Many a highbrow raised a brow high last year when the critic Clive James, in his book "Cultural Amnesia," included just three movie actors among his selections of the most significant cultural figures of the century. They were Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and ... Tony Curtis.
That's right. Not Brando or Olivier or even John Wayne, but the Jewish kid from the Bronx, Bernie Schwartz — the guy who wore a dress in his most popular movie and whose most famous line in a film can't be recited without inciting snickers: "Yonder lies the castle of my fad-dah."
I always thought that this line was apocryphal, like Cary Grant saying, "Judy, Judy," or James Cagney snarling, "You dirty rat!" or Bette Davis waving her cigarette holder and exclaiming, "Peter, Peter!" — lines invented to conjure an actor's cadence and verbal trademark. In Mr. Curtis's case, though, the line would have been intended to be derisive, highlighting his working-class Bronx accent and, by extension, his limitations as an actor.
But it really is a line from a movie, "The Black Shield of Falworth" (1954), a kitschy swashbuckler that Mr. Curtis made with his wife at the time, Janet Leigh. Though it was, like most of Mr. Curtis's 1950s films, a box-office hit, it is scarcely remembered today. In fact, it is remembered only for Mr. Curtis's delivery of that line. And that's not even the Tony Curtis line that gets the most laughs; that would be from a prestigious film, Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," when he tells Kirk Douglas, "I love you, Spah-da-cus." Pauline Kael loved the way he pronounced "avidly" in "Sweet Smell of Success."
"The Black Shield of Falworth" is not one of the films that Turner Classic Movies has selected for its Tony Curtis day, which airs all day tomorrow. Not to worry. Mr. Curtis, one of the most energetic and entertaining actors in American film, has been fun to watch in just about everything he's done. And he's done plenty, from costume epics (1962's "Taras Bulba") to Westerns (1955's "The Rawhide Years") to socially significant drama (1958 "The Defiant Ones") to innocuous comedies — lots and lots of those, from his box-office heyday in the mid-1950s to this day.
TCM has done okay: Among others, the network has selected Mr. Curtis's two best films, Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot"(1959) and Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), which also feature his two best lead performances. And what an amazing contrast in those two performances: In the former, he is the drag-disguised jazz man fleeing the mob, a role that gave him a chance to indulge himself in a parody of his idol, Cary Grant; in the latter, he is the press agent Sidney Falco, who, as Mr. James phrased it, "raised sleaze o the status of poetry." Has any popular American film star played two roles so daringly and distinctly different? Watch the two movies again before answering.
TCM can be forgiven for slacking off on some of the other Curtis selections; so many of his more than 100 films are utter crap that it's nearly impossible to assemble a retrospective that does him justice.
The best of TCM's rest are "The Vikings" (1958), in which he kills Kirk Douglas (as opposed to "Spartacus," in which Mr. Douglas kills him); "Operation Petticoat" (1959), in which he gets to imitate Grant while a bemused Grant watches; "The Defiant Ones" (1958), in which he seems to be enjoying himself as a snarling, racist convict handcuffed to another convict played by Sidney Poitier, and "Trapeze" (1956), Carol Reed's silly but entertaining circus epic in which Mr. Curtis matches biceps with Burt Lancaster. All six films share one characteristic: In each, Mr. Curtis is matched alongside a powerhouse actor, and in each, he holds his own or comes out ahead.
Today, Mr. Curtis is largely regarded as the hugely popular pretty boy of perhaps 40 light comedies, most of them execrable. The other Tony Curtis, the one who has proved to be the survivor, is the ultimate co-star — the quirky, energetic character actor trapped in the body of a leading man. This is the Bernie Schwartz who channeled the horrors of his youth. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and, when Bernie was 8, placed him and his younger brother, Julius, in an orphanage. Four years later Julius was killed by a truck; Bernie was the only family member available to identify the body.
This is the Tony Curtis who was stunning in such underappreciated dramas as "The Great Impostor" and "The Outsider" (both from 1961), which featured performances of startling contrast. "The Great Impostor," directed by Robert Mulligan, about the chameleon con artist Ferdinand Demara, is a feast for Curtis aficionados. "The Outsider," directed by Delbert Mann, features Mr. Curtis in what would seem to be a hysterical bit of miscasting as the Indian Ira Hayes, one of the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. Those who can suspend their disbelief of a Jewish kid from the Bronx playing an American Indian can appreciate an extraordinary portrait of a man more alienated from mainstream America than any character played by Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, or Robert De Niro.
Nevertheless, Mr. Curtis has never had a definitive DVD collection; most of his best performances are in other actors' collections. Take the time to seek out his role as Albert DeSalvo in "The Boston Strangler" (1968), in which he played a character so deranged that it chased the film out of the crime and drama section of the video store and into the horror ghetto. Or watch his gleefully demonic portrayal of Joseph McCarthy in Nicolas Roeg's "Insignificance" (1985), a performance even more illuminating than McCarthy as himself (in archival footage) in George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck." That's the real Tony Curtis, not the one remembered by your mudd-dah and fadd-dah.