Sunday 18 March 2018

Tony Curtis: an appreciation

Tony Curtis pictured in 1952. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Curtis pictured in 1952. Photo: Getty Images

Marc Lee

As an actor, Tony Curtis demonstrated a remarkable range in a career that embraced more than 100 movies (and plenty of television roles, too).

In Alexander Mackendrick's acidic media satire Sweet Smell of Success (1957), he plays a devious press agent; in Stanley Kubrick's lavish sword-and-sandals epic Spartacus (1960), he is a tutor determined to become a soldier; and eight years later, in The Boston Strangler, he is chillingly convincing as a serial killer.

Curtis regarded the last of these as his finest performance (an opinion with which many critics would agree), but undoubtedly the role for which he will forever be remembered is as a cross-dressing musician on the run from the Mob in Billy Wilder's riotous romp Some Like It Hot (1959).

Widely hailed as one of the funniest films ever to come out of Hollywood – the American Film Institute voted it the greatest comedy of all time – Some Like It Hot had it all: a director at the top of his game, a sparkling script (which, with the exclamation "Well, nobody's perfect!", boasts the movies' most celebrated last line), and three stars (Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe) who roar through the boisterousness with infectious glee.

As well as tottering around in heels, hairdo and make-up, Curtis, sporting thick specs and jaunty sailor's hat, also gets the chance to do a terrific impression of his own matinee-idol hero Cary Grant. The accent is hilariously spot on.

Though the film is tame by today's standards, the posters for Some Like It Hot warned: "Not suitable for children". In Spartacus, which was released the following year, Curtis was the subject of further controversy as a participant in one of the earliest homoerotic scenes in mainstream cinema.

In a bath-time scene that was initially cut but later restored, there's a palpable sexual tension between Curtis's character Antoninus and Laurence Olivier's Marcus Licinius Crassus, as conversation turns to oysters and snails.

When a star is as flawlessly gorgeous as Curtis was in his heyday, it's perhaps inevitable that there were suggestions that he was gay in real life. However, his six marriages possibly indicate otherwise. (His first wife was actress Janet Leigh, who met a bloody end in the shower scene in Psycho; their daughter, Jamie Leigh Curtis, became a Hollywood star herself.)

Certainly his character in the early-Seventies TV series The Persuaders! was determinedly heterosexual. Alongside Roger Moore's British aristocrat, he played an American playboy: together they solved crimes the police couldn't crack while swanning around in exotic locations with a dollybird on each arm.

Other roles included an appearance as Stony Curtis in the TV cartoon series The Flintstones and the slightly more historically accurate 1958 adventure The Vikings.

Though his best films were all in his younger days, he worked throughout his life and was scheduled to star in a film adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story due for release next year. For all his remarkable talent and on-screen charisma, he never won an Oscar.

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment