Books: Cultural Amnesia — Tony Curtis |
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Like many film stars, Tony Curtis (b. 1925) was already pretending to be someone else before he landed his first Hollywood role. As a Jew raised in the New York Upper East Side district he later called “Nazi land,” Bernard Schwartz already knew what World War II was about before he went to it. He emerged from the war with his first professional credentials already established. He had kept his buddies laughing. A further education in drama was made possible by the GI Bill: once again he was the class clown. As an apprentice Hollywood leading man, under his new name Tony Curtis, he caused more laughter for his accent and his hairstyle, but his box office appeal for a young audience was immediate. The rest of the story—mainly about his long and eventually successful quest for credibility—is told in a better than average ghosted autobiography (Tony Curtis, 1993). Necessarily it leaves out the wider context, which would concern just how the equivalents of Tony Curtis in the European countries failed to make the same impact internationally. American cultural imperialism might look like the answer, but the term explains nothing in itself. American dominance of the world’s big screens worked by consent. The effort that went into the product was hard to match. Part of the effort was the quality of the human material that was actually on view. Behind the camera there were refugees from all nations, but most of the faces on screen were Americans. The newer faces, however, knew more about the world than any previous generation. The war changed everything, even the pitch of performance from the established leading men. James Stewart came home from the war a more naturalistic actor than he had been before he left, and the younger men, for whom the war had been not an interlude but an overture, avoided histrionics from the start. Paul Newman and Lee Marvin were conspicuous examples. This naturalism was apparent even in the otherwise frenetic exuberance of Tony Curtis. In his first movies, he looked human even when he hammed it up. He had “only in America” written all over him. But also written all over him was “America is everywhere,” and that infinitely exportable quality of confident savvy stayed with him to provide the basis of his charm in the distinguished roles of his later career.

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Yonder lies the castle of my father

NO, OF COURSE Tony Curtis didn’t write his most famous line. It was written by the otherwise unsung screenplay writer, Oscar Brodney. But Tony Curtis said it, in the accent of the only recently reconstructed Bernie Schwartz, and nobody ever forgot the high-flown speech bubble from a chivalric comic book recited in the cadences of the Bronx. “Yonder lies duh castle of my fuddah.” Back there at the Rockdale Odeon in Sydney I heard him say it, and I didn’t laugh. Along with the girls in the audience, I was too struck with his beauty. I had already guessed that only America was big enough to produce Gene Kelly, and here was another living god, not quite as good-looking perhaps, but with an even more acute case of the stylish energy that the Americans had so much of they could hand it out virtually free to the less lucky nations. If I knew that Australia was an almost equally lucky nation—and in some respects even luckier—I forgot it that day. I even liked the way he said the line. I was practising his intonation when I went home to my muddah.

Actually there were already good reasons for admiring Curtis’s way with the words. He might not yet have been getting some of the consonants right, but he was always spot on with the emphasis and the impetus. (From his first movies, I assumed that it was an Italian ethnic background he was suppressing. It didn’t occur to me that it was a Jewish one, and that Bernie Schwarz had become Tony Curtis for the same reason that Julius Garfinkle became John Garfield. Nothing mattered except the enchanting way that the tormented phonemes seemed to give an extra zing to the American demotic.) In the last year of the war, trapped in the Pacific on a submarine tender, Curtis had entertained his fellow sailors by supplying voices for the movies that they were running with the sound off because they were sick of them. For men whose expectations of life varied between endless boredom and a kamikaze attack, he must have been good to have around, if harder to stave off than a Japanese suicide plane flown by someone with a different idea of glory. Bernie Schwartz was relentless. Like the character in the epigraphs to The Waste Land, he did the police in different voices.

The practice stood him in good stead. With due allowance for the castle of his fuddah, his work in the movies was always marked by his precise way of pointing a line. When he made the whole world laugh in Some Like It Hot, it was surprising to find that some of the critics were surprised. He was also very funny in Operation Petticoat. Playing opposite Cary Grant, no mean speaker himself, Curtis held his own in a mentor-prentice interchange that was worked out in dialogue as much as in action. (Later on, in The Great Race, the same director, Blake Edwards, stuck Curtis with a role that had very few good lines, so we have nothing to remember except his white driving suit and the starry glint superimposed on his smile—an early case of a special effect substituting for the effects that really count.) Curtis always excelled as the apprentice: he was in the same relationship with Burt Lancaster in two more films, Trapeze and The Sweet Smell of Success. Since Lancaster was a genuine athlete and Curtis knew how to look like one, the first film is ridiculous only when Gina Lollobrigida pretends to fly; and the second film is a masterpiece, with Curtis, in his role as the hustling press pimp Sidney Falco, raising sleaze to the status of poetry. Burt Lancaster once told me in an interview that in his position as co-producer of The Sweet Smell of Success he had come close to firing the director from the movie. The director was Alexander Mackendrick, who worked meticulously with the director of photography James Wong Howe to give the film’s visual style a fluency unseen since the heyday of Max Ophuls, who set the standard for filming a whole scene in one elaborate—and therefore expensive—take. But such workmanship took time, and Lancaster, who was counting the financial cost, grew impatient. If he had fired Mackendrick, he would have removed the only force that could rein him in. Lancaster gave a controlled performance because for once someone else was in control. (In Atlantic City it happened again, thanks to Louis Malle.)

But Curtis needed no control. His Sidney Falco is one of the definitive performances of the American cinema: the galvanic answer to the perennial question of what makes Sammy run. There is something marvellous about the way he varies the pace of his dialogue between the cockiness he parades among his fellow grifters and the servility he lavishes on Lancaster’s magisterially ruthless J. J. Hunsecker. It takes a lot of self-discipline to develop such possibilities, and they are mainly developed through his way of pointing the line. Doing so, Curtis helped to found a classic school, in which serious delivery avails itself of comic timing. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman is meant to be desperate when he delivers the speech about the endive salad: but he doesn’t let his desperation get in the way of the words, and sounds all the more panic-stricken for the precision of his delivery. Curtis would have delivered the speech the same way: words first, emotion second. Robert De Niro, coming from the method school, works in the opposite direction. Though he can turn in a precise verbal performance when tightly directed—Wag the Dog is a good example—he can swallow the script when left to himself, especially when he doesn’t trust it. The two different emphases are glaringly on view in that wreck of a blockbuster The Last Tycoon. Curtis’s cameo as the swashbuckling hero of silent movies who has lost his confidence works perfectly in two registers: he falls apart when he is closeted with the studio boss, and he jumps in and out of powerful automobiles when he is on public view. De Niro works in one register, and the puzzled audience spends the whole picture trying to figure out which one it is. The effect is of Tony Curtis giving Robert De Niro an acting lesson. Alas, the ingénue, Ingrid Boulting, who really did need an acting lesson, was never given one. But she might have got one later, when she saw Curtis up there showing what can be done with a few lines.

When it comes to Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s justly celebrated hit comedy of 1959, we find out why a screen star like Curtis is worth all that money. First of all, there is what he does on screen. Again, his way with dialogue is the key factor. Hobbling in a pair of 1920s high heels along the station platform, he looks as funny as Jack Lemmon, but so would Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not even Lemmon, however, could deliver the lines like Curtis. By that stage Lemmon was already indulging himself with the stuttering false-start technique that less funny actors have since made the mistake of thinking funny in itself. (In Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart restarts every sentence half a dozen times before she gets through it: she isn’t just padding the part, she is picking up on a mannerism that Lemmon helped to launch.) Curtis delivers his lines with a clean bite that would have made Cary Grant proud of his pupil. When Curtis is actually imitating Grant, in the seduction scene opposite Marilyn Monroe, his story about the two astigmatic lovers whose bodies had to be brought up from the canyon by mule is a copybook example of how to pace and point a comic extravaganza. Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, his screenwriting partner, must have been hugging each other as Curtis brought it off. He would have had to bring it off many times, because Marilyn Monroe is often in the two shot. Her presence reminds us of the second reason Curtis was worth his money. As Wilder told him, with Monroe on the case there would be multiple takes, and he, Curtis, would have to get it right every time, because the take when she finally got it right would be the one they would print. Like Lemmon, Curtis had to keep on delivering the goods over and over in every scene that involved Monroe throughout the movie. Curtis’s scenes with her are far more complicated than Lemmon’s. In private, Curtis execrated Monroe for her lack of professionalism, but on the set he never wavered. He might easily have been worn down. Marlon Brando, a kind of male Marilyn Monroe when it came to the actual business of learning the lines or getting the shot, always dominated the screen no matter how strong the cast, but he dominated it for a single reason: he needed so many takes that the other actors got tired. He just wore them to a frazzle. Opinions differ about whether he did it deliberately. There is only one opinion about Monroe: she was helpless. But Curtis wasn’t, and he is the actor at the centre of one of the funniest pictures ever made.

After that tour de force, some of Curtis’s later triumphs should not have come as a revelation, but they always did. When he dominated the screen in The Boston Strangler or stole it in Insignificance, there were always otherwise intelligent critics who congratulated themselves for originality by calling him talented. Nobody would ever have called him anything else had he been less disarming. Like the eloquent man who gets no points for the poetry he writes because he talks well anyway, Curtis was always downrated for his accomplishment because of his screen presence. Throughout his career, he has been one of the most convincing proofs that the secrets of screen stardom must always lie beyond complete analysis. There are actors like Alan Arkin who can do anything except dominate the screen, and there are other actors who dominate the screen yet can do almost nothing. To the extent that screen stardom can be broken down into separate gifts, however, Curtis, apart from a physical beauty that was built to last, had another gift that was rare and precious. He was a writer’s actor. When he spoke it, the language came alive. Somewhere under the quiff and eventually the rug, Tony Curtis weighed a line for its rhythm and melody, and said it as if it could be said in one way only, and no uddah.