While he has turned in some less-than-spectacular performances in less-than-spectacular movies, Tony Curtis also showed a range of talent, from drama to comedy, when the material was strong and his heart was in it. Like his contemporary, Ava Gardner, his looks and origins often got in the way of people taking him seriously as an actor. But his superb work in a handful of movies ensures that his legacy to cinema can never be completely diminished, even if there is another “Lobster Man From Mars” (1989) in his future.
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, New York, on June 3, 1925. After a stint in the Navy, he dedicated himself to acting. His pretty face, a name change, and some good luck landed him a role in “Criss Cross” (1948) and a contract at Universal.
He was not an overnight success but worked steadily in films like “Across the River” (1949) and “The All-American” (1953). He broke out as the star of “Houdini” (1953), but while the money got better the parts were mixed. Nevertheless, Curtis and his then-wife, the actress Janet Leigh, were darlings of the tabloids during the mid-1950’s, and maybe it was this intimate exposure to the desperate workings of the Hollywood publicity mill that informed his performance in one of his great roles, that of press agent Sidney Falco in “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957). Curtis was brilliant opposite Burt Lancaster’s iron-willed gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker; he was not afraid to look bad and his performance is widely- considered one of the best of that decade on film.
While Curtis played tragic in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” his next great hit was a comedy, Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing masterpiece, “Some Like It Hot” (1959). The film co-starred Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, yet it is Curtis who holds the picture together. He gets the girl while he simultaneously plays the girl, throwing in a great imitation of Cary Grant to up the ante. Unfortunately, the material (and perhaps the performances) slacked off with the start of the 1960’s. Titles like “Captain Newman, M.D.” (1963), “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964), and “Not With My Wife, You Don’t!” (1966) speak volumes about what kind of silly stuff Curtis was up to professionally during this period, a slump he tried to rectify as the villain in “The Boston Strangler” (1968). But Curtis never took himself too seriously, voicing the character “Stony Curtis” in “The Flintstones” TV series (1960).
There were few highlights after that although TV’s The Persuaders was the best of them. A cynic could say playing a killer killed Tony Curtis’s career, but Olivier would have been hard-pressed to rise above “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” (1978) and “Tarzan in Manhattan” (1989).