Tony Curtis: Marilyn’s ‘Desperate’ Leading Man

Despite his unforgettable performance in Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis isn’t exactly popular with Marilyn’s fans, due to his harsh comments about working with her, and dubious claim that they had an affair (see here.) However, there’s no doubt that Curtis was one of Hollywood’s great post-war stars. As a retrospective begins at MoMA in New York – with Some Like It Hot screening on October 15th – Jackson Arn looks back on his career for The Forward.

Interestingly, Arn suggests that Curtis was playing ‘gay’ in his love scene with Marilyn. Although Some Like It Hot is replete with camp humour, and Jack Lemmon’s character arc has homoerotic overtones, the same cannot be said for Curtis as the womanizing musician Joe/Josephine/Junior. Even in drag, his sights are firmly on Sugar, and he ultimately feigns impotence to seduce her. But perhaps Arn’s observation speaks to ambiguities in the Curtis persona that surpassed the limits of his role.

“Long after he became rich and famous, he had a lean and hungry look. This look was his greatest gift as a performer. Few matinee idols played so many desperate men, and none was better at conveying a trembling, clenched-jaw desperation … If you happen to be a Hollywood leading man, you are probably beautiful, and you will probably spend much of your career in roles that make little sense when played by beautiful people. It’s a problem as old as Hollywood, and most of the time Hollywood solves it by striding right past it … Tony Curtis was as gorgeous as they come, and he made a career out of playing losers and low-lifes … Yet he never seems to take his beauty for granted; he’s constantly putting it to work, wielding it like a rusty old tool.

Consider, for instance, the early scene from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Curtis sweet-talks his sort-of girlfriend Nellie into admitting she’ll be home all evening and then pounces: ‘Good. Then you won’t be needing your car.’ Curtis’s Bronx accent nearly wrecked his career before it had properly begun … But by 1959, he’d made the brisk, hard, outtuh-New-Yawk vowels a part of his persona: here, he’s so blunt about tricking Nellie into giving him what he wants that he doesn’t bother to gloat.

Later in the film, when he’s maneuvered Marilyn Monroe onto a yacht, he still can’t bear to ease up. Trying to get to third base before the owner comes back, he sprints around the hull in a jacket that looks a size too small; when Monroe kisses him, he says, ‘Thanks just the same’ and washes out his mouth with a piece of cold pheasant. The goal, of course, is to make Monroe kiss him again, and she does, but even then Curtis doesn’t stop to wink at the audience. He’s such a diligent hustler he won’t let us catch him enjoying the fruits of his hustle.

More than any star before the New Hollywood era, he wears his neuroses on his sleeve, until you’re unsure which ones are felt and which are merely affected. For much of the yacht scene in Some Like It Hot, he is being psychoanalysed — ‘I spent six months in Vienna with Professor Freud, flat on my back,’ he tells Monroe, just before lying flat on his back. ‘I’ve got this thing about girls. They just sort of leave me cold … Mother Nature throws someone a dirty curve, and something goes wrong inside.’

There were whispers about Curtis’s sexuality, according to the film critic David Thomson, almost from the minute he made it big. It took guts to agree to a scene in which he all but confesses to being gay, even as a way of conning Marilyn Monroe into kissing him straight again.”