Tony Curtis, one of the brightest and most popular Hollywood stars of the 1950s and 1960s, and certainly one of the most handsome, recently died at the age of 85. Tony has a star on the fabled Hollywood Walk of Fame, but more importantly, he has his own room at Chelsea Pines.
Back when the Hollywood studio system was just barely still flourishing (just before the advent of television changed the way we got our entertainment forever), Anthony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx in 1925, had hustled his way into a seven-year contract as one of the decorative pretty boys at Universal (where Rock Hudson, Jeff Chandler and George Nader were similarly employed) in a series of B-movies where his looks meant more than his talent. Slowly his roles began to improve in size and quality, helped by his storybook marriage to Janet Leigh of “Psycho” fame (the first of six wives) to the point where he won the role of a bigoted Southern escaped convict, shackled to Sidney Poitier, in Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones,” which earned him his first and only Oscar nomination.
Many starring roles followed, but two stood out then, and still do today. The better known role was as Joe, the saxophone-playing musician, fleeing across country with Jack Lemmon, both dressed in crazy-funny drag and drooling over Marilyn Monroe, as part of an all-girl band in Billy Wilder’s classic comedy, “Some Like It Hot.” Demurely pursing his lips and looking almost too pretty in drag as Josephine, Curtis held his own against Monroe, at her charmingly sexy best, and Lemmon, whose comic talents were at full tilt, particularly in his seduction scenes with Monroe, where he very effectively did a dead-on Cary Grant impersonation.
Even better, and two years earlier, Curtis had portrayed a dead-eyed, soulless press agent, sucking up to the vicious newspaper columnist Burt Lancaster, in the unforgettable “Sweet Smell of Success”. His Sidney Falco, all sniveling, hustling deadbeat, proved once and for all that Curtis was no longer a male ingenue; this guy was an actor, and attention must be paid.
After too many years of too many sex comedies, in the late 60s Curtis won the title part in “The Boston Strangler,” and made a dramatic effort to change his image once again. While his performance was well-received, tastes had changed. While Curtis continued to work sporadically for many years to come, both in film and TV, his best opportunities were over. He found new respect in his second career as a painter, and his artwork has become very collectible.
I had the opportunity to see Curtis in his final public appearance, at a showing of “Success” at the first TCM Film Festival in Hollywood this past April. He was frail and wheelchair-bound, but the spirit was indomitable, and before long there was Sidney Falco up on screen, as grasping and sleazy as ever. That’s the Tony Curtis I’ll remember.