There was something wonderfully far-fetched about Tony Curtis. His life story would have seemed outlandish even in a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth novel about a Jewish-American's journey through the 20th century. The transformation of Bernie Schwartz, born in New York's Flower Hospital in June 1925, from an impoverished street kid in Manhattan and the Bronx into svelte, charming leading man was one of the more unlikely metamorphoses in Hollywood history.
Those who worked with him speak with huge affection about him. "He was a magnificent person. He was an ironic, humorous, profound, highly natural person who had the most impeccable manners," says the Oscar-winning British producer Jeremy Thomas, who worked with Curtis on one of the actor's best late films, Nic Roeg's Insignificance (1985).
In that movie, adapted from Terry Johnson's play, Curtis played a red-baiting Joe McCarthy-like senator thrown together with Marilyn Monroe (Curtis's real-life co-star in Some Like It Hot but played by Theresa Russell here), baseball star Joe DiMaggio and scientist Albert Einstein, in a New York hotel. At the time of the movie, Curtis's career was in decline but he had lost none of his charm.
"Whenever I watched him and there was a close-up, he always put his hand on the camera right until the moment of turnover," Thomas says. "I said to him, 'Tony, why are you doing that?' He said, 'It [the camera] loves me, baby!'"
It's a moot point whether Curtis was ever really given his due as an actor. As the tributes pouring out to him yesterday underlined, he had something of Cary Grant's swagger – a good-looking Jack the Lad, who excelled at playing chancers.
"He was great fun to work with," Sir Roger Moore (his old sparring partner from ITV's The Persuaders) said of him, praising his sense of humour and gift for improvisation.
Sir Michael Caine paid tribute to the way Curtis reinvented himself as a painter when his movie stardom began to ebb. What was evident as his career was recalled was that only a handful of his films, including Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success, really stuck in people's memories.
Curtis didn't set a great deal of store by his own dignity. The figure with the bouffanted hair who used to turn up at Cannes festivals in the mid-1990s to promote films such as The Continued Adventures of Reptile Man or to organise exhibitions of his art looked as if he had stumbled out of a John Waters movie.
The tabloids adored Curtis because he was such a fund of outrageous anecdotes and also because he was such a relentless womaniser. The headlines tell the stories: "My Sad and Strange Nights with Tony Curtis: it wasn't just my boobs, he said I had an interesting personality", reads one. "Tony Curtis Marriage Ends after One Month", reads another.
These aren't the kind of headlines that you would expect to read about one of the leading screen actors of his generation. The fact that he never won an Oscar, although he was nominated for The Defiant Ones, suggests the Hollywood establishment didn't take him especially seriously.
In his latter years in particular, Curtis was prepared to live up (or down) to preconceptions about pampered, hedonistic movie stars. He'd tell the old stories about kissing Marilyn Monroe being like "kissing Hitler". He was also relentlessly self-deprecating and happy to mock the image that the Hollywood publicists worked so hard to contrive for him. "I was a big bag of nothing put together with spit, glue and a couple of film stills," was how he once described himself in his early days as a film star, although he added the rejoinder: "Mind you, when you've shined shoes, delivered papers, made broom handles and served in hamburger joints, 75 bucks and girls to go with it was no hardship."
Curtis enjoyed the perks of being a film star. "I started out from scratch," he told me when I interviewed him during his trip to the Ghent Festival in 2003. "I started out dead broke as a boy. As soon as I started making a little money in the movies, I realised I could learn to paint, I could dance, I could sing, I could become a great lover, I could chase all the girls round the world if I wanted."
His public persona was as far-fetched as that of the dapper millionaire he played in Some Like It Hot (Junior, the heir to Shell Oil) trying to impress Marilyn Monroe's chorus girl.
Of course, Curtis was nowhere near as superficial as he seemed. What made him such a powerful screen personality wasn't just the clipped, Cary Grant-like delivery or the good looks. It was that sense of desperation that drove his most memorable characters.
Arguably his greatest performance was as the publicist Sidney Falco in Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success. Falco was sleazy and opportunistic: a parasite who knew his living depended on getting stories into the gossip columns. Falco is hopelessly compromised but still has a vulnerability and even a sense of idealism about him.
Curtis plays the character with a reckless energy common to many of his greatest performances. In Some Like It Hot, the comedy has an edge because Curtis and Jack Lemmon play their roles with such manic drive. Even when they are dressed in drag and playing with a female jazz troupe, we're aware of the machine gun-toting gangsters back in Chicago they are trying to keep away from.
As Albert DeSalvo, the mass murderer, in Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler, Curtis also gave a bravura performance. This was Curtis in heavy-duty Method groove. He researched the role assiduously, studying DeSalvo's medical reports and visiting the locations where he committed his crimes. He told journalists that he had submerged his own personality in that of the killer. "I was trying to get under the skin of a man... accused of crimes that confounded the understanding. I was imitating his traits, his foibles, his temperament." Ironically, one of the reasons his performance was so unsettling was that his DeSalvo retained at least a little of the trademark Curtis charm. He had a likeable quality which made audiences root for him even as they felt revulsion about his deeds.
For all his insouciance in interviews, Curtis had plenty of tragedy in his life. There were incidents during his troubled and impoverished New York childhood that continued to prey on his mind, in particular the fate of his two brothers. One died in a freak accident when he was hit by a truck. The other was schizophrenic and ended up in an institution.
"I would like to have been Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot," Billy Wilder once told fellow film-maker Cameron Crowe. Curtis, in turn, used to think of Wilder as his great mentor. When Curtis was becoming more and more serious about his painting, he looked to Wilder for advice. The director told him that "the meaning comes after the work" and that he shouldn't worry too much about trying to interpret or explain his own abstract paintings.
There was huge suffering in Curtis's life. It wasn't all just about appearing in popcorn movies and picking up as many girls as he could. Many journalists have offered up cod psychological explanations for his hedonistic behaviour, suggesting it was his way of escaping the demons in his past. Whatever the case, he was one of those movie stars that fans just couldn't help but warm to. They liked him in his good movies... and they liked him in his bad movies, too. "As soon as you went to the cinema, you saw Tony Curtis," Jeremy Thomas recalls of his own childhood. "You grew up with Tony Curtis films. If you're my age, Tony Curtis has always been there. He was a very big movie star."
Macnab's pick of his roles...
Sweet Smell of Success
Curtis is a revelation as the press agent on the make in Alexander Mackendrick's dark and very barbed tale. He took the role because he wanted to break away from playing conventional leads.
Some Like It Hot
Curtis and Jack Lemmon have a wonderful rapport as musicians who inadvertently witness a gangland massacre in Chicago. Curtis is equally memorable in his scenes with Marilyn Monroe.
The Defiant Ones
Curtis won an Oscar nomination for his role as the escaped convict chained to African-American fellow prisoner Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier.)
The actor gave a bristling and very unsettling performance as the Communist-hating senator in Nic Roeg's memorable adaptation of the Terry Johnson play.
The Boston Strangler
Curtis strayed as far from type as can be imagined by playing Albert DeSalvo in Richard Fleischer's gritty and complex study of a mass murderer.
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