More sad news, I’m afraid, coming so soon after the passing of Arthur Penn. Tony Curtis’ death, aged 85, feels like the last severing of our link to a golden age of movies. Andrew Sumner spoke to him in late 2006, when he was promoting the DVD release of The Persuaders, his 70s TV series with Roger Moore. Curtis was on typically entertaining form: “Talk to me about anything you want, my English chum!” So we did, chatting at length through his career highs – including Some Like It Hot and Spartacus.
Here we revisit his thoughts on those two unassailable classics.
“I’m extremely proud of Spartacus – I really trusted in that part. This was a very delicate kind of character to play back then, people were so turned off by homosexuality – they didn’t know what it was, it fucking frightened them. And I had to bring some kind of substance into the part of Antoninus. I didn’t run around in Spartacus like I had a hand on my hip – I played a very handsome young man who finds himself the centre of attraction for two older, powerful men. It’s a fucking great story – how often do you see a Hollywood movie with those dynamics?
“I loved the fact that Kirk [Douglas] hired blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. For the first time, we were coming to grips with the fear caused by McCarthy’s blacklist and we were burning it out of our system. To have Trumbo – a brilliant, brilliant writer – take chances with this movie’s subject matter and receive credit for it was a very important thing back in 1960.
“Larry Olivier was a riot in those bathhouse scenes – we’d laugh and sing songs all day on the set. I loved working with him, man – he was too funny. He was the consummate actor. I asked him once about the pressure to get your performance exactly right and he said to me: ‘Tony, take the clothes you’re given and make them work for you, feel comfortable in them. I start dressing the character in my mind – rich or poor, fancy or not – and I begin to see exactly what he looks like.’ I picked that up instantly and I’ve done it ever since – if I feel at ease with what I’m wearing, then I’ve got my character. Who needs this Actor’s Studio bullshit?”
SOME LIKE IT HOT
“From the outset, this was a movie where I knew exactly what I was going to do and I wasn’t gonna let anything stand in my way. I wasn’t gonna let any of Marilyn’s Actor’s Studio cronies get in the way. Marilyn’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg – she was always dressed in black with a big black umbrella – would work around Marilyn and she’d constantly whisper in Marilyn’s ear: ‘Relax, relax!’ First relax and then do it? That’s bullshit, man. You just gotta do it.
I enjoyed working with Billy Wilder but I had to work real hard to come up with plenty of different ideas. Billy wasn’t so much difficult as he was very impatient – he was very cynical and if you watch any of his movies, you can see how that cynicism motivated his work. Most of the time, it also helped him get what he wanted from actors.
With Marilyn, Billy used a whole lot of different techniques to make her feel at ease. At the same time, Billy and Jack had been friends for a long time, so I truly felt that I was alone . But I wasn’t gonna let anybody intimidate me and I didn’t need Billy Wilder blowing smoke up my ass.
“I knew exactly what I had to do when I was given the part. I picked out my dresses myself because I had a very clear idea of the kind of woman that I’d like to be. Maybe I turned out to be a little angular and not bosomy enough – but when I finally looked at myself as Josephine, I felt that I made a very good-looking woman!
“Jack was just great as Daphne – he and I just had the best relationship. He helped me with my big scenes and vice versa. That’s the way it has to be. Y’know, looking back, it’s interesting – we had great affection for each other but there was a part of Jack that I could see he was hiding from everybody, something in his soul that was sacred. He was always kind of isolated. I don’t think he had it that easy when he was a kid. I think that he was shoved and pushed around. Jack became famous for being easygoing but he wasn’t as easygoing as everybody thought. He was such a great actor that he made everything look easy!
“The Cary Grant bit came about because I knew my character was gonna impersonate a millionaire. I could have played Junior with my own voice – the same voice I used for Joe – but after I tried on the blazer, spectacles and sailing cap, I decided to give it a little English flair! I wasn’t impersonating Cary, all I was doing was dragging out my words [lapses into perfect Cary Grant impersonation]: ‘Ello, Sugar, ’ere I am!’
“We shot all of that stuff with me and Marilyn on the beach, Jack running around with Joe E Brown and George Raft and the gangsters at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, a beautiful hotel that was standing in for Florida. Joe E Brown and George Raft were the guys that I watched in the movies when I was a kid in The Bronx. I can remember seeing them at movie theatres in my early teens – it was incredible for me to find that 20 years later there I was, actually making movies with them. It was a fucking miracle!
“I really wish that Marilyn could have seen how the picture has grown in stature. I felt bad for her because she had no friends – there was nobody around that really cared for her. She thought she had some girlfriends but where were they, why was she living alone in that dinky little house? There’s no way that anybody tried to kill her – that’s bullshit. Marilyn did herself in because she was very unhappy.”