Marvelous invention

Marvelous invention

Curtis, who died recently, was among the purest and most authentic examples of what a movie star in postwar Hollywood could be. Which is also to say, of course, that he was fundamentally — brazenly — impure and inauthentic, an artificial, hybrid creature synthesised out of ambition, good looks and canny publicity. Tony Curtis was a marvellous invention, right down to the name, which replaced Bernard Schwartz, the one he was born with. Somewhere in the afterlife, Schwartz is surely hobnobbing with the likes of Roy Harold Scherer Jr , Norma Jean Baker and Archibald Leach, his peers, co-stars and role models better known as Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant.

The legend is that one of Grant’s movies inspired the young Bernard Schwartz, who came up rough in a poor section of the Bronx, to join the Navy and, after service in World War II, to try his hand at acting. That story is an apt illustration of the paradoxical power of movie make-believe and the twofold imitation it can inspire: you dream of being both the character and the person behind the character. Cary Grant commanded a submarine in Destination Tokyo, and Cary Grant was also, whatever else he happened to be doing (espionage, paleontology, journalism) Cary Grant. He could pretend to be just about anything without letting go of the essential, irreducible fact of his personality.

And in a different register — with a little more erotic fire, a rougher finish and broader vowels — Tony Curtis managed a similar feat. Among the big-ticket commercial genres of his era were westerns and sword-and-sandal epics, and he appeared in a bunch of those, Winchester ’73 and Spartacus among them, with enough of the Bronx still in his voice and manner to provide a memorable spark of incongruity.

He was not a methodiser, burrowing deep into each role to find its hidden, essential psychological truth, but his art was deep and his professionalism thorough. He was capable of intensity when it was called for, but his best, most characteristic work always carried an element of play. Curtis was able to retain a guileless, handsome-is-as-handsome-does innocence even in situations that embroiled him in all kinds of interesting ambiguities. There is a famous scene in Spartacus — deleted in 1960 and restored three decades later — in which Curtis and Laurence Olivier discuss the gustatory merits of oysters and snails. All the insinuation comes from Olivier and Anthony Hopkins (who dubbed his voice for the 1991 restoration), but the scene’s teasing sexual power resides in Curtis’s literal-minded response to innuendo-laden questions. He makes it all seem so dirty by insisting on being so clean.

Nowhere is this capacity for ambiguity, sexual and otherwise, more splendidly evident than in Some Like it Hot, a comedy now more than 50 years old that does everything but show its age. In it, Curtis and Jack Lemmon blithely plunge into a whirlpool of double entendres and gender puzzles, and navigate it while tossing off bons mots by the bushel. And of course doing quite a bit of that in drag, embodying contrasting but equally hyperbolic versions of womanhood.

Curtis’s Joe is a more natural woman, his mastery of feminine wiles more instinctive, based on a surer intuition into the real thing. This may be because Joe is — as the six-times-married, many-times-lucky Curtis was — a tireless ladies man. In their coming-out scene, on a train platform, Lemmon stumbles and flails in his skirt and heels, while Curtis, his mouth drawn into a comely pout, takes small, dainty steps, keeping his feet close together to increase the lateral sway of his derrière — which the camera can’t resist checking out.

But that cross-dressing — by which Joe becomes Josephine — is only a warm-up for Curtis’s real tour-de-force of drag impersonation, in which Joe turns up in spectacles and yachting garb as Shell Oil Jr, a rich swell who is someone’s idea of Cary Grant. The idea is that, by undertaking this travesty of class, he will seduce Sugar Kane Kowalcyk, the fetching ukulele virtuoso played by Marilyn Monroe.

The comedy that results is almost indescribably rich, to some degree because of the layers of imposture involved. Within the movie, the man pretending to be a woman is now pretending to be a different man, one whose notionally heterosexual libido is so deeply buried that even the strenuous efforts of Marilyn Monroe herself can barely awaken it. And yet the purpose of this double disguise is to coax Sugar into falling for the man he really is, the regular Joe.

Who could object to being tricked in this way? The audience, knowing more than Sugar does, is rendered dizzy by the vertiginous spectacle of one movie star so shamelessly “doing” another. It’s not, technically, a first-rate impression. The accent is wobbly, and nobody is really fooled. But that is the point. Archibald Leach had already fooled the world — Bernard Schwartz included — into believing in someone called Cary Grant. To pay tribute to that achievement while also mocking it and duplicating it: only Tony Curtis could have done that.

“Some like it hot,” he says, while still in the Shell Oil Jr/Cary Grant role. “I prefer classical music.” Could anyone else be so completely fake and yet so genuine? Tony Curtis was a classic, in the sense that he belonged to a class of which he was the only and definitive member.

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