partisan politics and shows that you have a heart. There are no shades of how much you revile paedophiles.

OscarBestPicnoms

As stated, I want to be surprised on Oscar night. I sort of was at the Baftas when Rylance won for Bridge Of Spies, although I suspect patriotism played its hand. (A resource in short supply when neither Tom Courtenay nor Charlotte Rampling found their way onto the Actor and Actress lists for 45 Years.) Hey, this time next year, the voting system may have been overhauled to address the existence of the past 50 years in civil rights, with Academy members who haven’t worked for the past ten years becoming ineligible to automatically vote. We already have gender-divided categories. What about categories graded for “colour”? It would make the Oscars as long and interminable as the Grammys, but perhaps it’s the kind of affirmative action the awards season needs.

Advertisements

Bear good

TheRevenantb

I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

TheRevenantL

I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

TheRevenantP

Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

TheRevenantT

I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

TheRevenantbones

Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

TheRevenantposter

 

Eclectic children

This useless summer is apparently driving people into cinemas, so it’s not all bad. Here’s what the crannies of the arthouse circuit – and one DVD – lined up over what was a cinematically satisfying and geographically various weekend. I’ve been slow in reviewing films this year, due to workload and a sudden need to exorcise my political demons in words. So let’s log five … (all are illustrated in chronological order above)

A Royal Affair (aka En kongelig affære) is the Danish historical drama produced by Lars Von Trier and yet about as far from his own work as could be, within the realm of gloomy Danish cinema at any rate. It’s the true story, possibly well known to Danes but not to me, of the Enlightenment-driven town doctor who became the trusted adviser to “mad” King Christian VII and manipulated him into passing enlightened laws, all the while, power-hungry, having an affair with the Queen. It’s torrid, cape-and-dagger stuff, well told by director Nikolaj Arcel, and a cracking yarn for the uninitiated. (My grasp of Danish history is poor, considering how highly I rate the country’s cinema and TV, and this film filled a gap.)

Full marks to Mads Mikkelsen, who is best known to foreign audiences for playing the baddie in Casino Royale and perhaps for tough-guy roles in some CGI sword-and-sorcery epics. He imbues Dr Struensee with just the right amount of everyman charm and radical fervour. Silver Bear-winning Mikkel Boe Følsgaard manages to make the sniggering, weak-willed young monarch three-dimensional and when, under Struensee’s Svengali-like spell, he almost becomes his own man, the transformation is credible. (Great news for fans of Scandi-drama: Søren Malling aka Jan Meyer in The Killing and Torben Friis in Borgen, pops up as a sympathetic courtier.)

Nostalgia For The Light (aka Nostalgia de la Luz) couldn’t have been more different: a Chilean documentary about, ostensibly, astronomy, which turned out to be more of a poetic meditation on the “disappeared”. Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, now 70, is not someone whose earlier work I’ve ever seen, but he’s been making films since the 60s and if there’s a thread to his work it’s Chile’s shameful recent past, specifically the horrors committed under Augusto Pinochet. (I now need to see his classic trilogy of films about the 1973 coup, The Battle Of Chile – this is an aspect of history I know a lot about already, but I’ve missed these films.)

Here, he starts with the magnificent but incongruous telescopes built in the Atacama desert, where there is no humidity and thus makes stargazing just about perfect under its thin, clear skies. Having met an astronomer, who articulates why he is devoted to exploring space, and walked the Mars-like red, dusty surface of the unyielding desert and seen its fossils and Indian drawings, etched into rock, we suddenly hit the Pinochet coup, and learn that the thousands of Chileans killed were buried in the desert. Now the link is made.

A survivor of Pinochet’s concentration camps, explains that astronomy lessons were banned because the authorities feared prisoners would use the constellations to escape. I must admit, I thrive on connections like this. And Guzmán mines these links with poetic ease. The reviewer in Sight & Sound praised the film’s beauty and structure, but felt it was “moribund” as a piece of theory. I disagree. To link astronomers searching the skies, archaeologists searching the rocks, and a few devoted widows and bereaved mothers picking through the dust in search of bone fragments of lost loved ones, almost 40 years later, strikes me as deeply profound. When a cosmic-terrestrial link was made between stardust and the calcium in all our bones, I was sold. This is a lovely film, whose disturbing subject matter and accent on grief and the political power of memory is always offset by visual splendour.

The Giants (aka Les Géants) is a Belgian coming-of-age drama directed and co-written by actor-writer-director Bouli Lanners that has drawn comparisons with Stand By Me, but it’s a whole lot darker than that. All credit, first of all, to Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen and Paul Bartel, who play Zak, his older brother Seth and their slightly tougher friend Danny, three boys who find themselves against the world, having been abandoned in the Belgian forest for the summer. (Danny’s parents seem to be dead; Zak and Seth’s – apparently diplomats? – have dumped them at their deceased grandfather’s summer house, with their mother’s voice heard occasionally on a mobile.) Naturally, their fun and games – dope-smoking, hot-wiring, canoeing – take a more dangerous turn when their money runs out and the only solution to make some more involves a truly unpleasant drug dealer.

Although the boys’ travails far outweigh Stand By Me‘s leeches, junkyard dog and railway bridge for threat and peril, there are parallels. Adults are largely absent, and those that we do meet – the dealer, his doped-up girlfriend, Danny’s psycho older brother – are caricatured to such a grotesque extent that, against the naturalism of the kids, you wonder if perhaps we aren’t seeing the grown-ups through young eyes. It’s not an over-stylised film otherwise, and indeed it drinks in the verdant forest and millpond, green-coated water, the natural beauty serving to point up the ugliness of the houses we go into.

A rite of passage is guaranteed, of course, but if this were a Hollywood movie, it would be far more conventionally plotted. Aside from that one mobile phone, it’s a film that journeys away from “civilisation”, and takes these would-be savages back to the mud and the elements. What drives them on is – deal with it – friendship, loyalty and laughter. When Marthe Keller turns up as a benevolent adult, she is almost saintlike, and again, you wonder if this is all in the minds of these abandoned, and thus frankly abused, youngsters. The adults are “les geants“, and they are not wholly big and friendly.

I loved The Giants. I hope you can find it. After The Kid With A Bike, I’m beginning to see the appeal of Belgian filmmaking.

Electrick Children rounded off a fantastically varied weekend at various Curzons. Hey, it was English-language! A token gesture towards my native tongue. The directorial debut of Rebecca Thomas, about whom I know very little, it mined a peculiarly American seam, in which a Mormon teen (Julia Garner, last seen in the thematically similar Martha Marcy May Marlene) escapes the strictures of an Amish-like community in modern-day Utah and drives to Las Vegas. Are you thinking fish? Are you thinking water? Yes, it’s a worn trope, but something about this beguiling and single-minded film sidesteps obvious clichés. In her pinafore dress, this 15-year-old girl, pregnant by immaculate conception, or so she claims, and in awe of the technology of a simple cassette player, rocks up in America’s most garish town in search of the singer of a rock song on a tape she has illicitly heard and become obsessed by. Her brother (Liam Aiken), has stowed away in the truck, and wishes to take her back. But she falls immediately in with Rory Culkin’s rock band pals and goes on an odyssey.

You expect peril. None is forthcoming. Although she knows not of dope or rock gigs or clubs or cursing, Rachel is keen to adapt. You expect some kind of social embarrassment. None is forthcoming. She accepts her new friends and they accept her. Her relationship with Culkin’s Clyde (also a runaway, except from well-to-do suburban parents) is touching and warm. If I’m making the film sound airy or fairy, it isn’t, but it’s magical-realist rather than realist.

I was charmed by it. Thomas’s dialogue is original, and if the storytelling hinges on one too many coincidences, you won’t care, as it’s so breezy and uplifting to watch. She elicits are real, unabashed youthful energy from her main cast, and – as with The Giants – the adults are cast as remote, usually adversarial figures, lacking in empathy for those at a more difficult age. Billy Zane works well as the righteous preacher who drives Rachel away, and Bill Sage makes a good guardian angel as the hippy driver of a red Mustang, itself imbued with sexual subtext thanks to an earlier sequence.

I must say I’m constantly in awe of first features. The aforementioned Martha Marcy May promised much of writer-director Sean Durkin, as did, last year, Animal Kingdom of David Michôd, and Another Earth of Mike Cahill. There’s something bracing and tantalising about seeing a debut that’s as good as Monsters by Gareth Edwards, or Margin Call by JC Chandor, or District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, to pluck a couple of recent examples, which have yet to be followed up. Imagine starting so high. Electrick Children tells us to watch out for Rebecca Thomas …

21 Jump Street saw us back in the living room with a new DVD that could have gone either way, in that it’s a mainstream Hollywood comedy aimed at teenage boys rather than being about them, and – desperately – based on an 80s TV series that we never got over here anyway. With expectations at knee-height, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise (and not least because the knowing screenplay, by Scott Pilgrim‘s Mike Bacall, acknowledged the anorexic nature of the source).

I like Jonah Hill, and have enjoyed seeing him graduate from stoner comedies to more substantial acting parts in Moneyball and Cyrus, so this might have been a backward step, but – having co-written it – his easy, off-the-cuff style helped 21 Jump Street along, and, under the direction of How I Met Your Mother‘s Phil Lord and Chris Miller (never seen it, by the way, but I know it has made their joint career), the usually plastic Channing Tatum also found his inner comedian.

It’s two rookies who go back to high school, undercover, and the humour is often subtler than the obligatory gross-out/swearing-match moments suggest, with some wry digs at how the traditional high school caste system has changed in a short number of years from jocks and nerds to something more subtle and less extreme. (Basically, Tatum’s jock becomes a science nerd, and Hill’s nerd becomes a sort of … something else; I’m not pitching well.)

Hey, it’s an “action comedy” so you get the also-obligatory funny car chases and funny, if blood-spurting, shoot-outs, and while the drug-bust plot is merely a line upon which to hang gags, it adds a degree of momentum. At the end of the day, if you’re smiling or laughing at the antics of those onscreen – essentially Hill, Tatum and a potty-mouthed Ice Cube as their boss, with extra juice from Rob Riggle – that’s all that’s required.

Films. It takes all sorts to make a weekend.

A lotta guts

The legendary Ernest Borgnine, who has died of renal failure at what can only be described as the ripe old age of 95, was a key player in my early, movie-loving life. As is well documented, I was taken to see The Poseidon Adventure, aged 10, by my Dad in 1975, and became frankly obsessed by the mother of all disaster movies. Although it scared the life out of me, exposing me to peril, degradation and mortality at a tender age, it also thrilled me, and my attempts to “process” this film that had made such an impression, stretched to reading the 1969 source novel, by Paul Gallico, practising holding my breath underwater at Kingsthorpe pool, and drawing pictures of characters and scenes from memory.

The 1974 Pan paperback of The Poseidon Adventure was a gift, as it bore two stills from the film on the front and back cover. (I still have it, so dog-eared now it looks as if it has been salvaged from the SS Poseidon by Michael Caine.) On the front, we see the characters Reverend Scott, cop Mike Rogo and his wife Linda, all scrubbed up for the New Year’s Eve party that will be their last taste of “civilisation” before the ship turns over. On the back, we see the party of survivors in the final stages of their escape, all sweaty and dishevelled now, with Rogo down to his vest, and Linda wearing the shirt he was wearing on the front cover.

You have to remember that this was an age long before video and the internet. It was simply not possible for me to look the film up anywhere. (Our library of books at home was tiny. Indeed, a couple of years later, I was able to borrow from Northampton Library a themed book called Thriller Movies by Lawrence Hammond, which contained valuable information about – and two more pics from – my feared but favourite movie, and Catastrophe: The End Of Cinema?, a pretty cheap tome, also provided pictorial relief.) Anyway, the Gallico paperback also had a cast list, from whose hierarchy, using my powers of deduction, I was able to hazard a guess at who played whom. Gene Hackman’s name was first, so he was Scott. Ernest Borgnine’s was second, so he must have been Rogo. (I was right. And so was I with regards the others, although I got Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin mixed up, and Arthur O’Connell and Eric Shea.)

The funny thing about Ernest Borgnine is that he looked like an Ernest Borgnine. That was the amazing thing about him. Although Anglicised just a little from Ermes Borgnino, it fitted his wide, beaten-up face and brickhouse frame, and although I wouldn’t have been clever enough to spot it, aged 10, he is very visibly Italian-America, wouldn’t you say? His “journey” through the film makes him an essential moving part: a foil to Hackman’s sometimes over-earnest and bullying persona; somewhat brow-beaten by his ex-prostitute wife but adoring underneath the bickering; tough, for certain, and a safe, blue-collar pair of hands, if not as mentally agile as the Reverend and perhaps forever destined to be a deputy. In many ways, although Hackman would soon be anointed as My Favourite Actor – a devotion that lasted throughout my teen years and into adulthood – Borgnine (whose name I initially pronounced Borg-neen) had an instant seat at my top table.

I caught up with his other key parts belatedly in the sort of films made in the 50s and 60s that were then showing on television: in The Dirty Dozen, Bad Day At Black Rock, From Here To Eternity, Ice Station Zebra, The Vikings, Flight Of The Phoenix – always the tough nut, usually a bad guy. In Black Rock, he was Coley, the “half-horse, half-alligator” who would threaten to “kick a lung outta ya!” I even enjoyed him as Angelo Dundee in The Greatest. The moment I saw that gap-toothed grin, I felt reassured that I would not be wasting my time with a film on TV.

It was, of course, Paddy Chayevsky’s adapted-from-TV Marty that, in 1955, alerted people to Borgnine’s more subtle, everyman acting chops. It won him an Oscar. After which, frankly, he returned to being a tough guy. It was years before I saw Marty. He remained perhaps proudest of the performance for the rest of his days.

To a younger generation, he’ll always be Santini from Airwolf in the mid-80s, although I missed that meeting. As he grew older and more grizzled, and even more lovable, I relished seeing the autumnal Borgnine in serious, late-20th/early-21st-century movies like Gattaca or the portmanteau 11’09″01 September 11, bringing the ballast that only age and experience bestow. He had already turned 80, but nothing like on his last legs.

In May 2001, I met him. Aged eighty-four and full of life, he was over in the UK not to promote his own work, but his wife’s. His fifth wife, whom he married in 1973, was Tova Traesnaes, Norwegian by birth and founder of her own cosmetics line by trade. Ernie, as we shall now call him, and indeed how he introduced himself to me, was here to accompany her on a promo trip. She’d become quite the QVC staple, and they made a happy couple. He’d agreed to come into Radio 4, at Broadcasting House, to conduct a one-one-one career interview with me for Back Row, the weekly cinema show I used to host. As you might imagine, it was about as exciting a professional engagement that I could imagine, right up there with interviewing Robert Altman a year later.

He made quite an impact. White-haired and beaming, he lit up the corridors of the Radio Arts department, saying hi to everybody, and even opening doors of closed offices to announce his arrival and shake hands. It is not meant to demean him to say that when a producer approached him to shake his hand, concealing something in the other hand which may have been a diary or a phone, he assumed it was a camera and that she was after a photo, and immediately fell into the pose of a man about to be immortalised. This made us love him even more.

It was rare that anybody broke the Dorchester Hotel promo protocol and ventured into our unglamorous offices to be interviewed in what was a cupboard like studio, with no booth or glass, just a small table, two chairs, a jug of water and a tape machine next to which a producer could perch. It was like a royal visit, seriously. Robert Altman came in too, as did – to name but a few good sports – Juliet Stephenson, John Barry and Tom Courtney. You could barely squeeze Ernie’s personality in there.)

I have asked my old producer if he might transfer the interview onto a disc for me, and I can’t wait to hear it again. It was certainly a highlight of my movie-interviewing career, even if Ernie’s answers were well-rehearsed and he gave us nothing approaching a scoop. That wasn’t his job. For the record, we played the Borgnine interview out on May 26, 2001, in the same programme as piece on Johnny Depp’s new film Blow, a humorous column about Hollywood’s war with TV by Sue Perkins, and an item about Series 7: The Contenders.

On their way out of the building, as noisy and ebullient as they had been their way in, Mr and Mrs Borgnine-Taesnaes handed out cactus-based natural cosmetics.

I loved Ernest Borgnine, veteran of around 140 films, and would have done if I’d never been anywhere near his presence. He shall never be forgotten. “You had a lotta guts, lady,” he said, as Rogo, to Mrs Rosen (Shelley Winters) after she’d laid down her life in The Poseidon Adventure. So did he.