TONY CURTIS: 1925-2010
It must be the eyes, those beautiful blue eyes Bernie Schwartz was blessed with. They certainly were one of his most distinguishing features. Over time though the man who became Tony Curtis shifted his persona: from leading man to respected actor.
His career capitalized on his looks, and it appeared as if he were no different than the Rock Hudsons, Tab Hunters, et. al., whose acting abilities were secondary to his appearance. However, in the course of time, something happened: he became a legitimate actor. This was done because he sought out greater, more difficult roles. It would have been easy to have remained just another pretty face, but Curtis figured that he could be a better actor, a stronger actor, a real actor.
It's a curious irony that some of Curtis' best roles were in black-and-white films which could not capitalize on his eyes: Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, and Some Like It Hot. Even in those three films, you could see the variety in the roles: an unscrupulous press agent, a racist on the lam, a comedic saxophonist ladies man. The fact that he could carry off all three of those (winning an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones) shows that Curtis had the talent to become such different characters. Playing against the likes of Burt Lancaster, Sydney Poitier, and Jack Lemmon is difficult enough, but to be able to hold your own against such powerful actors is even more impressive.
Now, he was also able to do the requisite big-budget spectacles; example: Spartacus. A curious historic note: a scene where Curtis is bathing Sir Laurence Olivier was considered so shocking in its suggestions of homosexuality and bisexuality that it was cut. It wasn't until after the mores of the times changed that the scene was restored in 1991. Curtis was able to re-record his dialogue with Sir Anthony Hopkins supplying the voice for the late Olivier. While watching, his role as Antoninus, singer of songs turned warrior, could come off as a good analogy to Curtis' career: a man at first dismissed as lightweight became a fierce actor to contend with.
It wasn't thought that Curtis didn't know where his bread and butter came from. He had a light touch to his romantic/comedic roles, and given his screen performances (including spoofing himself on The Flintstones as Stony Curtis), he was in on the joke. He really never stopped working in one fashion or another. There was television (including his turn as The Boston Strangler and the host of Hollywood Babylon), and then in the latter part of his life, he turned into a respected painter. In a sense, he never stopped creating.
Of course, in his private life there were the almost-requisite various marriages (including marrying a fellow star, Janet Leigh), the drinking, the drugs, but in the last years he achieved a level of peace that one hopes were a comfort. In the end, he serves as both an example and a hope for the various stars who populate Hollywood today, who are not taken seriously because they have, for good or ill, relied more on their looks than on whatever acting talent they possess. If they follow Tony Curtis' example (take risks, challenge yourself, not be afraid to try something different, and have a little luck), they may emerge to fulfill not just stardom, but genuine respect.
I close with one point regarding one of his greatest films, Some Like It Hot. He stated that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler. Given what we've heard about how difficult she was during the production, the feelings of animosity may have been warranted. However, if memory serves correct, he stated later on that he said that as a joke, but that it was taken seriously. I don't know if he backtracked in order to save his reputation or to set the record straight. Regardless of what the truth may be, the proof is in the pudding, and what remains is one of the greatest films ever made, one which benefits greatly from Tony Curtis' performance. His beautiful blue eyes are closed, but we will keep watching his films for as long as films and the passion for them endures.