Tony Curtis: 'You're dead, son. Get yourself buried.'
The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river and Tony Curtis is dead at 85. No one is going to ever say he was a great actor, especially based on the dreck he did in the last half of his career, but sometimes you only need one great part to be fondly remembered. Actually, Curtis had two, since he was pretty fabulous in Billy Wilder's great sex comedy "Some Like It Hot." But for me, the Curtis part that will always be the touchstone of his career was his role as the scheming press agent in "Sweet Smell of Success."
Released in 1957, "Sweet Smell of Success" was, if not the greatest, the most brutally frank film ever made about American journalism, which it portrays as just as slimy and venal as mob racketeering or Washington lobbying. Curtis is Sidney Falco, the Sammy Glick-style press agent, always on the make; Burt Lancaster is J.J. Hunsecker, the imperious, Walter Winchell-style newspaper columnist, always eager for a scoop, even more eager to squash someone like a bug. (He's the man who says, with a deep chill in his voice, "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried.") Neither man has much of a moral compass, always being happy to exploit any advantage or sell anyone out, enemy or friend. What you see is never what you get. As Lancaster says of Curtis at one point in the film: "Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one -- none too pretty, and all deceptive."
When Lancaster tells Curtis, "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic," he might as well be talking about himself. I guess it was too much to ask of moviegoers to fall in love with a pair of such unlikeable louts, so it's probably no surprise that "Success" was a flop when it was released. But it's been a cult favorite ever since, with fans ranging far and wide. I remember once spending a day with John Cusack, when I was most impressed by the fact that he could recite pretty much any 10 pages of dialogue from the film verbatim, happily doing the voices for every part. Publicist Larry Solters, an old pal of mine, is such a fan of the film that whenever he calls, he identifies himself by saying, "J.J., it's Sidney."
The best part of the film is its language. The script was co-written by two great wordsmiths, Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, and it's to Curtis' credit that he took to the film's tart, idiosyncratic dialogue like a duck to water. After all, when Curtis was growing up, he was Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx, so he had an instinctive feel for the jazzy rhythms of a street hustler like Sidney Falco.
The dialogue really doesn't play well on paper -- it's meant to be heard. But you can imagine Tony Curtis, as he grew old, knowing that he would never reach such heights as an actor ever again, lovingly reciting one of the film's memorable passages -- one, that if it were a poem, you might call "The Hustler's Lament." It is Falco's response to being asked where he wants to go in life. He says:
Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, shrimp, rack the balls!' Or 'Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.' I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn't dream it in a dream, either. Dog Eat Dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.
I don't know what Tony Curtis thought about his career accomplishments, but I can certainly say that if you ever get to watch "Sweet Smell of Success," you'll be easily persuaded that for one bright, shining moment, you got to see an actor who was in the big game with the players.
Photo: Tony Curtis at a book signing in Budapest for "American Prince" last year. Credit: Karoly Arvai / Reuters
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