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.
A favorite of mine since forever. I still love watching "Trapeze", just about the most delectable movie ever, what with Curtis, Lancaster, and Lollabrigida. I even visited the Cirque d'hiver in Paris, just to see the setting.
My Dad liked him, too, I think BECAUSE of "Yondah..." - he liked the aspect of Curtis as unchangeable, regardless. We used to eat barbecued ribs on Saturday nites, and a close friend, almost a brother, was usually there while we watched the movies after. For some reason, one spate of successive Saturdays had films where poor Curtis's character gets croaked at the end of the movie. We were making remarks about it after a while.
My pal showed up for ribs one Sat., and my Dad tells him with mock seriousness, "If Tony Curtis gets killed again, I won't know who to blame it on, the ribs or you, and since I can only lose one of you to get rid of the bad luck, I'm thinking about not inviting you for ribs anymore."
Well done. I agree with you. Sidney Falco was his best. It's just a shame that his talent got wasted for about the last four decades of his life, but at least he really got a chance to let it shine when he was on fire in the '50s.
Vanwall, I enjoy Trapeze too although I can't say I think it's a good movie. I agree with your father, nobody should ever lose the ribs.
Edward, thanks. I think he was really good in The Boston Strangler, but the movie is so strange and unpleasant it's hard to take to your heart.
Fantastic post! Curtis definitely had charisma and sometimes it's just nice to see a movie star. I'm sure he's having a fantastic time wherever he is. RIP
If you've never seen it and it's available on DVD, try to get "The Outsider". Curtis plays Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who was one of the four guys who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.
You'd not think a Jewish guy from the big city could play an American Indian, but he did it well. And the movie as biopic was pretty accurate; Hayes was used like all the flag-raisers to sell war bonds, and when the Marines discharged him his purpose was lost. He ended up dead in a gutter. Curtis played that downward slide magnificently.
Or at least, I thought so. I saw it for three straight nights at the drive-in theater my great aunt & uncle owned in Bagdad, Arizona. Maybe being in Indian country had something to do with my impression of the film.
To me, Tony Curtis had the "cary Grant Factor", that is, whenever he is, you are quite sure that you'll enjoy the film.
As for Brit bitchiness about accents in the set of Spartacus, it wasn't restricted to natives of the Bronx: many years after the filming, Peter Ustinov still made fun of Charles Laughton's Northern English vowels
Long time lurker, first time poster here. Lovely remembrance. As would be expected coming from you. Falco was indeed the best thing he ever did, one could say almost objectively so, as close to be a stone cold fact as one gets in matters of taste. But I think I like him in Richard Fleischer's The Vikings even more, because that role is just the kind of perfect nonsense he could pull off so effectively when he felt like it. He was the kind of actor who could keep a level head when dealing with the most hysterical sort of material, while at the same time never getting tight jawed and ponderous so as to make you think he thought this was a big effin' deal. (As opposed to, I don't know, somebody silly like Russell Crowe.)
He got kidded for his man in tights movies because he never gave the nod or the wink. Not that I have anything against a smart nod and a wink mind you, but there's a casual conviction to his performance in The Black Shield of Falworth, for example, that makes that movie so damn entertaining. And Jesus Christ, Curtis deserves eternal respect for playing the lead in The Manitou and carrying it off like it was the only honorable thing he could do.
The UK obituaries have rarely failed to mention The Persuaders TC's TV series from the early 1970s. Pairing Curtis with Roger Moore (post-Saint, pre-Bond), it was arrant, un-PC nonsense of course but a lot of fun: as a bonus, it had a great theme tune by John Barry. Curtis (who seems to have done most of his own stunts, wearing gloves every time) even gets to pick up the phone and say the line "Bernie Schwartz? Never heard of him!" I think he's fantastic as Sidney Falco and Albert de Salvo, but there seems a certain effort to it - perfect for Sidney (who is as desperate for success as Curtis must have been to get away from his "light" reputation), perhaps less so for the Boston Strangler. I've lost count of the times I've found myself enjoying one of those much-maligned '60s comedies of his, often solely on the basis of his performance.
Gotta tell you, despite the obvious flaws with the totally untrue based-on-a-true-story HOUDINI biopic, his performance as the escape artist is so charming and so exuberant, it's still one of my favorites. I often wonder if it's because it's the first film in which he costarred with lovely wife Janet Leigh. I could imagine the still up-and-coming Bronx-born Schwartz wanting to impress his somewhat more experienced girl at her most resplendent.
Amanda: "Sometimes it's just nice to see a movie star." Truer words are seldom typed here.
Linkmeister, I haven't seen that one, but I love the idea of seeing ANYTHING at a drive-in in Bagdad, Arizona, especially Curtis. I loved him in those Arabian Nights things he did starting out, a genre I once wrote up as "Baghdad and Boobs." And as a redhead I was always tickled to death at Piper Laurie as an Arabian princess. It has been so long since I saw Son of Ali Baba I can't testify as to whether the infamous line is actually in there, or if it was just a "You dirty rat" line--something someone made up that somehow got accepted as truth. I can attest, however, that the Curtis accent is much in evidence in all those movies. And I always loved it. It isn't as though John Justin sounds more Arab than Curtis does. Curtis, for all his somewhat over-the-top reaction, is on to something when he points out that a British accent shouldn't mean you are automatically more believable in a costume part.
Gloria, if all the memoirs are accurate, Spartacus must have been one of the bitchiest sets in Hollywood history. Curtis describes Kubrick getting treated very badly by a lot of his underlings, including cinematographer Russell Metty, and Ustinov has that memorable description of a scene-stealing tug-of-war with Olivier, and Laughton wasn't happy, and Kirk Douglas was running around driving everybody up a wall...Makes for great anecdotes, however. I would love to hear whatever Simmons had to say about the experience. Curtis said she laughed at the "who do I have to..." line.
Paul, welcome, and I so agree about The Vikings, which I would watch again quite happily. You describe Curtis in his tights-and-tosh mode so well. And he kept that ability for a long time; I have happy memories of his villain in the TV Count of Monte Cristo, opposite Richard Chamberlain. I remember an interview where Curtis was complimenting Chamberlain on his fencing skills, remarking that his swordfighting days had often put him up against other actors whom Curtis feared would slice off some part of his anatomy because they didn't know what they were doing.
Estienne, I haven't seen many Persuaders episodes but it seems to have been adored in Europe; it was the first thing my husband brought up when I told him Curtis had died.
Tony, I like Houdini a lot and Kehr gave it some love in his Times obit. I'm hoping Kehr gets to write up all the classic-Hollywood obits for that paper, he does a great job.
The "Who do I . . ." anecdote was earlier attributed (more plausibly) to a female extra in The Ten Commandments bemoaning all the sand and grape juice in her costume and hair during retakes of the Golden Calf orgy. I would have thought Tony Curtis's situation far less onerous. But then a good story bears retelling.
I'll never forget my first viewing of Criss Cross with that "What the hell? It's Tony Curtis!" moment. Such an auspicious beginning for this most kinetic of actors, a warm up for Sidney Falco's crazy balletics.
Siren, your observations lead me to think of Curtis as a worthy successor to John Garfield. Force of Evil and Sweet Smell of Success would make a great double bill.
Tony Curtis to Gerald Adams Drayson: "Come here, Gerald. I want to chastise you."
Roszaphile, the Spartacus story comes from Tony himself, although as we mention above with "Yondah" it's possible (indeed, it's ALWAYS possible) that he didn't always knows which lines were his. As well as possible that an extra could have the same sentiments. I get the impression the whole Spartacus cast was itching to get off set because an actor always has his eye on the next part, and nobody knew when they'd be able to take one.
XT, I love your last line soooo much...
More on Spartacus bitchiness. Peter Ustinov, during one of his regular stints on some interview show or other, told the story of taking his son (then a small boy) onto the set, who proceeded to embarrass him:
USTINOV Jr: (Pointing at Charles LAUGHTON, resplendent in his toga) Who is that lady, daddy?
(LAUGHTON makes a face.)
PETER USTINOV: That's not a lady, he's a man.
USTINOV Jr: Then why has he got breasts?
Curtis (who seems to have done most of his own stunts, wearing gloves every time) even gets to pick up the phone and say the line "Bernie Schwartz? Never heard of him!"
An in-joke of an in-joke: Tony Curtis evoking Cary Grant (whom he idolized) in "His Girl Friday."
RIP, Sidney Falco.
Tony Curtis started out as a movie star but very quicly developed into an actor of considerable range and great subtlty. So much crap has been written about Brando's influence. I don't see it at all. Brando was a consummate stylist whose style could no more be taken up by others than that of Garbo. Looking at Sweet Smell of Success again recently all I could think of was Harvey Keitel, early DeNiro (he's gotten really boring of late), James Franco (who in addition to the sexist overbit since Gene Tierney vibrates with "street cred") and John Hamm -- who like Curtis knows the power to be derived from standing still and "doing nothing."
I interviewed the man two years ago, and while it could be frustrating in terms of fact-checking -- like any performer, he constantly custom-tailored his stories for his audience -- he gave great copy.
And you're quite right about the anger. Fifty years after some of the events, he still felt the pain of the way he was treated (or, perhaps, the way he thought he was treated.) I re-read the interview yesterday, when I was working on his obituary, and the resentment was still raw.
My favorite Tony Curtis story, though, is one in which he figures only tangentially. As Harrison Ford tells it, he had just done a bit part as a bellboy in, I think "Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round," and one of the studio suits was complaining about how boring Ford was.
"Tony Curtis played a bellboy for us once," the exec said. "And when he walked into that room, you knew he was a star!"
"I thought when he walked into that room, you were supposed to think he was a bellboy," Ford deadpanned.
Well, yes. But I think Mr. Ford misses the point. There are different kinds of acting -- and Tony Curtis' was always above-the-title, in big bold, beautiful letters.
I'm checking in from Mississippi at the moment, and my full-tilt web-access is erratic, but as soon as I heard of Curtis' death I knew I had to find a way to get over here and see what you'd write. You do not disappoint.
I first heard the "Yondah..." story from my mother, who told it with a kind of affectionate pride in the irrepressibility of a nice little NY Jewish boychik. As a result I'm intrigued and a tad bit saddened to hear Curtis' own anger on the subject. I understand what he was saying (in light of stories like this, it's difficult not to), but I wish he knew how much that story meant to all the little Jews out here. We loved that he was up there representing us, unquenchable.
As I grew up, I loved that he was such a fan, like us. To watch Some Like It Hot and see his Cary Grant homage (he was on record as being beside himself with excitement at being able to work with his idol in Operation Petticoat) and learn how he'd based his pout on Eve Arden's...very cool.
There was a terrific Esquire article on him a few years ago--a man who liked to speak his mind!
I'm fond of Curtis too, but I've always liked thinking of Leslie Howard as being up there representing us.
Estienne, I had heard that one from Ustinov too. I love both him and Laughton (and their scenes together) but it seems they did not suit one another.
VP, you're so right. Curtis had good taste in idols.
David, I don't see Brando in Curtis at all. I love Stephen Whitty's take: "There are different kinds of acting -- and Tony Curtis' was always above-the-title, in big bold, beautiful letters." Yes, that's just it, exactly. Brando would not have been as good as Falco. I really believe that.
Karen, what a lovely compliment--thank you so much. Curtis often talked about the crap he endured growing up Jewish and I guess it marked him, as all childhood wounds go more deep. Would you believe I never heard that about Eve Arden? but lord do I see it now.
XT, I still want Sydney Greenstreet in a white suit as my guide in the afterlife, but I hope Curtis is around telling plenty of anecdotes. Leslie Howard I just want around.
The secret ingredient for both Tony Curtis and Lesley Howard is that they are both Hungarian as well as Jews. It is that Magyar paprika which is the je ne sais quoi.
I'm also a longtime lurker, who used to comment here occasionally. I just had to add my congratulations on a wonderful post that captures an essential facet of Tony Curtis that isn't found in other memoriams.
As an adult, my favorite Curtis performances have come to be those in "Sweet Smell of Success" and "Some Like it Hot." But I have lots of cozy memories of watching "Houdini" on TV during my childhood. As a 10-year-old, I developed quite a crush on Curtis after seeing him in "Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies" (sometimes also called "Monte Carlo or Bust"). I probably don't have to tell you that the film doesn't hold up well, but the memories of the impression Curtis made on me are still pretty vivid.
Gmoke, you're on to something there...both inveterate ladies' men too, despite one being a lot more obvious about it.
Pat, it is a fact that Curtis, and his performances, often hold up much better than the movies themselves. On Oct. 10 there will be some evidence of this on TCM, although their 24-hour marathon will also include some indisputably great stuff, like Sweet Smell and Some LIke It Hot.
I interviewed him a few years ago and only just blogged about it some weeks ago. Fabulous actor and lovely man.
I don't begrudge Curtis his grudge against some critical comments about his voice. Another example was Time on Taras Bulba: "an accent that will be Russian when the Gowanus flows home to the Don." But neither should all such criticism be regarded as prejudice. Good filmmakers (Wyler on Ben-Hur and Douglas on Spartacus) opted for the Roman = British vs. Other = American tactic for good reason. It was a step toward ensemble acting. I think it worked well for those two films. The exception, proves the rule: Jean Simmons, while a lovely actress, did seem a mite too refined for a barbarian slave, even if she was helpfully identified as having come "from Britannia"!
On Oct. 10 there will be some evidence of this on TCM, although their 24-hour marathon will also include some indisputably great stuff, like Sweet Smell and Some LIke It Hot.
I don't believe "Some Like It Hot" is on the agenda, a bit of a surprise. However, "Sweet Smell Of Success," in my mind Curtis' greatest performance, will be shown at 8 p.m. ET to kick off the prime-time portion.
Like John Garfield, Leslie Howard was no mean fiddler (Intermezzo) and did a fine line in intellectual luftmenschen (Petrified Forest, 49th Parallel, and--why not?--Pygmalion). And let no one imagine that Tony Curtis could not have played an intellectual. Readers of the Wallace Markfield's To an Early Grave (source of Lumet's uncomprehending travesty Bye, Bye Braverman) will recall that the character of Holly Levine is described as looking like TC. He was played, in the event, by Curtis look-alike Sorrel Book. Too bad; Curtis would have livened up the sluggish procedings.
M X - Touché! Any Sorrel Book mention is welcome, but that was sublime.
I have to concur with Swhitty. I recently saw Curtis play Lepke in "Murder, Inc.," a typical piece of incoherent Golan-Globus dreck. But his star quality lit up the screen. They don't build them like that any more.
He sure was great. Handsome, talented and legendary.
I don't see Beando in Curtis either, Siren. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. What I was trying to say is that I find him far more relevant than Brnado in terms of modern acting technique.
Brando was a cinematic world unto himself. He burned up the ground leaving no path to follow. Obviously the roles he played in Waterfront and Streetcar were harbingers of what was to come in the post-Hollywood American cinema, but no one -- not even DeNiro -- could approach roles the way Brando did. By constrast Tony Curtis strikes me as more relvant than ever. His performances in films as varied as Sweet Smell of Success, The Great Race and The Outsider are as fresh today as they were when they were first released. And that's not to mention that incredibly heady magnum of Cristal champagne known as Some Like It Hot. Curtis, Lemmon, Marilyn and Joe E. Brown make for the sort of chemistry that gives one a the most intense contact high imaginable.
Thanks V. I should add that S. Book was not bad, especially in the scene in which he keys himself up to begin a book review. This episode (probably unfilmable) in Markfield's novel should be in every humor anthology and will send anyone of decent impulse out of the book reviewing business. I don't know whether To an Early Grave is in print these days, but get yourself a copy. After Lucky Jim, it's the funniest book I've ever read.
A few not yet mentioned: THE GREAT IMPOSTER (1960) or the original CATCH ME IF YOU CAN if you will. Wait---wouldn't that make Fred Demara the original Abegnale?
Also, DON'T MAKE WAVES has a truly eclectic cast and is a hidden semi-gem from '67. Mort Sahl, Sharon Tate, Jim Backus as himself, China Lee, and Curtis working again with SUCCESS director Alexander Mackendrick. Good fun.
yes, and one more seething performance -- although it's more of a trivia answer, perhaps -- as the actor whom John Cassavettes curses and turns blind so he can get his part, in "Rosemary's Baby."
I don't think Curtis took billing, and have no idea why he did the offscreen bit -- you only hear him once, on the phone, when Mia Farrow calls -- but it's his voice all right.
Sidney Lumet made a really good movie of "To An Early Grave" called Bye Bye Braverman. It had a teriffic cast, including my dear friend Anthony Holland.
Lumet just plays the Markfield material for easy laffs and misses the true comedy of the novel: the contrast between the characters' personal vulgarity and their intellectual aspirations. George Segal is fine, and Joseph Wiseman clearly understands his character. The same cannot be said alas of Jack Warden who might just as well be selling marmelade as writing the definitive work on D.H. Lawrence and addressing Gide as cher maitre. Despite the very welcome appearance of the great Godfrey Cambridge at midpoint, the rest of the film fizzles out into a flat, unfunny Feiffer cartoon. Alan King as a rabbi is execrable as always.
MSNBC: "Actor Tony Curtis was buried Monday with a melange of his favorite possessions — a Stetson hat, an Armani scarf, driving gloves, an iPhone and a copy of his favorite novel, Anthony Adverse, a book that inspired his celebrity name and launched a robust film career that spanned decades and genres."
Eclectic, to say the least.
Anthony Adverse? That's so awesome.
Sure is. I've always been curious to read it (wonder if our old pal Bob Cummings was buried with a copy of King's Row. I read that one and it stinks).
Falco is fierce, every time, his edge never diminishes. Pulled out the DVD right before he died, then watched it again after the awful news, just as fierce, every single time.
Jeepers! Turns out Las Vegas is not so lucky for me. On my last day there two years ago, Paul Newman passed away. This time Tony Curtis...
He was a revelation in Sweet Smell of Success, and he was a natural for that role. I don't think he did better work. I enjoy his costume films in the same way I enjoy Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators. Good, cheesy fun starring actors with New York accents.
Taras Bulba is unwatchable if you ask me, and The Boston Strangler is all wrong, and a bad film at that.
However, let me add my voice to the fans of Trapeze. It's so grimy, you can smell the manure. This is one I watch whenever it's on tcm. And I always wonder if there will be different ending this time...
Oh I adore Alan King in all things, X.
Especially Just Tell Me What You Want (another great Lumet)
Words fail me, David, but perhaps my white-knuckle/molar grinding loathing of AK may stem from his modest/smug allusions to his own personal wealth as a frequent J. Carson guest.
I'm usually an admirer of Lumet.
Spartacus is a problem film. Considering Kubrick's previous output, it's just not all that good. I haven't read any books on the subject, but I know what shows on screen. Kirk Douglas was in charge, not Kubrick. There were too many divas on the set, thus there is a pant load of hammy acting. If I could slap one of the culprits, I'd probably take it out on Ustinov. And Tony Curtis is here and there, as if his role was cut.
Ustinov has always been my favorite slice of Bavarian Ham. He knows he is being observed and acts accordingly.
Spartacus is indeed a mixed bag as it began with Anthony Mann at the helm. Then he and Douglas came to loggerheads and Kubrick was called in. While the project as a whole is very much something would have been interested in doing it's undoubtedly not the film he would have made had he been in on things from the start.
Indivodual sequences stand out as particularly Kubrikian, especially those in the gladitorial area.
And I especailly like the ending, which constitutes a big "Take That!" to Christianity.
As a small child I was frequently annoyed by Ustinov and his appearances on "The Merv Griffin Show". It wasn't until much later that I realized he was an actor.
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