Tony Curtis' Movies & Best Performances: From 'Some Like It Hot' to 'The Boston Strangler'

Wednesday, August 27, highlights on Turner Classic Movies:

TCM will be showing several goodies on Tony Curtis Day, including Richard Fleischer's rousing adventure epic The Vikings (1958), in which Curtis plays opposite his then-wife Janet Leigh; the highly enjoyable Blake Edwards comedy Operation Petticoat (1959), with Curtis, his idol Cary Grant, and a bunch of (female) army nurses huddled aboard a pink submarine; and Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), considered by some the greatest comedy ever made.

Well, in my view there are many funnier comedies out there; nevertheless, Some Like It Hot is a hoot, what with Curtis and Jack Lemmon playing jazzed-out babes (right), Curtis (when not in drag) impersonating (his idol) Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe doing her usual kind-hearted but ditzy blonde bit, and Joe E. Brown demonstrating that if you truly love someone you don't mind his little imperfections.

Some also consider Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) one of the best films of the 1950s. Personally, I find this tale of ambition, powerlust, and the American Nightmare both great and mediocre: many of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets' situations (from one of Lehman's novellas) and dialogue are excellent, James Wong Howe's cinematography is marvelously moody, and Burt Lancaster, as a Walter Winchell-like gossip writer, has a few good moments. Unfortunately, Mackendrick's melodramatic touch detracts from what should have been a no-holds-barred, hard-hitting drama.

The same problem – in-your-face melodrama – exacerbated by well-meaning but poor acting, well-meaning but poor direction, and well-meaning but poor writing totally destroy the well-meaning but poor The Defiant Ones (1958), the tale of two escaped convicts – one black, one white – who, oops!, are chained to one another and must thus learn to get along together as one so they can evade their pursuers. While watching this, I kept hearing in my mind, “Eboneee and Ivoreeee live together in perfect harmoneee” and, worse yet, “We are the World, We are the People, We are the Ones…”

Many Academy members clearly didn't hear any syrupy songs in their heads while watching The Defiant Ones, for the social melodrama earned nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, best direction (Stanley Kramer), best actor (Curtis, Sidney Poitier), best supporting actress (Cara Williams), and best supporting actor (Theodore Bikel). Additionally, The Defiant Ones won that year's Oscar for best original screenplay (Harold Jacob Smith and Nedrick Young, who was blacklisted at the time; Young used the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas) and best black-and-white cinematography (Sam Leavitt).

I haven't seen George Sidney's Who's That Lady? (1960), about cheating husbands and alleged spies, but it's supposed to be an enjoyable light comedy.

Schedule (Pacific Time) and synopses from the TCM website:

27 Wednesday

3:00 AM Private Screenings: Tony Curtis (1999)
TCM host Robert Osborne interviews Tony Curtis on his life and career. Curtis appears in interviews and film clips. Black and white. 54 min.

4:00 AM Beachhead (1954)
U.S. soldiers invade a Pacific Island during World War II to catch an informer. Cast: Tony Curtis, Frank Lovejoy, Mary Murphy. Dir.: Stuart Heisler. Color. 90 min.

5:45 AM Vikings, The (1958)
Viking half-brothers fight over a throne and a beautiful captive. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh. Dir.: Richard Fleischer. Color. 116 mins. Letterbox Format

7:45 AM Who Was That Lady? (1960)
A cheating husband convinces his wife his flirtations are actually spy missions. Cast: Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Dean Martin. Dir.: George Sidney. Black and white. 114 mins. Letterbox Format

Operation Petticoat by Blake Edwards9:45 AM Operation Petticoat (1959)
During World War II, the crew of a decrepit submarine takes on a team of Navy nurses. Cast: Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Dina Merrill. Dir.: Blake Edwards. Color. 121 mins. Letterbox Format

12:00 PM Rat Race, The (1960)
A musician newly arrived in New York takes in a taxi dancer. Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Tony Curtis, Don Rickles. Dir.: Robert Mulligan. Color. 105 min.

2:00 PM Boeing Boeing (1965)
A playboy uses airline schedules to maintain “exclusive” relationships with three flight attendants at the same time. Cast: Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, Thelma Ritter. Dir.: John Rich. Color. 103 mins. Letterbox Format

4:00 PM Private Screenings: Tony Curtis (1999)
TCM host Robert Osborne interviews Tony Curtis on his life and career. Curtis appears in interviews and film clips. Black and white. 54 min.

5:00 PM Some Like It Hot (1959)
Two musicians on the run from gangsters masquerade as members of an all-girl band. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis. Dir.: Billy Wilder. Black and white. 121 mins. Letterbox Format

7:15 PM Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
A crooked press agent stoops to new depths to help an egotistical columnist break up his sister's romance. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Martin Milner. Dir.: Alexander Mackendrick. Black and white. 96 mins. Letterbox Format

9:00 PM The Defiant Ones (1958)
Two convicts, a white racist and an angry black, escape while chained to each other. Cast: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel. Dir.: Stanley Kramer. Black and white. 96 mins. Letterbox Format

11:00 PM Trapeze (1956)
An aging trapeze star and his protégé fall for the same woman. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida. Dir.: Carol Reed. Color. 106 mins. Letterbox Format

1:00 AM Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
A Hollywood producer hires a beautiful secretary to keep his drunken screenwriter on track. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Noel Coward. Dir.: Richard Quine. Color. 110 mins. Letterbox Format

Tony Curtis was deservedly best known for his performance in Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot (right, with Jack Lemmon), in which Curtis spends much of his screen time either as a woman or as Cary Grant.

Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx on June 3, 1925), despite a none-too-promising start as the lead in a number of B features for Universal, actually delivered several other good performances as well.

He was particularly effective in a comedy opposite none other than Cary Grant himself – who happened to be one of Curtis' idols. That was Blake Edwards' Operation Petticoat, also released in 1959, and which also starred a pink submarine.

Another Tony Curtis performance worth checking out is his serial killer in Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler (1968). Curtis believed he was going to get an Oscar for that one, but he wasn't even nominated.

Curtis is also well respected for three dramatic roles from the late 1950s/1960: his ambitious press agent in Alexander Mackendrick's much-admired Sweet Smell of Success (1957); his escaped convict chained to Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer's unbearably well-intentioned The Defiant Ones (1958), for which both actors received Academy Award nominations; and his slave-turned-toyboy-turned-insurgent in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960).

Tony Curtis' Movies & Best Performances: From 'Some Like It Hot' to 'The Boston Strangler' © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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1 Comment to Tony Curtis' Movies & Best Performances: From 'Some Like It Hot' to 'The Boston Strangler'

  1. Brian W. Fairbanks

    I thought he was terrific in “The Boston Strangler,” as well as “Houdini.” He was less convincing as Antoninus in “Spartacus,” but I still like him in that movie. He was a real movie star. As I remember him saying on David Letterman's show years ago, people would approach him on the street and say, “Tony, you're the movies.” I wouldn't argue with that statement at all.