Tony Curtis, 1925-2010.
Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Tony Curtis, who died last week at the age of 85, had one of the strangest careers in Hollywood history. He was, for years, an extremely pretty boy with not much discernible talent. And then, all of a sudden and for only two years, Curtis became a genuinely great film actor. And then, just as fast as it had blossomed, Curtis’s extraordinary talent seemed to desiccate.
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
Curtis spent much of the 1950s as a laughingstock of a kind, an exemplar of Hollywood’s propensity for ludicrous casting. Whether he was in a swashbuckler set in medieval England or a desert-sands flick, Curtis could not mask the thick New York Jewish accent he never lost, and his anachronistic line readings instantly became a source of campy jest. (He never actually spoke the words “Yonda lies da castle of my fodda,” but he came close.) If he can be said to resemble any current Hollywood star, it would be Taylor Lautner, who plays the werewolf boy in the Twilight movies. Lautner now commands about $10 million per picture and has been on the covers of hundreds of magazines; he has a fascinating face and an absurdly ripped body and cannot credibly speak a sentence.
The first glimmer that Curtis might have something more to offer came in 1953, four years after he had begun in Hollywood, when he starred as Harry Houdini. It must have seemed an amusing idea to have Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx play Ehrich Weisz from Milwaukee—two Jewish kids who transformed themselves into stars through sheer force of will. The movie isn’t very good, but you can see something happening in Curtis’s body, how he unstiffens himself for the first time.
The physicality he displayed in Houdini served him in good stead three years later when he costarred with Burt Lancaster in Trapeze, a movie notable now only for the fact that the two men were introduced to each other on it. Lancaster’s production company was planning to make Sweet Smell of Success, a movie about an evil gossip columnist and an amoral press agent, and Curtis somehow convinced Lancaster to give him the latter part.
Every Hollywood lightweight who proves himself a box-office draw gets a chance or two or three to stretch in a part no one would think him capable of. These experiments are all too often risible—think of Patrick Swayze, fresh off Ghost, playing a tormented doctor in Calcutta in City of Joy, or Zac Efron from High School Musical trying to embody a young actor tussling with greatness in Me and Orson Welles. Very infrequently, magic happens. Nick Nolte had success in the mid-1970s as a scuba-diving treasure hunter in The Deep when he took on the part of a grizzled Vietnam vet drug dealer in Who’ll Stop the Rain and was so dazzling he instantly became known as one of Hollywood’s best actors.
Curtis’s turn in Sweet Smell of Success is the Platonic ideal of this gimmick—the greatest turnaround moment for an actor in movie history. His performance as Sidney Falco is not only amazing because Curtis is the one delivering it; it’s a performance any actor at any time would have been proud to claim. Curtis not only had to embody a tricky, dishonest, motor-mouthed louse, but a small-souled and cowardly weasel besides. There is nothing remotely grand or elevated about Falco’s villainy; he is the cinema’s foremost EveryHeel.
Two years later, after having continued in a dark vein playing a racist Southerner chained to Sidney Poitier in the vivid prison-escape drama The Defiant Ones, Curtis suddenly emerged again, this time as a brilliant farceur in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Curtis is spectacular in it, blowing his costars Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon off the screen. Later that year, having parodied Cary Grant to perfection in Some Like It Hot, Curtis costarred with Grant in the hit submarine comedy Operation Petticoat, playing an egotistical scrounger in a part that combined Sidney Falco’s do-anything ethos with his Some Like It Hot lightness of spirit.
So, Tony Curtis, 1957 to 1959: three major hits (Some Like It Hot, The Defiant Ones, Operation Petticoat), one Oscar nomination for Best Actor (The Defiant Ones), and the financially unsuccessful but critically celebrated Sweet Smell of Success.
And then, a series of lame and overproduced sex farces and slapstick epics just drained the integrity from his work. All that was left was frantic, exhausting, pointless energy. By the 1980s he was playing supporting roles in horror movies. There would be no late-in-life renaissance for him, though over time the singular brilliance of his work in Sweet Smell of Success would come to be universally acknowledged.