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Tony Curtis Liked It Hot, 1925-2010 | reviews, news & interviews

Tony Curtis Liked It Hot, 1925-2010

Tony Curtis Liked It Hot, 1925-2010

Another link with the golden age of Hollywood is broken

Tony Curtis, who has died in Las Vegas at the age of 85, made an improbable leap from Bronx street kid - the erstwhile Bernie Schwarz, who was always getting beaten up - to Hollywood icon in the 1950s and early Sixties. That he was able to do so is a testament to his determination to be an actor on the G I Bill, Universal’s willingness to put raw hunks of beef like him and Rock Hudson (a fellow Navy man) under contract, and Bernie’s own belief in his facile charm.

“I finessed myself," he told me in a 1991 interview at the Hotel Bel-Air that ended in an unexpected hug. “And these actors that I admired became my mentors; they spoke to me. Cary Grant would say to me, ‘Bernie, Tony, watch the way I finesse this woman into giving me a kiss.’ I’d say, ‘Ooh, that’s good.’” How apposite that Curtis should impersonate Grant to get Marilyn Monroe into bed in Some Like It Hot. In a shiny tight frock and cloche in Billy Wilder’s 1959 masterpiece, he even outdid Grant’s drag act in I Was a Male War Bride - as Joe turned “Josephine”, Curtis was uncannily feminine, weirdly so since his beauty was never androgynous (despite a tendency to pout), whatever Laurence Olivier’s Roman senator thinks of Curtis’s slave in the “snails and oysters” scene in Spartacus (1960).

Curtis begins his seduction of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot:

Early on, he was an all-purpose male lead, often in costume, often an exotic - famously Bronxing his faux-medieval dialogue in The Black Shield of Falworth (1954) - and no one can say that he didn’t move well and look good. But then, in 1957, he was peerlessly urban revealing hitherto unseen depths as Sidney Falco, the corruptible press agent who’s required to sell his soul in Sweet Smell of Success. He was at his best again as the shapeshifting hero of The Great Impostor (1960). He would end up working prolifically for nearly 60 years, plummeting into alcoholism and drug abuse once it became clear to him that he would not be able to recreate his glory years of 1957-60. He overcame his addictions, however, and latterly reconciled with his actress daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, the second of his six children from six marriages.

Curtis hustling as Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success:

As a nine-year-old moviegoer, I first discovered Curtis as the Great Leslie, a movie-movie swordsman all in white, eyes twinkling lasciviously at Natalie Wood’s cleavage, in The Great Race (1965) - and understood, however vaguely, that he was being ironic (before I knew that word) and that sex, whatever that was, was something looming dangerously on the horizon. It was the kind of inconsequential fluff that drove Curtis, who was a perfectionist and wanted to be taken seriously, to play the serial killer in The Boston Strangler (1968). It rankled with him that his grim, troubling performance in Richard Fleischer’s thriller went unacknowledged by the Motion Picture Academy. Although he had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the racist manacled to a black man in The Defiant Ones (1958), Curtis never won one of the industry’s major gongs. But he did better than that. There he is, alongside Brando, Monroe, Astaire, Fields and Mae West, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And now, at last, yondah lies the kingdom of his faddah.

Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones:

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