Tony liked it hot
film The Defiant One: A Biography of Tony Curtis Aubray Malone McFarland, £34.50, pbk, 250 pages Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
A little over three years after his death, Tony Curtis is beginning to fade a little from the popular zeitgeist, but you can be sure that this Christmas, like every Christmas, he will be back on our TV screens somewhere in Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.
Even so, his star is beginning to fade and soon his name may not mean all that much to anyone under the age of 50. But as Irish writer Aubrey Malone's lively and outspoken new biography reminds us, he was once among the biggest stars in the world, adored by women and admired by everyone from Elvis Presley to a young Clive James, who once described the actor as a "living god".
Curtis was handsome alright, in fact prettier than most of his female co-stars, and it was undoubtedly his looks that gave him his chance in Hollywood. But it was his street smarts and sheer guts that kept him there, because he got off to a rocky start in the film industry, and almost sank without a trace after being typecast in dodgy epics.
Famous for his womanising -- he was married six times, rarely for long -- and his drug and alcohol addictions, Curtis would be easy to dismiss as your typical Hollywood car crash, but as Malone makes clear in his book, Tony overcame huge obstacles to get to the top, and proved his talent in a string of fine films once he got there.
The key to understanding Tony Curtis lies in his childhood, an area The Defiant One vividly explores. The child of first generation Hungarian Jews, he was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, and grew up with his two younger brothers in the back of his parents' tailor shop in the Bronx.
The Schwartzes were poor, in fact at one point Bernie and his brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a month because their parents couldn't afford to feed them. Julius would die at 10 after being hit by a truck, a tragedy that scarred his brother for life. To make matters worse, Bernie's mother Helen was unstable and volatile and beat him mercilessly.
According to Curtis, his family moved 27 times in 10 years. "Sometimes," he says in Malone's book, "we had no furniture and ate off my father's pressing table." Things weren't much better in the street, where people shouted "Jewish pig!" after him, and job ads in shop windows warned the sons of Abraham not to apply.
Childhoods like that either crush you or make you stronger, and in Bernie's case it was most definitely the latter.
He'd caught the acting bug as a kid sneaking into cinemas to watch Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, and after seeing active service in the US Navy during World War II, he returned to New York and enrolled in a prestigious acting workshop alongside the likes of Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau. His looks soon landed him an agent, and he'd been snapped up by Universal Pictures by the time he was 23.
In Hollywood, Bernie quickly changed his name to the more dashing-sounding Anthony Curtis, but success was not instant. Tony was no Olivier, and toiled in small parts for several years before landing a lead role in the 1953 biopic Houdini, co-starring his then-wife Janet Leigh.
Leigh and Curtis were the Brad and Angelina of their day, and their every move was analysed by publicists and hack journalists. Both ambitious, they played along, but the strain of playing the perfect couple soon began to tell. They eventually divorced in 1962 after Tony ran off with German actress Christine Kaufmann.
It would always irk Curtis that he never won an Oscar and wasn't really taken seriously as an actor. But he had his moments, and was blessed with impeccable comic timing. He impressed alongside Burt Lancaster as a scheming press agent in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and played a racist escaped convict chained to a black man (Sidney Poitier) in Stanley Kramer's groundbreaking 1958 race drama, The Defiant Ones.
The role he's best remembered for, though, is of course Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder's brilliant 1959 comedy. Curtis and Jack Lemmon played two Prohibition-era jazz musicians who go on the run from the mob by posing as women and joining an all-female orchestra. And while Lemmon took to drag like a duck to water, Curtis found the experience much more challenging.
"My nickname was Vanity Curtis on that set," he says in Malone's book. "I couldn't stop looking in mirrors ... at first I didn't just want to be a woman -- I wanted to be a pretty woman."
Shortly before his death, Curtis released a book about Some Like It Hot in which he claimed to have slept with co-star Marilyn Monroe and made her pregnant. We'll never know whether or not all of that was true, because, as Aubrey Malone says in The Defiant One, Curtis was a great storyteller with "a very active imagination".
In the 1960s, Curtis's movie career floundered as he got lost in a string of forgettable romantic comedies, and an acclaimed turn in The Boston Strangler failed to revive it. He ended up appearing on TV shows like The Persuaders in the 1970s, which at the time was considered a real comedown for an actor of his stature. But Bernie Schwartz never went down without a fight, and in his later years Curtis relived his youthful triumphs by becoming a regular fixture on the talk show circuit.
In the early 1990s Aubrey Malone actually got to meet Curtis, and a long chapter is devoted to their encounter at the Shelbourne Hotel. But the best parts of The Defiant One are the chapters dealing with the actor's childhood and his very public marriage to Janet Leigh. Malone's book skims about a bit otherwise and varies somewhat in tone and style. But it's full of facts and vignettes that were news to me, and would make a good companion to Tony Curtis's entertaining but very unreliable memoirs.