I was sorry to hear the news of Tony Curtis’ death earlier today.
Always woefully underrated, the star was only Oscar-nominated once and not for his best work, in the 1957 drama “Sweet Smell of Success.” In typical Hollywood fashion, Curtis was nominated the following year for the earnest Stanley Kramer picture “The Defiant Ones.”
A few years ago, Curtis came through New Haven on the national tour of the musical version of one of his biggest hits, “Some Like It Hot.” He had long since aged himself out of the role he played in the movie — opposite Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe — but had fun in the small part Joe E. Brown took on in the film (the old codger who falls in love with Lemmon in drag and wants to marry “her”).
I had a ball interviewing Curtis who was mellow and funny (and clearly grateful for passing through drug and alcohol addiction in the 1970s and making a good new life for himself in Las Vegas with his sixth wife Jill Vandenberg Curtis).
Curtis was not one of those older people who like to wallow in nostalgia, but I could tell he was happy to talk about playing the press agent Sidney Falco in “Sweet Smell of Success.”
Up until that movie came out, the actor was thought of as a lightweight pretty boy, so he was always grateful to producer-co-star Burt Lancaster for getting the part that opened the door to other serious roles.
“Sweet Smell of Success” was a total box office failure at the time of its release — a shocking development considering the fact that Lancaster and Curtis were hugely popular at the time — but it quickly became one of the first major cult films.
“Sweet Smell of Success” is among the most cynical movies ever made by a Hollywood studio and it came out in 1957, so of course it was among the biggest financial flops of its decade.
The movie is about a horrible New York gossip columnist named J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) who has the power to make or break show biz people, and a bottom-feeding press agent named Sidney Falco (Curtis) who lives or dies by placing items about his clients in the Broadway columns.
Hunsecker and Falco are so venal and so nasty that they turn into black comedy anti-heroes with great appeal to people who see the existential glass as being half empty.
No sooner had “Sweet Smell of Success” flopped than a cult of coffee house smarties, nihilistic college students and show biz insiders began to form.
Apparently, by 1959, young hipsters had the juicy Clifford Odets dialogue memorized and made a sport of using it whenever possible (i.e. “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river,” “I’d hate to take a bite out of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic”). Barry Levinson made note of this phenomenon in his 1959 period piece “Diner” with a minor character who only spoke dialogue from the Odets script.
More than 50 years after bombing, “Sweet Smell” is now considered the quintessential New York nightlife movie.
One of the major New York press offices devoted to movies — Falco Ink — is named in honor of the character Curtis played so well.