Son of Ali Baba was the movie in which I had to stand at the top of a hill and tell Piper Laurie, "Yonder lies the castle of my father, the caliph." It came out, "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah," and I never heard the end of it. Forty years later my friend Hugh Hefner quoted it back to me: "Yonder lies me faddah's castle." I said, "Hef, I never said that. And even if I did, whose fault was it that they constructed the line that way, to start a sentence out with yonder? They wrote it, and I got stuck with it." Hef said, "Don't tell people that, Tony. It's a legendary story about you and Hollywood, whether it's true or not."
I've thought about that a lot, and I think I understand what he means. But I'm still sensitive about coming out of New York and being Jewish, and all the mockery of that line sounded to me like a putdown not just of New Yorkers but of Jews. British actors could get away with coming in and playing Roman generals or anything else, but if an American played the same kind of part, he got rapped because he sounded like he came from New York or Boston or some other recognizable place.
To me, "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah"--that mockery--was a lot like the words kike, nigger and fag. It signified a putdown, an inability to accept the differences or the logic of other people. I didn't like it then, and I still don't like it. I didn't like the idea that New Yorkers, in particular, were denigrated by high-tone English assholes, you'll excuse the vernacular.
--from Tony Curtis: The Autobiography, written with Barry Paris, 1993
Of all the words from and about Tony Curtis, these are the ones the Siren instantly recalled on hearing of his death this week, age 85. Not "Yondah…," which he may never even have said, but his furious reaction to the legend, 41 years later. Other actors went on talk shows and sat down for print interviews and laughed or shrugged off the mockery they'd endured. Not Curtis. It needled him, and nothing was going to stop him saying so. He was too much the Bronx native to let a slight pass. He was going to stay worked up about it as long as you kept bringing it up.
Maybe it isn't attractive to everyone, but the Siren loved that about Curtis, suspecting as she does that most actors retain insults a lot longer than they want to let on. Curtis was always ruthlessly frank, whether or not it was going to make him sound like a nice guy. And it's that stubborn, grudge-holding, proud and contrary streak that runs through his best role, Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. Falco has to take a lot of humiliation too, but the reason he is willing to do it is to get to a place where nobody will ever dare mock him again. Such sympathy as you have for Falco comes from Curtis, tearing out his lines like he's pulling the Scotch cork out with his teeth: "I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players."
All that is there in some of his other best work, too, like Joker in The Defiant Ones, just about managing the Southern accent and more than succeeding in showing a criminal's dawning awareness that he isn't the only thing in the world that matters. And when it wasn't on screen, it was on set, working itself out in demands for respect that Curtis didn't always get. The Siren thinks of Some Like It Hot and Curtis, who was usually best the first time a scene was filmed, watching Billy Wilder favor Marilyn Monroe as she blew line after line, take after take. And after the picture's done Curtis responds to an inane question about what it was like kissing Marilyn with the spectacularly tasteless riposte, "It was like kissing Hitler." "There's been a lot of bullshit written about that Hitler line of mine," he said. "It was just a throwaway line."
Then there's Curtis, enduring an agonizingly long shoot on Spartacus, surrounded by English actors playing Roman generals, turning to dainty Jean Simmons and groaning, "Who do you have to fuck to get off this picture?"
Curtis disdained Method acting and was always willing to say so, often at some length. "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. Curtis also talked about what he learned from talking to Laurence Olivier: "You know Tony, clothes make the actor. Dress the part, look at yourself, and you are the part."
Looking at Curtis was never exactly a chore. He swings past the camera for barely a few seconds, dancing a torrid mambo with Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross, and you gasp at how instantly you recognize him. It isn't just the searing good looks, it's the angry concentration. Is he playing a gigolo? If so, this is the least fawning gigolo in film history.
He had great talent, too infrequently used, humor and charisma and many flashes of good grace. But the Siren loved his fierceness. If there's an afterlife, she really hopes Curtis is giving Gerald Drayson Adams a piece of his eternally ornery mind.