Aside from being a talented actor, Tony Curtis was a bit of a rebel when it came to being a Hollywood movie star. For instance, he himself admitted that his first marriage to Janet Leigh (Psycho) was more for the publicity than for love. She was the right woman at the right time for him, and despite their marriage lasting 11 years, it was doomed. He married another five times, and fathered a total six children, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis. He is survived by his last wife, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, who was 40 years his junior.
But Curtis’ ambition didn’t overshadow his own idea of what type of career he wanted to have, or his sense of ethics, sometimes to his own detriment. For instance, he was warned against taking a bit part in the movie “Spartacus” starring Kirk Douglas and Lawrence Olivier, but did so anyway for the opportunity to work with such giants along with Director Stanley Kubrick. When he became frustrated with Hollywood in the 70s, he left the USA and went to England and did a TV series with Roger Moore. But he was also known for sticking to his guns. He insisted that Sidney Poitier get equal billing on the film “The Defiant Ones”, something that was unheard of for a Black actor back in the 50s. On the other hand, he refused to ever watch the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. This made him somewhat of an enigma. This overall attitude kept Curtis from ever being type cast, and as his fame grew, he was able to take roles in about as many genres as there are in film.
From comedy to drama, from horror to historical, from action to romance, Curtis felt in his element, and always gave the best performance he could. Moreover, with his dashing good looks he could even make his thick Brooklyn accent sound charming. It is no wonder he was a big screen heart-throb, and well known as a ladies’ man. Here are the films by Curtis that I think are his best and worth watching.
Houdini – here Curtis plays the title role in a biopic about the famous magician. Opposite his real-life wife at the time, Janet Leigh, playing Harry’s wife, Bess, this drama is apparently not terribly accurate (in particular the events of how Houdini died). However, Curtis plays this with both a light touch and an inner darkness which was very true to the real person and makes this more of a character study than a simple biography. Well worth the watch, and Curtis being a bit of an armature magician himself, performed most of the trick here.
Operation Petticoat – ever heard of a pink submarine? What about smuggling five women on board? Well, of course not, but that’s exactly what you’ll get in this fun WW2 movie. Here Curtis got to play alongside his acting idol – Cary Grant, and it shows in every scene just how thrilled he was to be on the same set. Yes, it is a bit silly, but nonetheless a movie that will make you laugh, as Tony uses his charm both with the ladies on board and his captain.
The Boston Strangler – in this film Curtis gets to play an even darker character than Houdini. Here he plays Albert Desalvo, aka the character in the title. While this film is also partially inaccurate, it uses the liberties it takes to include some really well done bits of cinematography. For instance, scenes trying to show two things at once are done in split screen, and the lighting throughout the film fits the story to a “T”. Moreover, the depth of character and insight that Curtis brings here is particularly well done.
The Great Race – probably one of the silliest films ever made, this farce brought the elements of a race together with slapstick and a touch of romance along the way. Curtis plays “The Great Leslie” who sets out to promote the motorcar to 19th century Americans through a race from New York to Paris – going westwards. This interesting take on the “Around the World in 80 Days” story also brings in another often used movie plot – “The Prisoner of Zenda”. In this, Curtis has his old co-star Jack Lemmon being the man who is so similar looking to a certain problematic monarch that certain elements force him to play the part. Leslie’s love interest here is played by an emancipated Natalie Wood. Watch out for the best food fight ever filmed.
The Defiant Ones – this is the film that earned Tony Curtis his only Oscar nomination, and was awarded two Oscars itself – for best cinematography and best screenplay. This story about two convicts that escape while being shackled together is both harrowing and fascinating. Also starring Sydney Poitier (who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, as well), this film brings together two very different types of actors and yet melds them together in a work that investigates the essence of prejudice and how adverse situations effect such feelings. The chemistry here between the two of them is marvelous and the whole movie works beautifully.
Some Like it Hot – no list of Tony Curtis movies could ignore what is arguably the finest comedy ever filmed, and probably the movie that Curtis is best known for. Teaming up with Jack Lemmon, this is the story of two musicians who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and end up hiding out in drag, in an all-girls band. Matters get complicated when Curtis falls for the lead singer, played by none other than Marilyn Monroe. True to form, while going after Monroe’s character, Curtis puts on his best Cary Grant impression while pretending to be an oil Barron. This movie is a true classic from start to finish.
Hollywood lost a very special person when Tony Curtis died, but his memory and legacy will live on.