Tony Curtis talked like he looked: oily, with remnants of Bernard Schwartz of the Bronx never far off. I don’t want to know what went on in the Hollywood Babylon days; a man married six times certainly has more anecdotes than one has lives to listen to them. Although I haven’t seen even half of his (vast) filmography, his most famous roles projected intelligence and the instinct to live, as The Sweet Smell of Success‘ Sydney Falco puts it, “avidly, avidly.” Watch the posted clip and notice, at the 1: 04 mark, a very rare instance of a Hollywood film from the fifties having the patience to show an actor thinking in character.
After a dozen viewings I still can’t find another performance like Curtis’ in Success — only Tom Cruise in Magnolia proved he had the shrewdness to understand how one can fuse good looks, ambition, and a monstrous ego into the kind of villainy that’s intensely sympathetic. Both performances have this in common too: their respective movies disappoint them with cornball reconciliations. If Curtis never topped it, what other Hollywood actor with an ice cream face could have? So give him credit for accepting another role which exploited audience perceptions. Curtis exuded sexual ambivalence. His Dorothy in Some Like It Hot is femme-y, curvy, and sensuous in ways that Lemmon, who’s obviously having a great time, can’t match. On the other side, the somberness of expression lets us know that his otherwise ridiculous slave boy Antoninus in Spartacus understands the differences between snails and oysters. I’ve read rumors about his sexuality for years; to his immense credit, he seems to have recognized it and gotten downright campy in the last twenty years: eyeliner, powder, great scarves.
An enterprising director might have given Curtis the great late career roles in which co-star Burt Lancaster basked. They weren’t equals: Lancaster’s roles read like a career in self-education, a way of testing his limits and ways to integrate his intense physicality and intelligence. Whether we should blame Curtis’ publicized drug problems or simple disinterest, it shows how much of his career was comprised of missed chances.