Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

Philip French looks at the career of an actor who defied his detractors with several unforgettable performances

Universal was so pleased with City Across the River, its topical 1949 film about New York's juvenile delinquents, that it decided to end it with a tracking shot around the set so each member of its cast of newcomers could nod to the audience. But the only one to become a star was the 23-year-old Anthony (later Tony) Curtis, born to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, whose name the studio had changed from Bernie Schwartz earlier that year. Back then no one would have predicted a career that would take him from an undistinguished decade as a glamorous pin-up through five years as a great movie actor followed by 40 years of mostly banal films in which he grew increasingly bloated and grotesque.

In those early movies Curtis worked in westerns, easterns, Arthurians, war movies, sports flicks and other unmemorable genre pieces. In a 1995 conversation with Jamie Lee Curtis (his gifted daughter with his first wife, Janet Leigh), he remarked: "I was labelled the worst fucking actor that ever came down the pike since day one... Meanwhile, every motherfucker grew his hair long, put a lot of pomade on it, curled it in the front, and there were 800 Tony Curtises roaming the city." He was mocked for his Bronx accent and the way he said "Yondah lies da castle of my foddah da king" in a medieval swashbuckler, though in fact the true line was "Yondah lies de palace of my foddah de sheikh" in Son of Ali Baba (1952).

Curtis got his own back with an unforgettable impersonation of Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot (1959), one of the funniest pictures ever made, and entered the quotation books by saying that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler. That film was the apex of a remarkable run of 10 pictures that began when he starred with Burt Lancaster in Carol Reed's glossy Trapeze (1956) and ended with an undervalued performance in the downbeat The Outsider (1961) as Ira Hayes, the doomed Pima Indian who helped raise the Old Glory on Iwo Jima. Between those two he gave his greatest performance as the slimy press agent Sidney Falco opposite Burt Lancaster's toxic gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. He was Oscar-nominated as the southern redneck chained to fellow-convict Sidney Poitier in the ultra-liberal, anti-racist The Defiant Ones, played the titled hero of The Vikings, one of the greatest costume action movies, and held his own opposite Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier (with whom he shared a scene of memorable gay banter) in Spartacus.

His only notable performances thereafter were as serial killer Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968) and as a brutal Senator Joe McCarthy terrorising Marilyn Monroe in Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance (1985). Neither renewed his fortunes. But by then Curtis had something more valuable than a star on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard: he'd appeared in half a dozen enduring classics.

Contributor

Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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