Matinee Idle: Tony Curtis (1925 - 2010)

There was more to Tony Curtis than being handsome. Sadly, few chose to focus on anything else.

If ever there was an actor underserved by his leading man looks, it was Tony Curtis. In a career that spanned five decades and dozens upon dozens of motion pictures, he gave many good performances. Some - Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like It Hot, The Boston Strangler - were even great. And yet, as usual, most of the comments about the man centered on his Romanesque attractiveness, a swarthy gentleman machismo that was heightened and highlighted by the merchandising mechanisms of the Hollywood fame factory. By the '70s, when such preformed matinee idolatry was no longer in favor, the middle aged icon slipped successful into his role as former star. Indeed, throughout the rest of his career, he seemed content (if not necessarily eager) to play the recognizable has-been.

Yet there was a time when Curtis (who died at 85 of heart failure in his Las Vegas home on 29 September, 2010) was era-appropriate TMZ fodder, when his face could launch a thousand gossip clips and his caricature could light up an animated kid's show cameo. Oddly enough, such a strategic example of American maleness was born Bernard Schwartz on 3 June, 1925 in the Bronx, New York. HIs parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants and for the first few years of his life, he did not speak English. After a childhood which saw his brother Robert institutionalized for schizophrenia, he and his other brother Julius sent to an orphanage for a short time (their parents just couldn't care for them), and the eventual loss of said sibling in an accident, Curtis grew to serve in the Navy during World War II. Upon discharge, he took up acting, studying with such future talents as Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger.

He got his big break, thanks in part, to his staggering good looks (surprise, surprise). At 23, he was signed to a contract with Universal and made the noted name change. After over several minor roles in equally minor films, he gained major notices as the conniving press agent Sidney Falco in Success, alongside Burt Lancaster. But it was his Oscar nominated work alongside Sidney Poiter in the Stanley Kramer race-relations drama The Defiant Ones that cemented his status as a major studio player. This was later confirmed when, in 1959, he starred in two huge comedy hits - the Blake Edwards war farce Operation Petticoat and the Billy Wilder masterwork Some Like It Hot. Oddly enough, his co-stars in said films, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, would come to haunt Curtis, their own larger than life personas permanently associated with his own unique facade (it didn't help that Curtis did a dead-on impression of the former).

The '60s would also start out great, a part in Kirk Douglas/Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus proving his superstar rise. Throughout the rest of the decade, however, the deconstruction of Tony Curtis began. Numerous TV appearances and satiric swipes at his hollow heroics would deaden his demand. Before long, he was parodying himself in such efforts as The Great Race and Don't Make Waves. Desperate to rediscover his serious acting side, Curtis campaigned for the part of Albert DeSalvo, more infamously known as The Boston Strangler. The experimental film of the killer's crimes, with its bifurcated narrative approach and split screen style, won the star a whole new level of respect. Within a year, however, he was back to playing patsy in cheap knock-offs and genre riffs.

During the 1970s, Curtis became a combination game show mainstay and Love Boat lothario, a former name willing to undermine his past to keep relevant in the present. His cinematic choices were oddball combinations of high profile promise (The Last Tycoon) and lamentably low brow schlock (Sextette, The Manitou, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan). By the '80s, he was lumped in with other Golden Age artifacts for such roll call casting stunts as the Little Miss Marker remake and Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd. True, he could occasionally turn up in such usual efforts as Nicolas Roeg's surreal Insignificance, but for the most part, he was nothing more than a name from a bygone, belittled phase of the artform.

As he aged, Curtis tried a couple of more personal and professional transformations. He made amends with his children, including daughter Jamie Lee, whom he fathered with first wife Janet Leigh (he would go on to marry five more time) and spent time playing catch-up for years of absentee parenting. He also fostered a love for painting, becoming very proficient and productive in various styles and mediums. Perhaps most importantly, he discovered an audience eager to hear his tales of old Tinseltown, of what it was like working with such now god-like members of the motion picture myth. Curtis was happy to oblige, even when some of his comments were considered dismissive or cruel.

As the clock continued to tick, as the name Tony Curtis became as viable as that of Bernard Schwartz for few outside a game of Trivial Pursuit, the once beautiful marquee credit settled into his life as second fiddle with unusual grace. Often mocking his ever-present toupee and tan, his self-deprecating nature was matched only by his willingness to walk up and down that familiar stretch of cinematic memory lane over and over again. From appearances in DVD documentaries to cable channel commemorations, Curtis conveyed a reverence for his former life that few offered him. In fact, among many who achieved his level of pre post-modern fame, he was the most personable and approachable.

Still, one imagines he would have gladly traded all the nice words and gallery showings for a single Oscar. Curtis was always angry about his lack of Academy recognition, arguing that his turns in The Defiant Ones and Strangler were good enough to easily walk away with such honors (he may have had a point - the winners in those years were David Niven for Separate Tables and Cliff Robertson in Charly). As usual, it was another dismissal for a man constantly destabilized by his indisputable magnetism and physical charm. It would be nice to think that, in the future, Tony Curtis will receive a major occupational reevaluation, scholars and pundits proclaiming his acting as valuable and valid as his profile. Until then, we will always have his head shots to remind us of his undeniable assets. There was more to Tony Curtis than being handsome. Sadly, few chose to focus on anything else.




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