Tony Curtis, star of some of the greatest Hollywood movies of all time, died of a heart attack Wednesday, and The New York Times‘ Dave Kehr has their obituary. It’s full of details of his life and career both well-known (Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz, was a famous ladies man married five times) and obscure (he attended acting classes at The New School for Social Research with Walter Matthau).
Curtis’ cinematic immortality is assured three or four times over. Of course he’s best known today as one of the two cross-dressing musicians on the run from the mob in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” (1959). But even if he hadn’t landed that role, or given such a brilliant performance in two different disguises (as “Josephine” and as an oil magnate who sounds suspiciously like Cary Grant), his legacy would still be strong. He played the title role in a memorable biopic of “Houdini” (1953). He earned an Oscar nomination for Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” (1958) opposite Sidney Poitier. He collaborated with Kirk Douglas on two epic period adventures: 1958’s “The Vikings,” and 1960’s “Spartacus.” In that film Curtis appeared in one of the most notorious deleted scenes in Hollywood history, a thinly veiled homosexual encounter between his character, the slave Antonius, and Laurence Olivier’s Marcus Licinius. Olivier’s character tries to seduce Curtis while discussing his taste for “both oysters and snails.” I guess the veil was too thin; censors cut the scene, and it was lost for some thirty years until a restoration in the early 1990s by Robert Harris (available on the Criterion Collection DVD of the film).
I’ve saved one best film for last, 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success” co-starring Burt Lancaster and, giving one of its finest performances in film to date, the city of New York, playing itself (in 1957, most movies set in New York were still shot primarily in Los Angeles). Curtis played a “cookie full of arsenic” of a press agent named Sidney Falco (a real PR firm in New York City now bears the character’s name). Though it was a critical and financial flop in its day, “Sweet Smell of Success” is now regarded as one of the best films of the ’50s, and an unusual but brilliant film noir. And Curtis is fantastic as a wildly ambitious barnacle on the hull of show business.
In 2008, Curtis told the San Francisco Chronicle “I will probably die within 15 years. I have to come to terms with that, though I almost don’t want to talk about it. When I was running around Hollywood … there was no such thing as death, not for any of us. Now I hope I’m prepared for it.” Sadly, it took a lot less than fifteen years. Early in “Sweet Smell of Success,” as Sidney lays out his plans, a character asks him where he’s trying to get. “Way up high, where it’s always balmy.” Sidney may not have made it, but Tony Curtis did.
The trailer for “Sweet Smell of Success:”
The trailer for “Some Like it Hot:”