When I woke up this morning to the news that Tony Curtis has passed away at the age of 85, I was immeasurably saddened. In a week that has seen some high-profile deaths (Eddie Fisher, Gloria Stuart), it is nothing short of heartbreaking to add yet another legend to that list.
Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, Curtis was inspired to join the Navy during World War II after watching the glut of Hollywood “service pictures” produced in the midst of the conflict–Curtis would later recall being particularly influenced by Cary Grant’s performance in the 1943 submarine drama Destination Tokyo. After the war (during which Curtis served in the Pacific), he pursued acting in New York, eventually landing in Hollywood at the end of the decade with a new name and the goal of becoming a star. Easy on the eyes–his dark, chiseled good looks could give young Marlon Brando a run for his money when it comes to defining the term “smoldering”–and with talent to spare, it’s no wonder Universal had high hopes for their newest contract player.
And after a string of mostly forgettable B-pictures, Curtis broke out as a major star in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success.
As Sidney Falco, a loathsome press agent determined to promote his clients no matter the personal or professional cost, Curtis, who had established a good guy/heroic-type persona in most of his earlier movies, plays against type and demonstrates previously unforeseen dramatic abilities. Opposite Burt Lancaster’s scheming columnist J.J. Hunsecker (a thinly-disguised portrayal of influential gossip-monger Walter Winchell), Curtis more than holds his own, delivering a bravura performance that forever changed the course of his career.
His cinematic clout increased further the following year, when he made The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier. His subsequent performance resulted in Curtis’ sole Oscar nomination.
The two men play “Joker” Jackson (Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Poitier), two escapees from a Southern chain gang who, while still chained together, must work in harmony to survive and find freedom. Jackson’s virulent racism doesn’t do the pair any favors, but as they make their journey, the two form an unlikely friendship. As in Success, Curtis was not the first choice for the role, but he lobbied hard for it and more than delivered in his performance. And he demonstrated tremendous class and respect for his costar’s talents by demanding that Poitier be given star billing on the movie, insisting that Poitier’s name appear first in the credits even though Curtis’ contract called for him to receive top billing.
Soon after, in 1959, Curtis starred in the greatest comedy in the history of film (don’t challenge me on this!), Billy Wilder’s magnum opus Some Like It Hot. As Joe, a saxophone player who flees a mob hit with fellow musician Jerry (Jack Lemmon) by donning drag and joining a girl band, Curtis hits a high point in his career, essentially playing three “characters” within the film–Joe, his female doppelganger Josephine, and Joe’s faux-millionaire persona Junior, the supposed heir to the Shell Oil fortune. And he’s supposedly the straight man in the film!
Curtis maneuvers through the madness with a deft brilliance that is somewhat astonishing given his reported initial unease with the cross-dressing aspect of the part. He partners with Lemmon beautifully, and his steamy chemistry with Marilyn Monroe, as lead singer Sugar, shows no hint of the turmoil behind the scenes, as Monroe’s many personal issues–including, by this time, a serious dependency on alcohol–impeded production most days. The end result is an absolute scream of a film, funny and dark and surprising in so many ways that it remains, to this day, an undisputed classic, featuring one of Curtis’ very best performances.
The time of and immediately following his role in Some Like It Hot marked the pinnacle of Curtis’ film career–he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, able to pick and choose his parts with more freedom than ever before.
He chose to star with his boyhood hero, Cary Grant, in 1959’s Operation Petticoat (a film concept inspired by Curtis’ love of Destination Tokyo), an amusing service picture featuring a pink submarine and a bevy of beauties in the midst of World War II. The following year, Curtis joined the star-studded cast of Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus, playing the relatively small but pivotal role of Antonius. Other notable films from this time period include 1960’s The Rat Race (with Debbie Reynolds), 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl (with Natalie Wood), and 1965’s The Great Race, which re-teamed him with Lemmon.
His career slowed toward the end of the 1960s, and as film roles dried up, Curtis discovered a second career as a successful painter–one of his works was even displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Curtis’ real life was just as fraught with drama and romance as his many screen performances. He was married six times; his most notable union was with first wife Janet Leigh, a marriage that produced uber-talented daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in 1958. His most recent marriage was in 1998 to Jill Vandenburg, who is 42 years younger his junior. Throughout his career Curtis also reportedly had love affairs with several of his Hollywood costars, including a brief relationship with Marilyn Monroe ten years before their on-screen pairing in Some Like It Hot.
He could do it all–broad, slapstick comedy, searing drama, historical epic, even biting, visceral satire. Tony Curtis was one of the greats, giving us some indelible screen performances and one of the liveliest off-screen personas in Hollywood. Even at the age of 83, he was still shocking people, as when he did an obscenity-laced live radio interview with the BBC to promote his autobiography in the spring of 2009. He was, to the end, that blunt boy from the Bronx, forthright and filled with an earthy sensibility.
His passing yesterday marks the end of yet another era in classic film greatness. He is already missed.