Giant

In the Fifties and Sixties, he was a pin-up of unusual potency, whose very hairstyle was a brand name. Tony Curtis, once Hollywood's biggest, most beautiful star, is still a sex symbol, a remarkably youthful septuagenarian. In a candid and remarkable interview, he tells his `sweet daughter' Jamie Lee Curtis what he did to become a movie giant
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Jamie So this is Jamie and Tony. Say "hello".

Tony Hello, Jamie.

Jamie Tony, it's lovely to meet you.

Tony That's the truth.

Jamie After all these years.

Tony It's been a privilege. I've heard so much about you.

Jamie Yes, you too. Well, we're sitting in...?

Tony Bel Air - on a very hot day.

Jamie In a beautiful room on a big white bed.

Tony A big white bed. The room is somewhat white. White, white, white.

Jamie And it's a little dark. Actually, believe it or not, like a movie theatre.

Tony I have found that in the environment that I live, the less light the better. You walk outside, out in the middle of the hot sun, and somebody is sure to give you a piece of information like, "You got cancer". Whereas if he could wait till you get into a little low-lit apartment somewhere, he might glance up at you and say, "Maybe, I'll tell you something." I find almost all the time I try to control where I sit and in what kind of lighting, and how intense the light is.

Jamie I'm always conscious of light and how I'm being photographed, but you are a man and you were beautiful. Were you aware of how they were lighting you?

Tony I was. Right from when I started out in movies. It was astounding how critical I became of my looks when I saw it blown up 35 feet. I looked in the mirror a lot, turned my head left and right, or took another mirror and held one in the front of me and one on the side of me so I could see the profile, then I could see the back of my head. I made a study of my head as a boy. I loved my looks. I would always be looking at myself from different angles - looking up, looking down, and I never let anybody catch me doing it, you know [chuckles], but I enjoyed it. I just really enjoyed it.

I always dreamt that one day I would be in the movies. I'm in the Navy, in Tokyo Bay, the War is over, and I'm on this Japanese base, I'm a signalman. And they've got one of those big arc lights, and when that thing was lit, I would go bah bah bah bah, bah dah dah dah dah.

Jamie Semaphore?

Tony Morse code. Inside of it was a big mirror, concave. When I stood in front of that mirror, it was to die for.

Jamie [Laughs]

Tony I went from this diminutive, charming, handsome Jewish boy to this movie giant. I looked at myself. My face was magnified three times in that mirror but in proportion, perfect. I'll never forget that. I've never told it to anybody. That convinced me to be in the movies, 'cause I knew that my looks would be good in the movies, that I would look good. Then I felt good and loved it. So that's how I started. I got myself in the movies, right? I just came out of nowhere.

When you get your first acting job, they push you around more than they push extras, furniture, props, anything. Nothing is as low as an actor coming in for his first day's work. Not an extra, but a Screen Actor Guild member who's never done that work before. To walk into that environment is like going inside the entrails of a monster machine, and there you are inside of the machine. Inside the machine. As I got to know more about movies, the more I realised how inside you are. Even if the set is tiny, you are still inside the mechanics of making that film. That first day, I went over to the camera, which was a three-strip Technicolor camera, and nobody was looking and I put my arm around the lens. The camera was as close to me as I'm close to you now, and I said, "I'm your pal. I love you. I want to do this for the rest of my life. If there's anything you want to tell me to do, just tell me, I'll do it. I'll know that you are my pal. I want you to know that I need your help." I never forgot it. All of a sudden I'm talking to a fucking camera. You know? No, excuse the language, not a fucking camera. I'm talking to the machine of my life.

Jamie We started talking about lighting and the idea of the image, right?

Tony I could see that the lighting is key. And it wasn't just opening up a light and shooting whatever fell in front of it. It needs so much more to make an image. Right at the beginning when I started in the movies, one of the stages at Universal had a big hallway up on the top of the roof with an opening that they used to go in and out of. And I remember one day it was open. A shaft of light came shooting down into this black studio and rests itself on a piece of cracked floor. I looked at that image for so long and thought, "Why, pray tell, why is that piece illuminated out of everything else because of a shaft of light? Look at the way the light breaks around that edge."

I then began to realise when I saw Barbara Stanwyck working at Universal and Yvonne De Carlo and Shelley Winters and Dana Andrews, and Jimmy Stewart - they'd all go a little ape-shit whenever the lights were on them and that camera was in front of them. They didn't just get in front of a camera, they related to it. Take Claudette Colbert, she had a good side. That side was so good, everything else in the world was bad. If you didn't photograph her from her good side, from this particular position, nothing worked. Cars had to enter that way. Sets were built to suit it. I mean, the stuff that went on, because an actor had a good side and a bad side.

When I was doing The Prince who was a Thief, I had big rings under my eyes. So the producer comes up to me, and says, "What are you doing every night, kid?" I said, "I'm in the bathtub, I'm sleeping or trying to sleep." So I went to a doctor and I said, "How do I get rid of these circles under my eyes?" He says, "Use make-up." I said, "Yeah, I know, but they seem to think I'm staying out late - is there something in my system?" He says, "No. Your eyes are cast that way. Try to get a little more sleep, maybe you're not sleeping enough." I was unable to sleep in those days. It was hard to sleep. So I began to see how light carved out of the environment the very thing that it wanted to show, the thing that wanted to be seen. So it's a monumental experience, particularly in movies when someone's face ends up bigger than 30 feet, 12 feet from one eye to the other. With that closeness, the slightest twitch can be seen. Impossible to hide from it, impossible to hide your emotions. The people that don't make it don't have emotions, or they have emotions but they don't have it where they need it. So, a director has to be very, very intelligent, more than intelligent.

Jamie Is there anybody that you can think of who really was great - an unbelievably great director - because I've not heard you talk about that?

Tony I don't have a lot of respect for most of them and I don't give a fuck what I say. I'm telling you, out of the 107 movies, there may be three guys that I've worked with who I thought had some knowledge of the camera and how it should be used - one of them was Billy Wilder. That doesn't make him a good director - because he doesn't direct you, he casts you properly in a film. If he casts you right in the part, then you're going to be great in the part. Dick Quine is the most delicate, elegant film director I have ever known. I loved him. He and Blake Edwards were buddy- buddy. Once, Dick Quine says to me, "You know what the definition of `success' is?" I says, "What?" He says, "To be doing better than your best friend." Took my breath away. These two guys, Edwards and Quine, were alternating, right? He's directing, writing, directing. I knew them both in those early days.

Nic Roeg - untouchable. His material - that's what makes him so odd. He's like a half-a-dozen guys who know, just by some little delicacy, how to give you confidence. I had that once or twice with Blake Edwards, but no more than that, and I made four or five pictures with him, so I don't put him in that category.

Carol Reed. Trapeze. Ooh, sweet, fabulous film director. English directors - I found the English were more sensitive. I don't know why. Maybe it's because it's such a small country and it makes everybody so introspective, throws everybody inside each other. That's why the Irish grow great moustaches and the English wear those beautiful clothes - they've got to do something to express themselves. If they were living in Wichita, Kansas, they'd schlep around with their Levi's and a hat, dirty boots, and they wouldn't mind it. But in England, in those tidy little streets, everybody's got to have his own little funny thing going on.

Jamie You filmed in England a lot.

Tony Yeah.

Jamie You lived in England.

Tony I lived in England maybe a total of six or seven years. You know, my sweet daughter, out of 107 films, I would say almost 70 of them were made in Europe. I would work all over. And Lew was the one who organised all of that.

Jamie Wasserman? Your agent?

Tony Yes. He said these foreign countries would pray to Allah: "Please send me a movie star for next month's movie." And who did they pray to? To God. Lew Wasserman - MCA. Got him on the horn. "Mr. Wasserman - I'm - listen -" "Yeah, hun. What is it about?" As an introduction, he said, "When can you get a script here?" "I'll have it to you on Monday." And he says, "Would you like Tony Curtis?" "Tony Curtis! You can get me Tony Curtis?" He says, "Uh, uh, when are you supposed to start?" He says, "In October." "He will be available. You send the material. If he likes the script then we'll talk deal." Hang up the phone. He always gave me the information the day he'd get it. That's why I love Lew. He also gave me a little hope, you know? He didn't hold back.

Jamie Did you ever make money from movies? Besides your salary? Profit participation?

Tony No, no. They gave you nothing then. I get it now.

Jamie In residuals.

Tony Because now they can't steal it from me. Now it's too late.

Jamie Right.

Tony Now those pictures are out.

Jamie But, then, I mean, when you hear about big movie stars owning 10 per cent of the gross, 20 per cent of the gross.

Tony Yeah, there may be a number. Now the businessman, when he talks, you got to define what you mean by gross; what they mean by gross.

Jamie First dollar.

Tony See they'll get first dollar, but it's first dollar after what? After negative cost? After double negative? After prints, advertising, then double negative? Then the distributor takes out his piece, then you get from the first dollar?

Jamie But the definitions now for the big movie stars are pretty clear.

Tony When they're making fortunes.

Jamie Oh, they're making fortunes.

Tony It was different then. I was a gun for hire, but I had my percentage. I still have that. You know, I have 34 movies that I collect on. I'm the only one still collecting on Some Like It Hot. Billy Wilder sold his. From Some Like It Hot I made two-and-a-half million dollars.

Jamie You know, some people didn't reap the rewards?

Tony Taras Bulba, Trapeze, The Great Race, Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, all the United Artists movies. I had a piece of them, of the action; I had five, 7 to 10 per cent of the gross of those films. And that was from the first dollar.

Jamie Right.

Tony Some of it went to pay off the costs of the publicity, which was always a big, touchy point...

Jamie Right.

Tony ...but without that, I got a gross position. I was the only one that was getting it. Jack Lemmon didn't get a penny from Some Like It Hot.

Jamie Really?

Tony Not a penny. He got a salary, but no points. When we did The Great Race, Jack Warner said he wouldn't make the movie unless I was in it. Blake Edwards and Jack were all teamed up, ready to go, but he just wouldn't do it. He said, "It's no movie without Tony. It's no movie without these two guys." So I got them raises. And we ended up with a percentage of it, which we still collect money on. So there are some 30-odd movies that I own. Perhaps this will be of interest to you, the business end of it, you know. When Some Like It Hot was put together, it was put together as a $2 million production, of which I was given 512 per cent of the gross, Marilyn got 10 per cent of the gross, that's 1512 - the studio wouldn't give you any more than that. United Artists owned the movie in distribution. So a chunk of money comes in every so often - some comes in for $3,000, some comes in for 35 and 40 grand. I mean, there's a huge amount of money that I'm able to accrue each year without doing anything, and that's because of Lew Wasserman's ability to get me a percentage of the gross. I did a movie called Captain Newman with Gregory Peck where I'm an owner, because I was under contract to Universal and they gave me that piece of the action to get me to work with Gregory Peck. With Some Like It Hot, Marilyn and I owned the movie. She owned 10. I owned 512. We were paid two-fifty each, salary, $250,000 against 10 and 512 per cent of the gross after the picture breaks even. The picture cost $2 million to make. It broke even in a week and a half, and started generating money. And they tried to steal some of it. Then the agency jumped in and stopped it. There we go. We were getting our residual cheques. And whenever they sent to Marilyn, they sent to me. So she always knew and I always knew exactly what we were getting, because we would get the same printouts. Marilyn dies and leaves her percentage of Some Like It Hot to the Actors Studio.

Jamie Lee Strasberg? Yeah.

Tony Right. They turn around almost immediately and sell it to an attorney for a chunk of dough. She leaves it to them, and they turn around and they sell it to this attorney that I happened to know, only because we're in business together. So every time I get a cheque for Some Like It Hot, I know that this attorney is getting that money. Billy Wilder sold his interest. One day he walked away with, what, $4 million? He sold eight of his movies.

Jamie In 1998 it will be 50 years you've been in the movie business?

Tony Yes.

Jamie That's fabulous.

Tony Incredible.

Jamie Isn't it great?

Tony Fifty years. And I haven't got a penny of the money I earned in those years. It all was used to live on. I'm doing great because of these monies from real estate, but money from films - a chunk of that salary never ended up in the savings account; it always ended up for my daily living expenses.

Jamie But my question is: what have the movies meant to you? I mean, truly - I'm not being facetious.

Tony Movies - movies have given me the privilege to be an aristocrat, to be the prince. It gets me great tables at restaurants, beautiful cars to drive around in, a lovely woman to take out to dinner, to sit around and talk with some of the most intelligent brains that are around, to be recognised everywhere, to be loved by so many people, to lie here in bed, turn on the television, and there I am. Yes, and there I am. Some nights I turn on the television, and it's a movie made by somebody else, and they've got a film clip of me in the movie. There's a movie out called Clueless. In it they got two shots of me from Spartacus. [Laughs] I love it. I've always loved that part of it. You know, Jamie, I would never tell you differently. Always loved that part of it.

The part that I didn't like, that I wasn't able to handle, was the enemies that I found in this town; the out-and-out hate and anger that I felt from people. When I was married to your mother, we were almost shunned by certain groups in this town, and your mother, who was very social (and I was too) we were stunned that we were not invited to these places. We were so popular. We were so famous. We had everything. Jamie, we had everything, your mother and I. When we got married, when we hit, and those magazines carried us, right after us were Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. They could have been our cook and butler for all the attention they got. I mean, it was incredible. That's what it was. And life was easy. But I was fucked up. I had this terrible family problem that I was dragging with me everywhere I went. It was like - like Ebenezer Scrooge in the movie where you see his partner, Marley, dragging those chains. That's the way I felt. I had a horrible time. There were years that I was so unhappy; I couldn't shake that part of it. And then your mother and I started having trouble. There was so much envy in this town. I could feel it, I could see it. I was at a party - Charlie Feldman gave a party, and Monty Clift was there, and I just was starting. I think he had just started too. I don't know if he was ahead of me or not. And I was the king of the city. And this guy gets up at this dinner table and says, "Look at her. She thinks she's the king. Can you match her looks with mine?" Now, I mean I never heard such overt anger at someone else. And that was Monty Clift.

Jamie Talking about who?

Tony Me.

Jamie Oh, he called you a her?

Tony Yes, and right there I started to cry sitting at the table. People laughed. I fucking wept. I hated him from then on in. He embarrassed me. I didn't have any social graces. I came out of New York City, right out of that pot, went into the Navy, came right out of the Navy, went into an acting school, right out of that, and there I am, thrown into Hollywood, sitting next to Janet Leigh, David Selznick - I've got to watch very carefully who picks up what knife where - I'm not joking now, I'm telling you the truth - where to put the napkin. Now, every now and then, I look at your mother across the table. She'd look at me and I'd go, "Oh really? Ha ha hoo, oh, charming. No, no, no champagne for me, thank you." These are the parties we had to go to, and then the next morning I had to be up at five-thirty or six to go to work. There I was with these angry people, you know? Kirk Douglas comes up to me at a party one night. I'm standing there with Burt Lancaster. This is right after Trapeze. He says, "You think you're pretty good, don't you, you little prick." I didn't know what to say to these people. And that was no joke. He didn't do it as a joke. He meant it. That frightened me a lot. And then on top of that, I had to go on the set in the morning and work with some actors who really hated my guts. Who'd do anything but fucking kill me. Audie Murphy was one. I did a Western with him. I played a minor role in it. But I was getting all the action by then. By that time every movie magazine had my picture on the cover and I was getting third, fourth, fifth billing in this movie, and by then nobody gave a shit about Audie Murphy. They'd loosen the saddle, the stirrups underneath, so that when I took off, the saddle would slide off and I would slide off with it. They picked up the tail of my horse and shoved a stick with kerosene soaked in it right up its ass and pulled it out. That horse would go crazy with me on it. Camera rolling. Action. And we'd take off. I mean, I had to fight for my life out there.

Jamie Oh, they were envious, but it wasn't just because you were beautiful, Poppa.

Tony I don't know what it was.

Jamie It's because you were you. It was because you can't combine somebody who's beautiful with somebody with great charm. It just isn't found. It's rare. And, you have it in spades. You had that and they didn't.

Tony I was labelled the worst actor that ever came down the pike since day one. [Heavy Brooklyn accent] "Hey, hey, Charlie! Come over here and take a look at Willie here on the tenth floor." Everybody was doing that accent. They said that was my accent. Meanwhile, every motherfucker grew his hair long, put a lot of pomade in it, curled it in the front, and there were eight hundred Tony Curtises roaming the city.

Jamie But you had comedy. You can make people laugh. You can make fun of yourself.

Tony I didn't even know that.

Jamie You didn't?

Tony I didn't.

Jamie And when did you figure that out?

Tony I didn't figure it out for a very long time.

Jamie Really?

Tony A very long time.

Jamie Did somebody help you figure it out?

Tony No, it just slowly came to me. I began to invent little things on the set that kind of tickled me. I thought they would be funny.

Jamie And they got a nice reaction?

Tony Yeah, right. I'll make a confession to you. When I did Some Like It Hot, I held back a lot, you know? I didn't want to overwhelm Jack Lemmon. I didn't want to overwhelm Marilyn. I didn't want them to be mad at me. I didn't want them to be angry on the set or envious or anything. Now this may be the most egotistical thing anybody has ever said in their lives. Billy Wilder catered to Jack Lemmon all through the whole film. And to Marilyn. Those were his - what would one call it? - priorities, you know, not me. I don't mind. I mean, I have moments in that movie that are as good as anybody's moments anywhere in the whole world, and they're not from Billy Wilder. The Cary Grant piece was my idea, and it's so perfect because today nobody knows who Cary Grant is any more. All of a sudden, there's a guy acting like some New York Englishman, or what he thinks is a New Yorker's fancy schmancy. You know, it's funny, now, talking about him like that. See, the very thing we talked about at the beginning is now coming out. All of the intricacies of making the movie is coming through now, and the movie still remains the ebullient, floating beauty that it is when you turn on the television set or you go to the movie theatre - scene by scene, the beautiful music, people looking at each other intensely. It takes a bit of doing. You can't be faint-hearted and do it.

You can't be faint-hearted when you take a beautiful bosomy woman that you just met four days earlier and have this big love scene and you're swapping spits and - uh - tits are pressing against tits, and then at the end of the day, say, "Doll, I liked what we did today." She says, "Yeah, I do too, I thought it was a little different or it had a little different air." How do you do that? It's not easy, you know? It's not easy. You're dealing with every part of you when you look at somebody in a moment of peak - in a moment of love - in a moment of concern. "Oh, maybe I'll fake her out by touching her hair a little bit. Ha ha." One of your charming smiles. [Laughs] Meanwhile the audience is still figuring: did she or didn't she? That's got to be on the screen. You can't do that any other way. I remember one director once in a movie, I don't remember where it was. Uh, I came into the movie and he said, "Tony, this is your brother. This is your brother's wife. You know she wants you. And you're not sure you can hold out too long, so when you see her, I want to see in your face that this is true and then when you go by your brother, I don't want your brother to even have an inkling of what it is." I said, "Does that mean you want me to come in faster or slower?"

See, it's easy to play certain beats. The other day on television I saw the movie where I played Ira Hayes, the Indian boy who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. I love that movie, I do a good job. It was such an intense and wonderful movie, and nobody ever heard of it. Now, they're playing it on air, and I'm getting calls from all over the place. So, you see, I'm lucky. I'm lucky. Listen, nobody's got it better than me now. Nobody. I don't know any guy my age, in his seventies, who's doing the work I do, who does it any better if they can stand up. I'm not going to die

This is an edited extract of `Some Like it Dark', in `Projections 5, Film-makers on Film-making' edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, published by Faber and Faber on 1 April, price pounds 9.99

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