Tony Curtis RIP: The lost art of complex realism
Sometime in the 1980s I caught the overnight ferry to Paris and arriving too early in the morning had to wander around the streets in the twilight. For a long time I was the only person in sight but then a diminutive figure appeared also wandering aimlessly.
He was swathed in a checked overcoat and seemed to have hair that was both permed and brylcreemed, and a healthy tan. He nodded at me as he passed. It was Tony Curtis.
He had on his face that impish look of wonder, and a total relaxation and composure, that I now understand as the whole basis for his acting achievement.
Born in the Bronx as Bernie Schwarz, to a mentally ill mother, Curtis spent time in an orphanage and then the US Navy during World War II. He trained as an actor with some of the most radical figures in American theatre at The New School in New York, at a time when it was swamped by working class wannabee method actors - but his looks meant he was not destined for a career as a moody anti-hero.
The studios recruited him for his sultry onscreen persona but, as you piece together the bits of his early film career, Curtis gets deeper and deeper into portrayals of societal dysfunction and injustice. Films like Trapeze, the Outsider, the anti-racist drama The Defiant Ones are what made Hollywood in the 1950s a bastion of "progressivism".
But Curtis' triumph was his performance in Some Like It Hot. Here Curtis plays a saxophone player on the run from mobsters who has to act out two roles: that of a female saxophone player in an all-girl band, and a frigid Ivy League millionaire with a voice like Cary Grant.For me, Some Like It Hot stands as the 20th century's most complete comedy. It was voted the greatest American comedy film ever made, but I would happily drop the word comedy out of that accolade.
Watch the ease with which Curtis (Joe) turns from blustering, thwarted wide-boy into an involuntary girl called Josephine in the space of one phone call, in the following scene he and Jack Lemmon escape from the St Valentine's Day massacre. Watch as he acts out the very moment of establishing the fake character of oil millionaire "Junior", prompting Marilyn Monroe to famously exclaim "Shell Oil?!?!?!"
Much of the charm and genius of Some Like It Hot is in the script and direction: the creation of conceit upon conceit, but the believability and the creation of the "world" of the film is in the hands of the actors.
But the world of that film is a lost world: the world of ensemble acting; the world where actors steeped in the traditions of Brecht, Piscator and Stanislavsky could turn out intelligent, challenging, collective performances in films that spoke the shtick of the streets so fast that you had to be a city-dweller to keep up.
And something else is lost: my sometime colleague on Newsnight Review/The Review Show, Sarah Churchwell, makes the point that in the "screwball" comedies of the 1930s there are women portrayed whose personas stand as a kind of reprimand to the simpering "feminine" roles allocated to young women actors today. I think the same could be said about Curtis and masculinity.
His performances in the late 50s and early 60s contain an honesty, complexity and a centredness in the male persona that you will have to go a long way to find on celluloid today (paradoxically the best TV drama actors still achieve it - I am thinking Michael K Williams as Omar in The Wire, or James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano). Whether its the film business losing the will to portray people in the way Curtis and director Billy Wilder did, or actors losing their ability to deploy this complex realism, something's missing.