For some reason Tony Curtis is regarded today as something of a lesser light relative to his Hollywood post-World War II peers despite his nearly 60-year career covering nearly 130 movie and tv credits.
He shouldn’t be.
Born in the Bronx (ne Bernard Schwartz) of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, he had a horrendous childhood — spending time in an orphanage — before service in the Navy during World War II. A streetwise good looker, who learned at an early age to take care of himself, Curtis found himself in Hollywood in 1948 signing a seven-year-contract with Universal Pictures.
Offscreen, Curtis worked his way through six marriages (including his famous 11-year union with Janet Leigh), a cocaine addiction, multiple affairs and a number of other indiscretions. He also took up painting among several side talents, and was a pretty good raconteur-writer — check out his American Prince: A Memoir, published two years before his death in 2010 at age 85.
The point of today’s blog is this question: Who can forget his indelible performance as ruthlessly striving Broadway press agent in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success?
Frank goes out on a limb to pronounce this Curtis turn in this film as the finest and most credible performances delivered by any actor in post-World War II classic Hollywood. (Disagree? We’d love to hear from you.)
Director Alexander Mackendrick‘s Sweet Smell of Success is part film noir (with impressive night time New York cinematography by James Wong Howe) and part an inside show business drama.
Burt Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful New York newspaper gossip columnist who smears enemies and destroys lives with the flick of a wrist. (The character was said to be modeled on columnist Walter Winchell.)
Lancaster is too much the hulking action hero for the part (he attempts to dress for the part by sporting a pair of dowdy eyeglasses) but nonetheless delivers the razor sharp lines from co-scripters Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets with the requisite mixture of malevolence and crispness.
But Curtis steals the picture.
As Sidney Falco he cheats clients, betrays friends, pimps out his floozy girlfriend (sympathetically played by Barbara Nichols, seen with Curtis in the above photo), demeans his plane-Jane secretary and viciously confronts the straight-arrow musician hero, all to seek favor and insinuate himself into Hunsecker’s all-powerful orbit.
Certainly, Sweet Smell of Success boasts of many solid supporting performances. Jeff Donnell has an angelic but yet sexy edge as Falco’s befuddled secretary. (Supposedly a steamy love scene with Curtis was left on the cutting room floor.)
As upright jazz guitarist Steve Dallas — in love against the columnist’s stern wishes with his sister (played by Susan Harrison; what ever happened to her?) — Martin Milner effectively carries a counterbalancing moral weight to Lancaster’s predatory columnist. Sam Levene is nicely on hand as an ethical publicist, and Emile Meyer is unforgettable as a fat corrupt cop “who sweats.”
But this is Curtis’ picture. It’s as if the role he plays drew on all the jumbled aspects of his personal life to that point — the deprived childhood, a difficult early professional path in Hollywood, the street-kid good looks, the meanness and aggressiveness underneath the glib surface charm. It’s all there.
If an actor could be said to have lived the role, Tony Curtis came fully alive onscreen in Sweet Smell of Success. His is a truly great performance. (For what it’s worth, Tom Cruise said he was inspired in part by Curtis’ characterization of Sidney Falco when creating the role of fast talking sports agent 1996’s Jerry Maguire.)