Tony Curtis has died. He was a very handsome and sexy guy, and the first half of his career was at the tail end of Hollywood’s Studio Era. As a result, he played the pretty boy leads in lots of mediocre action movies. He and first wife Janet Leigh (parents of Jamie Lee Curtis) made up one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples ever.
But Tony Curtis could act if he got the right role, and he made at least three great movies. The fact that these movies come from three very different genres (screwball comedy, contemporary drama, sword-and-sandal epic) is a testament to his ability.
Some Like It Hot (1959): This Billy Wilder masterpiece is my pick for the best comedy of all time. Seriously – the best comedy ever. And it still works today. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play most of the movie in drag (and Tony is kind of cute). Curtis must continue the ruse although next to Marilyn Monroe is at her most delectable. Curtis then dons a yachting cap and does a dead-on Cary Grant impression as the heir to an industrial fortune.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957): This has Curtis’ most subtly acted role as a Broadway press agent who is completely at the mercy of Burt Lancaster’s sadistically nasty columnist. Many of us have experienced being vulnerable to the caprice of an extremely mean person – Curtis perfectly captures the dread and humiliation of being in that position.
Spartacus (1960): Once in a while, a grand epic is a really good movie , and Spartacus qualifies. Curtis plays a slave who is hit on by Laurence Olivier’s Roman patrician in a scene of BARELY implicit homosexuality. “Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?”, Olivier leers from the bath. It was a gutsy scene for a studio actor at the end of the 50s.