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Tony Curtis, 1925 - 2010

David Hudson

"Tony Curtis, one of the last great stars of Hollywood's golden age, died yesterday aged 85," reports the Guardian's Xan Brooks. "The death was confirmed by a representative of his actor daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, although further details have yet to emerge. Curtis's health had been failing for a number of years and he went to hospital in July after suffering an asthma attack. Appearing on stage at the Guardian BFI Southbank interview in 2008, Curtis was asked by an audience member what he would like to have written on his gravestone. 'Nobody's perfect,' he quipped, quoting the final line of his best-loved comedy, Some Like it Hot."

Reporting for CBS News, Manuel Gallegus briefly tracks the early years. At 17, Curtis joined the Navy. "When he got out, the GI Bill paid for acting school, an agent saw him and Curtis was on his way to Hollywood. He moved quickly from bit parts to leads roles swashbucklers like Ali Baba. 'I had all that — dark hair and blue eyes, a nice figure, jumping around, kissing girls, a lot of energy, hip-hop jumping around,' Curtis boasted in an interview once. 'I mean, how could you not go for me? I even went for me!' Ultimately, Curtis appeared in more than 100 films, playing roles as diverse as escape artist Harry Houdini, a noble slave in Spartacus, and a hustling Naval officer in Operation Petticoat."

People's Stephen M Silverman counts "more than 150 movies, which took place along with an equally extravagant Hollywood high life: six wives, romances with starlets from Marilyn Monroe to Natalie Wood and six kids he candidly admitted he often failed — including Jamie Lee Curtis. Nor did he make a secret of his real name — Bernie Schwartz — or his onetime drug use, or his trips to the shrink to deal with debilitating depression."

"He also received an Oscar nomination in 1959 for The Defiant Ones, in which he starred with Sidney Poitier," notes the MSNBC.com report. "Curtis has also been a painter since the early 1960s, and his official website notes that as his primary focus in his later life."

Updates: "As a performer, Mr Curtis drew first and foremost on his startlingly good looks," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "With his dark, curly hair, worn in a sculptural style later imitated by Elvis Presley, and plucked eyebrows framing pale blue eyes and wide, full lips, Mr Curtis embodied a new kind of feminized male beauty that came into vogue in the early 1950s. A vigorous heterosexual in his widely publicized (not least by himself) private life, he was often cast in roles that drew on a perceived ambiguity: his full-drag impersonation of a female jazz musician in Some Like It Hot, a slave who attracts the interest of a Roman senator (Laurence Olivier) in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), a man attracted to a mysterious blond (Debbie Reynolds) who turns out to be the reincarnation of his male best friend in Vincente Minnelli's Goodbye Charlie (1964). But behind the pretty-boy looks could be found a dramatically potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability, both likely products of his Dickensian childhood in the Bronx."

"Curtis failed to receive a nomination for another strong role, one that he felt sure would finally win him an Academy Award: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston strangler. That 1968 film with the same name was the last of Curtis' major starring roles," writes Claudia Luther in the Los Angeles Times. "'After that, the pictures that I got were not particularly intriguing,' he told the Seattle Times in 2000, 'but I had lots of child-support payments.'" Curtis was born "the oldest son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. His father was a tailor and his mother raised their three boys. But the family was marked by tragedy: One of Curtis's brothers was killed at the age of 9 when he was hit by a truck, and the other, who was 15 years Curtis's junior, suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of institutions throughout his life. Curtis's early life was a series of struggles — he said he was constantly taunted for being young, Jewish and handsome. He grew up defending himself on whatever turf his parents lived on at the time: the East 80s in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan's Lexington Avenue."

The BBC and the Telegraph post a photo galleries; the Guardian posts ten clips.

"I had the privilege of doing a phone interview with Mr Curtis for Premiere a long, or longish, while back," recalls Glenn Kenny. "And we got on the subject of Cary Grant, as one will, and he talked about how seeing Grant in Destination Tokyo compelled him to both join the Navy and take up acting, or, rather, the idea of Hollywood stardom. And of how he developed this Cary Grant impersonation way back in the day and how it subsequently pretty much blew his mind to be asked to do this very interesting postmodern Cary Grant avant le lettre bit in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, and how that was pretty much the most fun a person could have, except that same year, pretty much, he was cast in Operation Petticoat, which, like Destination Tokyo, was set on a submarine and starred... Cary Grant himself. And how that pretty much blew his mind even further."

"My favorite role of Curtis's was as the title character in Houdini (1953), a biopic about the escape artist made back in the day when such films need not bear any relation to the stories they were based on," writes Tony Dayoub. "No matter, his charm and vigor have never been highlighted better than in this movie, perhaps because it was the first to costar his glamourous first wife, Janet Leigh. The film would help establish him as a leading man, and the couples' union would produce two daughters, famed actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her sister, actress Kelly Curtis."

"In his later life, Curtis adopted an outspoken demeanor," writes Juli Weiner, "most visibly on display in his 2008 autobiography, American Prince: A Memoir, in which he dished on his sexual exploits (Natalie Wood, allegedly) and his enemies (Joan Collins). In 2007, Curtis recounted the personal and professional highlights featured in American Prince for Vanity Fair: among them were, 'I punched Burt Lancaster out in Trapeze,' 'I took a bath with Laurence Olivier,' and 'I [sawed] Janet Leigh in half,' referring to his roles in Trapeze, Spartacus, and Houdini, respectively."

"When he did his famous improvised impression of Cary Grant in [Some Like It Hot], he seemed to be impersonating a grownup," writes Peter Bradshaw. "Part of Curtis's secret for beguiling audiences was that tiny hint of Peter Pan — albeit a wised-up, street-smart Peter Pan who knew all the angles. There were darker sides to Curtis, too. As the Boston Strangler in 1968, he was able to bring something more sinister to his cherubic, but now ageing, look. More importantly, he was the cringing, and faintly desperate press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), who adopts a masochistic, self-hatingly subordinate position to the bullying, syndicated columnist JJ Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster. Again, Curtis was callow and youthful but brought a depth and intensity to the role, which showed the excellence of his craft, his superb sense of timing and dialogue, and his innate movie star's sixth-sense of how and where to play to the camera."

Also in the Guardian, Brian Baxter's obit encompasses dozens of titles, including "his uncredited film debut in Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949), as a gigolo who dances with Yvonne de Carlo, watched by the male lead, Burt Lancaster, who later played a significant part in Curtis's career."

"In a strange way, Tony Curtis resembled his great role," writes Edward Copeland of Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. "Not that he was overly ambitious to the point of having no scruples, but that for every bit of good fortune Curtis had in his career, it didn't quite seem to stick and now that he has died at the age of 85 though he leaves a legacy of many good performances and great films, somehow he didn't end up having the career that his talent deserved."

"The fact that Curtis, who received the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995, never won an Oscar, not even one of those special lifetime achievement award dealies, might best be seen as Hollywood's revenge on anyone who would pay it the compliment of taking its honors seriously," suggests Phil Nugent. "It's easy for Hollywood to respect someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Terrence Malick, who seems to have something on his mind other than taking whatever job is available and keeping in the public eye no matter what. Curtis, spending his last decades in show business as a busy C-lister, must have had a ferocious need to stay famous and get attention, but he also had something that seems like a lost blessing in our reality-show age: a genuine desire to give pleasure through his performances, to make people enjoy watching him, so they'd be glad when they saw him again. In fact, when you look at him today in the work he left behind, whether it's in Sweet Smell of Success or Lobster Man from Mars, his uncomplicated pride in his work, and in knowing that he's a treat to watch, look almost like a state of grace."

"I don't mean to brag, but Tony Curtis flirted with me once." Scott Brown tells the tale at Vulture.

At Cartoon Brew, Amid Amidi posts a TV Guide story on Stoney Curtis in The Flintstones.

"He was so pretty, prettier than his female co-stars — so pretty that when Blake Edwards made his white teeth literally sparkle in The Great Race the joke didn’t even seem so outlandish," blogs New York's David Edelstein. "Boyish prettiness assaulted by alcohol and cocaine is not a pretty sight, but his face, amazingly enough, never fell too hard. He was good even in The Last Tycoon as a fading, impotent idol, watchable even in that demented monster picture The Manitou hunting a furious demon that looked like Curtis turned inside out (a cookie full of arsenic). He should have had a better last act — he was talented enough to have come back. Maybe the problem was that he never went away. He stayed in LA, where someone that pretty has it way too easy."

"Playing Sidney Falco, the two-bit press agent with the collapsible spine, the 32-year-old Curtis sleazes his way up and down Broadway in glorious black and white, firing screenwriter Clifford Odets's lethal dialogue like hollow-point bullets," writes the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "[E]verything about this performance moves with the restless, aggressive chutzpah it took Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx to become Mr Tony Curtis of Hollywood."

And he refers us to the Globe's Mark Feeney: "Mr Curtis was, in many ways, a bridge between the Studio Age of the 30s and 40s and the eruption of youth culture in the 60s.... The distinctive sound of his speech — like a man with a head cold sipping an egg cream — gave a naturalistic underpinning to his almost preternaturally good looks. He possessed both Studio Age glamour and streetwise attitude.... Early on in Sweet Smell of Success, his character's girlfriend asks if he is listening to her. 'Avidly, avidly,' Mr Curtis says, continuing to ignore her. Dazzlingly disingenous, that delivery captures Mr Curtis screen persona. Always there's an avidity to his characters, a hunger. It's the eagerness of a man so clearly on the make he disarms you with the transparency of his ambition. Yet there's also a certain detachment, a sense of being in on a big, ongoing joke."

"'Match me, Sidney'... at his best Curtis was matchless." Robert Cashill.

Who Was That Lady? "is not one that that will be mentioned in most articles about Curtis that have appeared, or will appear," writes Peter Nellhaus. "What makes this film worth a look is that it is one of the handful Curtis made with then wife, Janet Leigh. The film, a comedy, offers a look at some of the political paranoia of the era, with a 1958 play filmed in 1960. More relevant though is the ease in which Curtis was able to suddenly glide from comedy to drama and back again, especially in scenes with the frequently underrated Dean Martin. Tony Curtis always knew he had solid acting ability. It took some of us a while to realize that, too."

IFC's Matt Singer notes that 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 NYT's Mekado Murphy posts more clips.

Updates, 10/1: On Sunday, October 10, TCM will devote 24 hours to Tony Curtis, broadcasting twelve films straight. Moira Finnie takes a good long look at the landmark films of his career.

"An actor doesn't often get a role that upends his Hollywood image and reveals his inner demons," writes Time's Richard Corliss. Curtis "found that dream-nightmare part in the 1957 Sweet Smell of Success. Sidney Falco, a name that replaced Sammy Glick as the slick nogoodnik par excellence, is a pretty boy on the make — all hustle, no morals, and with a line of patter like petty larceny. Then, two years later, he was cast as a stud saxophone player, with Jack Lemmon as his partner and Marilyn Monroe as the bait, in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. Twice he got the best of everything: two all-time classics, two defining roles. He sold those characters like a salesman with nonstop charm and his foot in your door, on your neck, up your butt. Some would call it chutzpah; we think it was acting."

"He was one of the most beautiful men to ever appear in the movies, and stardom came quickly," writes Roger Ebert. "One day in 1985 at the Cannes Film Festival, he told me of those days: 'Let me tell you a story, sort of a parable. One day in 1948 I went to Hollywood. My name was Bernie Schwartz. I signed a contract at Universal, and I bought a house in the hills. It had a swimming pool. Unheated, but it had water in it. One night I came home late, I jumped in the pool, I swam a few laps, I got out, I dried myself off, I put on my clothes, and I walked directly into this room and sat down and started to talk to you. Do you see what I'm saying? Thirty-eight years, I don't know where they went. Gone like that.'"

"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," writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "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).... '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!"'"

"Curtis disdained Method acting and was always willing to say so, often at some length," writes the Siren. "'It drove you crazy because it was all just jerking off in Macy's window,' he said; as far as Curtis was concerned, it was all people trying to ape Brando, 'but it was Marlon's own personal brand of madness, and it couldn't be duplicated.' His own philosophy of acting was something far less personal: 'To tell you the truth, I never thought of movies as an art form. I thought of it as a means of entertaining people, or letting them forget whatever it is they want to forget for a few hours in a dark theater. It's not as complicated as a lot of actors like to make it out to be.' A philosophy like that probably came in handy for something like 40 Pounds of Trouble. As hotheaded as he could be, Curtis still paid due respect to those he admired. He called Kubrick 'a genius with the camera' and his favorite director, saying he thought Kubrick's greatest skill was his ability to work with actors."

Joe Leydon: "When I heard the first reports that Tony Curtis had passed away Wednesday evening at age 85, I found myself flashing back 25 years, to a memorable encounter in a lavishly appointed hotel suite during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival."

"Like the Eames chair or the '59 Cadillac, Tony Curtis was a masterpiece of mid‑century modern American design," writes Stephen Bayley in the Telegraph. "Good-looking, if a tad vulgar, well-meaning, but interestingly feisty, Curtis had unilateral, unisex appeal. Oozing slickly tanned confidence, he was supremely well-packaged: but this was the age of bilious candy, not mineral-rich arugula. By no means a challenging or contrarian intellectual, he was more interested in gratifying his public than head-butting it."

Update, 10/2: Curtis "was among the purest and most authentic examples of what a movie star in postwar Hollywood could be," writes AO Scott in the NYT. "Which is also to say, of course, that he was fundamentally — brazenly — impure and inauthentic, an artificial, hybrid creature synthesized out of ambition, good looks and canny publicity.... He was not a methodizer, burrowing deep into each role to find its hidden, essential psychological truth, but his art was deep and his professionalism thorough. He was capable of intensity when it was called for, but his best, most characteristic work always carried an element of play."

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