In the clip above, an interview with Michael Parkinson that Tony Curtis did in 1978, the Hollywood star talks about how he adapted to Tinseltown when he first got there. Anyone who’s read “American Prince”, Curtis’s autobiography from 2008 (published two years before his death), knows what he’s talking about. Curtis spends a lot of time in his book writing about his tough upbringing, how he struggled in his relationship with his parents, and how he encountered anti-Semitism both in his native New York and in Hollywood. Still, he got by thanks to his talent and good looks, charming an impressive line-up of women (including Marilyn Monroe and Janet Leigh).
I found the book last month in an odd store in Palma, Mallorca called English Fine Books. Definitely worth a visit, especially because of its quaint owner, an Englishman who informed me that Curtis was known for his “duck’s ass” – a hairstyle popular in the 1950s. Quite right; the star addresses it in the book.
“American Prince” is far from the greatest Hollywood biography I’ve read, but I’m sure it stays true to its author. Tony Curtis had quite an eventful life, and I love all the Hollywood gossip. The sad history of his marriages and relationships with women becomes a bit tiresome after a while; he complains about not having a great relationship with his kids, including Jamie Lee Curtis… and you’re not really surprised.
But I love watching Tony Curtis in movies. So, here’s four must-see films and one TV show:
Some Like It Hot (1959) – Well, duh. Curtis’s greatest film had him playing a musician who must turn into a woman to escape mobsters who are out to kill him. Curtis was reunited with Monroe whom he used to date. The old feelings were rekindled (in the book, Curtis tells us that she gave him a boner during one scene), but nothing more came of it. He loved playing essentially three parts; the musician, the female version of him, and the Cary Grant-inspired playboy that he turns into later in the film.
The Defiant Ones (1958) – Tony Curtis was a sensation to teen audiences well before this film, but The Defiant Ones became a wider breakthrough for him. Playing a convict who’s shackled together with a black prisoner (Sidney Poitier) and must cooperate to survive, Curtis appreciated the theme of the film and working with Poitier. They were both Oscar-nominated for their performances.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Playing a scheming press agent, Curtis was hardly the first choice for the role. After all, at this time he was primarily known as a teen star, with his “duck’s ass” and all. At its premiere, the movie was not a hit but the film has become a classic over the years.
The Boston Strangler (1968) – Curtis’s career was about to go into decline at this time, but one of his most lauded performances came as a serial killer, playing Albert DeSalvo. Playing against type, Curtis put a lot of effort into portraying this real-life monster and had a good time in Boston, even meeting his third wife.
The Persuaders (1971-1972) – Curtis spent the ’70s and ’80s making a few films, a few forays into television… and eventually battling for relevance (as well as a nasty cocaine addiction). One of his most pleasant projects was The Persuaders, a TV series that he made in Britain together with Roger Moore. The show was a major global hit – but not in the U.S.
Tony Curtis was certainly a player. But if you focus on what I listed, you’ll be impressed.