Pratt Salutes the Films of Tony Curtis
January 22, 2011 double-bill celebrates Tony Curtis (1925-2010)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) @ 10:30 am, January 22, 2011
Some Like It Hot (1959) @ 2 pm, January 22, 2011
Enoch Pratt Central Library
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
My colleague Marc Sober and I will pay homage to the late great Tony Curtis by screening two of his very best (and very different) films in Wheeler Auditorium at the Enoch Pratt Central Library on Saturday, January 22, 2011.
Marc kicks things off with a 10:30 a.m. screening of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Alexander Mackendrick's dark study of Broadway (based on a screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, with music by Elner Bernstein), while I will present a 2 p.m. screening of Some Like It Hot, #1 on the American Film Institute's list of America's 100 Greatest Comedies and one of three Billy Wilder films on the list (along with # 20 The Apartment and #51 The Seven Year Itch).
Reams of paper and HTML code have been exhausted writing about these two films, which show Curtis' range playing both drama and comedic farce (not to mention his spot-on impersonation of Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot), but I like Roger Ebert's reviews best of all. Both films merit mention in his book The Great Movies (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and are reproduced below:
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
by Roger Ebert (October 21, 1997)
Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster.
The two men in "The Sweet Smell of Success" relate to each other like junkyard dogs. One is dominant, and the other is a whipped cur, circling hungrily, his tail between his legs, hoping for a scrap after the big dog has dined. The dynamic between a powerful gossip columnist and a hungry press agent, is seen starkly and without pity. The rest of the plot simply supplies events to illustrate the love-hate relationship.
When "The Sweet Smell of Success" was released in 1957, it was seen as a thinly-veiled attack on Walter Winchell, who for decades had been the most famous and reviled gossip columnist in America. Forty years later Winchell is mostly forgotten (he died in 1972), but the film lives on--sharp-edged, merciless. The performances by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis have not dated or grown soft; although both men were dismissed as studio stars at the time, can we think of a "serious actor" who could have played either role so well?
Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, most powerful of the New York columnists, whose items can make a career or break one. Curtis is Sidney Falco, a press agent so marginal that his name isn't painted on his office door, but written on a sheet of paper and taped there. (The inner room is his bedroom.) Falco supports himself largely by getting items into Hunsecker's column, and recently Hunsecker has frozen him out. Why? Hunsecker asked Falco to break up a romance between Hunsecker's younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and Falco has so far failed.
Audiences at the time might have heard whispers that Walter Winchell did much the same thing, using his column to attack a man who wanted to marry his daughter, Walda. (Her name provides some measure of her father's ego.) In "Sweet Smell of Success," Falco hatches a scheme to convince another columnist--Hunsecker's bitter rival--to run the smear item, so that Susan won't suspect it comes from her brother's camp.
All of this is pitiless and cruel, and reflects Hunsecker's personal style. He is a man apparently without sexuality of his own, although he seems delicately tuned to the weathers of Falco's moods. Falco is a very pretty boy, but J.J. is wary. ("I'd hate to take a bite out of you," he tells the publicist at one point. "You're a cookie full of arsenic.") There are certainly suppressed incestuous feelings in J.J.'s odd household, where his sister lives firmly under his thumb and the columnist grows hysterical when another man seems about to take her way.
The movie, photographed by James Wong Howe in winter in black and white, takes place within a few blocks of Manhattan's midtown club district. Scenes are set in "21" and other night spots, and those who notice will find a nice irony in the fact that Hunsecker lives in the Brill Building on Broadway, which for decades has housed showbiz offices and Tin Pan Alley composers--and has a long, empty entrance hall that was used for the loneliest shot in "Taxi Driver."
Hunsecker knows his beat cold. "I love this dirty town," he says in the opening scene. He calls all the maitre d's and hat-check girls by name, holds court for senators and call girls at his favorite booth, and doesn't miss a thing. Here is the kind of detail the movie notices: Falco leaves his office without his coat, to save on tips. Later, as he and Hunsecker leave "21" together, the columnist says, "Where's your coat, Sidney? Saving tips?" But we have just seen Hunsecker take his own coat without tipping. He never tips and never pays and no one in this world would ever expect him to.
Although Falco is in exile as the story opens, Hunsecker cannot quite banish him from his sight, because he needs him. How does the top dog know he rules unless the bottom dog slinks around? Falco sits down at Hunsecker's table and the columnist senses he's there without even needing to look around. He holds up an unlit cigarette and in the movie's most famous line says, "Match me, Sidney."
The screenplay is by Clifford Odets, a playwright of left-wing social drama, whose hard take on American society led to "Golden Boy" (1939) and Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife" (1955)--which did for the Hollywood screenwriter more or less what "Sweet Smell" did for the columnist. His co-writer, Ernest Lehman, based it on a story he'd written. The director was Alexander Mackendrick, from Britain, whose filmography consists mostly of comedies ("The Ladykillers," "The Man in the White Suit")--and then this one extraordinary American noir.
The movie is uncanny in its ability to capture that time and place, just before the Beats introduced the modern anti-conventional style. Jazz musicians wear suits and ties, hair is cropped short, and the trick is to always appear cool--a trick Hunsecker has developed into an act. The streets outside are filled with anonymous people, all in a hurry to get somewhere, and when Falco walks with them he becomes part of the crowd. When Hunsecker walks, his limousine follows him. For pedestrians like Falco, he is the key to getting off the sidewalk and into the booth at "21."
Odets and Lehman pull off the neat trick of making the film seem hard-boiled and realistic while slipping in dialogue as quotable as it is unlikely. "You're dead, son," Hunsecker tells Falco. "Get yourself buried." And in a moment of introspection: "My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in 30 years." Falco is told by a club owner who is one of his clients: "It's a publicity man's nature to be a liar. I wouldn't hire you if you wasn't a liar." But Falco tells the truth when he confesses, "J.J. Hunsecker is the golden ladder to the place I want to get."
Falco wants to be Hunsecker. To live in the penthouse and wear the expensive clothes and be fawned upon by the next generation of Falcos. Neither man has any morals. That's dramatized in the heartless scam where Falco persuades Hunsecker's rival columnist to smear Susan's boyfriend. He lures the man to his office with promises of sex, and lures a cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) there with the same promise, except that she expects to sleep with Sidney and not the slimy columnist. "Don't you have a kid in military school?" Sidney asks her pointedly, and after thinking it over, she agrees to prostitute herself.
The ingenues are, by contrast, pale and conventional. Susan Hunsecker and Steve Dallas occupy the margins of the picture, playing the hapless roles of innocent lovebirds. When Falco's planted item surfaces, it's a double play: Dallas is accused of being a dope fiend and a commie. Then Falco seals the deal by planting a reefer on the kid, for Hunsecker's crooked cop friend, Harry Kello, to find. The ending of the film is coldly ironic, although marred a little by Falco's unnecessarily cruel speeches to Susan right at the close.
"Sweet Smell of Success" is one of those rare films where you remember the names of the characters because you remember them--as people, as types, as benchmarks. "Even today," the writer Ben Brantly wrote about this film, "I've heard theater publicity representatives speak wryly of going into their 'Sidney Falco mode'." The film stands as the record of one of the most convincing and closely observed symbiotic relationships in the movies. Hunsecker and Falco. You can't have one without the other. "From now on," Falco says, "the best of everything is good enough for me." Well, at least he's the best flunkie.
SOME LIKE IT HOT
by Roger Ebert (January 9, 2000)
What a work of art and nature is Marilyn Monroe. She hasn't aged into an icon, some citizen of the past, but still seems to be inventing herself as we watch her. She has the gift of appearing to hit on her lines of dialogue by happy inspiration, and there are passages in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" where she and Tony Curtis exchange one-liners like hot potatoes.
Poured into a dress that offers her breasts like jolly treats for needy boys, she seems totally oblivious to sex while at the same time melting men into helpless desire. "Look at that!" Jack Lemmon tells Curtis as he watches her adoringly. "Look how she moves. Like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it's a whole different sex."
Wilder's 1959 comedy is one of the enduring treasures of the movies, a film of inspiration and meticulous craft, a movie that's about nothing but sex and yet pretends it's about crime and greed. It is underwired with Wilder's cheerful cynicism, so that no time is lost to soppiness and everyone behaves according to basic Darwinian drives. When sincere emotion strikes these characters, it blindsides them: Curtis thinks he wants only sex, Monroe thinks she wants only money, and they are as astonished as delighted to find they want only each other.
The plot is classic screwball. Curtis and Lemmon play Chicago musicians who disguise themselves as women to avoid being rubbed out after they witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. They join an all-girl orchestra on its way to Florida. Monroe is the singer, who dreams of marrying a millionaire but despairs, "I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop." Curtis lusts for Monroe and disguises himself as a millionaire to win her. Monroe lusts after money and gives him lessons in love. Their relationship is flipped and mirrored in low comedy as Lemmon gets engaged to a real millionaire, played by Joe E. Brown. "You're not a girl!" Curtis protests to Lemmon. "You're a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" Lemmon: "Security!"
The movie has been compared to Marx Brothers classics, especially in the slapstick chases as gangsters pursue the heroes through hotel corridors. The weak points in many Marx Brothers films are the musical interludes--not Harpo's solos, but the romantic duets involving insipid supporting characters. "Some Like It Hot" has no problems with its musical numbers because the singer is Monroe, who didn't have a great singing voice but was as good as Frank Sinatra at selling the lyrics.
Consider her solo of "I Wanna Be Loved by You." The situation is as basic as it can be: a pretty girl standing in front of an orchestra and singing a song. Monroe and Wilder turn it into one of the most mesmerizing and blatantly sexual scenes in the movies. She wears that clinging, see-through dress, gauze covering the upper slopes of her breasts, the neckline scooping to a censor's eyebrow north of trouble. Wilder places her in the center of a round spotlight that does not simply illuminate her from the waist up, as an ordinary spotlight would, but toys with her like a surrogate neckline, dipping and clinging as Monroe moves her body higher and lower in the light with teasing precision. It is a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous. All the time she seems unaware of the effect, singing the song innocently, as if she thinks it's the literal truth. To experience that scene is to understand why no other actor, male or female, has more sexual chemistry with the camera than Monroe.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Capturing the chemistry was not all that simple. Legends surround "Some Like It Hot." Kissing Marilyn, Curtis famously said, was like kissing Hitler. Monroe had so much trouble saying one line ("Where's the bourbon?") while looking in a dresser drawer that Wilder had the line pasted inside the drawer. Then she opened the wrong drawer. So he had it pasted inside every drawer.
Monroe's eccentricities and neuroses on sets became notorious, but studios put up with her long after any other actress would have been blackballed because what they got back on the screen was magical. Watch the final take of "Where's the bourbon?" and Monroe seems utterly spontaneous. And watch the famous scene aboard the yacht, where Curtis complains that no woman can arouse him, and Marilyn does her best. She kisses him not erotically but tenderly, sweetly, as if offering a gift and healing a wound. You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.
The movie is really the story of the Lemmon and Curtis characters, and it's got a top-shelf supporting cast (Joe E. Brown, George Raft, Pat O'Brien), but Monroe steals it, as she walked away with every movie she was in. It is an act of the will to watch anyone else while she is on the screen. Tony Curtis' performance is all the more admirable because we know how many takes she needed--Curtis must have felt at times like he was in a pro-am tournament. Yet he stays fresh and alive in sparkling dialogue scenes like their first meeting on the beach, where he introduces himself as the Shell Oil heir and wickedly parodies Cary Grant. Watch his timing in the yacht seduction scene, and the way his character plays with her naivete. "Water polo? Isn't that terribly dangerous?" asks Monroe. Curtis: "I'll say! I had two ponies drown under me."
Watch, too, for Wilder's knack of hiding bold sexual symbolism in plain view. When Monroe first kisses Curtis while they're both horizontal on the couch, notice how his patent-leather shoe rises phallically in the mid-distance behind her. Does Wilder intend this effect? Undoubtedly, because a little later, after the frigid millionaire confesses he has been cured, he says, "I've got a funny sensation in my toes--like someone was barbecuing them over a slow flame." Monroe's reply: "Let's throw another log on the fire."
Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon.
Jack Lemmon gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop in the parallel relationship. The screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is Shakespearean in the way it cuts between high and low comedy, between the heroes and the clowns. The Curtis character is able to complete his round trip through gender, but Lemmon gets stuck halfway, so that Curtis connects with Monroe in the upstairs love story while Lemmon is downstairs in the screwball department with Joe E. Brown. Their romance is frankly cynical: Brown's character gets married and divorced the way other men date, and Lemmon plans to marry him for the alimony.
But they both have so much fun in their courtship! While Curtis and Monroe are on Brown's yacht, Lemmon and Brown are dancing with such perfect timing that a rose in Lemmon's teeth ends up in Brown's. Lemmon has a hilarious scene the morning after his big date, laying on his bed, still in drag, playing with castanets as he announces his engagement. (Curtis: "What are you going to do on your honeymoon?" Lemmon: "He wants to go to the Riviera, but I kinda lean toward Niagara Falls.") Both Curtis and Lemmon are practicing cruel deceptions--Curtis has Monroe thinking she's met a millionaire, and Brown thinks Lemmon is a woman--but the film dances free before anyone gets hurt. Both Monroe and Brown learn the truth and don't care, and after Lemmon reveals he's a man, Brown delivers the best curtain line in the movies. If you've seen the movie, you know what it is, and if you haven't, you deserve to hear it for the first time from him.