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Tony Curtis 1925 - 2010

Posted by Ty Burr  September 30, 2010 09:14 AM

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tony2.jpgOne of the best, dirtiest movies ever made about the intersection of the media business, gossip, and the human soul, 1957's "Sweet Smell of Success" also features the Tony Curtis performance to watch if you ever doubted the man could act. 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' lethal dialogue like hollow-point bullets. Burt Lancaster's powerful gossip columnist calls Sidney "a cookie full of arsenic," and the movie's great irony is that the character poisons only himself. But everything about this performance moves with the restless, aggressive chutzpah it took Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx to become Mr. Tony Curtis of Hollywood. In the words of Falco himself, the star went about his career "avidly, avidly."

It's funny: When I heard this morning that Curtis had passed away, at 85, of a heart attack, those two words were the first thing that popped into my head. The Globe's Mark Feeney, in his obituary for Curtis, references the same line of dialogue and for the same reasons: It goes to the enthusiastic, sardonic playfulness of the man, and to the kind of self-starting urban energy that makes a slum kid like Falco or Curtis choose big words with care. The star was never truly taken seriously by Hollywood or the media, in part because he was so pretty when he started (Exhibit A above) and because, in Feeney's wonderful phrasing, he had a voice "like a man with a head cold sipping an egg cream." We never let him forget he was Bernie Schwartz, but on a lot of levels that was okay, since he never pretended he was anyone else.

Yet Sidney Falco remains one of the great movie performances, one that says so many unpleasant things about the parasite culture that clings to modern fame (the film hasn't dated a whit). Of course it's worthy of an Oscar, as was Curtis' other iconic role, that of Joe/Josephine/Junior in Billy Wilder's riotous cross-dressing comedy "Some Like It Hot" (1959). Jack Lemmon got the showy role of "Geraldine" and he more than earns his laughs, but it's Curtis who provides a subtler performance of a man discovering his feminine side, and the performance just gets funnier with age. When Joe slips out of drag and into a yachting costume to woo Marilyn Monroe, Curtis even tosses in a terrific impersonation of Cary Grant ("Nobody talks like that!" snipes Lemmon) -- proof of how inventively subversive Curtis could get. So no one would ever mistake Bernie Schwartz for Hollywood's Perfect Man? He could still play at being that man, and satirize him in the bargain.

Hollywood did what Hollywood does, awarding Curtis -- or threatening to award him -- only when he played against his strengths. The actor received only one Oscar nomination in a career that includes well over 100 films (many of them, it must be said, far less than great; especially toward the end, the man was not proud). The nomination was for 1959's "The Defiant Ones," a movie that cast the star as an escaped prisoner on the run through the Deep South with fellow convict SIdney Poitier chained to his leg. The film is dated but still powerful, and it called on Curtis to act in a way that garnered him all the respect his early films hadn't. Yet while it's an honorable performance, Curtis was nevertheless weighed down by the project's civic importance. Not that he was best light; it's just that his best lighter characters have a devilish, self-destructive insincerity about them that's both likeable and appalling and that says more about the world in which he (and we) moved than "The Defiant Ones." And I bet the actor knew it.

But, as a star of his era, he also burned to prove himself as a great actor. (The same could be said of Cary Grant; he never won an Oscar either.) It's telling that Curtis always considered his favorite role to be Albert DeSalvo, "The Boston Strangler" in the 1968 film of that name. He gained weight for the part, did all the modish Method things you need to do, and while the movie itself isn't very good, the star holds the screen well enough as an enigmatic creep. In truth, though, a lot of talented actors might have done the same. Whereas only Tony Curtis could have played Sidney Falco and every ugly, mesmerizing thing he meant.

Other reasons to be grateful: The post-Sun Records Elvis Presley, who dyed his hair blue-black in slavish imitation of Curtis; Jamie Lee Curtis, one of eight children the star had with his five wives; prompting Laurence Olivier to wax homoerotically eloquent in "Spartacus"; comparing (or not comparing) the osculatory powers of Marilyn Monroe and Hitler; apparently enjoying every millisecond of being a movie star.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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