The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Sweet Smell of Success': The scent of showbiz ambition is still strong

April 29, 2009 |  4:26 pm

Howard Bragman is one of Hollywood's most witty and quotable publicists. He's been around town lately  promoting his new book, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?," which offers his wry take on the modern-day PR trade. And where better to do a book signing than tonight at the American Cinematheque, which is having a 7:30 p.m. showing at the Egyptian Theatre of "Sweet Smell of Success." Bragman will be signing books at 6 p.m., then will stick around to introduce the movie.

If you haven't experienced the luxuriant pleasures of "Sweet Smell of Success," I can only suggest that if you can't make it to the Cinematheque tonight, then make sure you put the DVD on your birthday list. Made in 1957 from a script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, the film stars Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, a Walter Winchell-like newspaper columnist, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, a clever, conniving young press agent. No movie has better captured the acrid scent of two ambitious men  effortlessly manipulating each other as they jockey for position and power. Though director Alexander Mackendrick provides the film with its gorgeously brooding film noir sheen, the movie is especially beloved by critics far and wide for its sparkling dialogue.

Always looming above everyone on screen, Lancaster has never appeared more menacing, especially as he barks out dismissive remarks to anyone who gets in his way. When he reaches for a cigarette, he says to Curtis: "Match me, Sidney." When Curtis has betrayed his trust, he tells him: "You're dead, son, get yourself buried." When he sees a respected politician with a young tootsie and her manager, he bluntly spells out the situation, first pointing at the manager, then at the tootsie, as he tells him: "And here you are, out in the open, where any hep person knows that this one is toting that one around for you."  

The film hasn't lost a step in 50 years. One of the best N.Y.-based film publicity firms is called Falco Ink in tribute to the film. And whenever my pal, the publicist Larry Solters, calls to chat, the first words out of his mouth are: "J.J., this is Sidney." I asked Bragman why we love the two leads in the film even though they behave so badly. "I think we're attracted to them because they're completely honest and real," he explains. "There's never been a movie that was so much about naked power and how to use it. The moral dilemmas are all there -- the whole story is about how low you can go."

So how have things changed in the ensuing half-century since the film was made? Can columnists still make or break careers? Do celebrities behave more badly but with fewer consequences? "I was thinking about comparing J.J. Hunsecker to Perez Hilton." Bragman said. "But no one has the power Hunsecker had back then, or uses it in the way he did. If you go on TMZ, you can see some celebrity being trashed every five minutes. But it doesn't stick. We're so inured to the attacks that they don't do any lasting damage. When Walter Winchell was king, half the country read him every morning. But today, an attack on a blog is just like nibbling M&Ms between the main course. No one has the gravitas the columnists had back then."

I guess you could say the novelty of bad behavior has finally worn off. "Exactly," says Bragman. "If Paris Hilton had done all her antics 50 years ago, she would've been ruined. The difference is that 50 years ago, a celebrity built their brand or figured out their personality - -and then they got famous. Today, you get famous first and then figure out how to turn it into a real career." When celebs have troubles today, it's a lot easier to wriggle free, make apologies and seek redemption. In the days of "Sweet Smell of Success," sterner measures were required. As Sidney Falco so memorably puts it in the film: "The cat's in a bag and the bag's in a river."

Here's a taste of Falco and Hunsecker in action: