Trapeze, Spartacus, Sweet Smell of Success, The Boston Strangler, Some Like It Hot. Tony Curtis, the man who influenced Elvis Presley and James Dean, was one of the very first teen idols ...
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Trapeze, Spartacus, Sweet Smell of Success, The Boston Strangler, Some Like It Hot. Tony Curtis, the man who influenced Elvis Presley and James Dean, was one of the very first teen idols and one of the last real movie stars. From his difficult upbringing in the Bronx, where he was born Bernie Schwartz, to his unprecedented fame and infamous way with women, Tony Curtis - Driven to Stardom presents Mr. Curtis's life in all its rags to riches glory. Interviews with Tony's family, friends and co-stars (Hugh Hefner, Harry Belafonte, Debbie Reynolds, Mamie Van Doren, Piper Laurie, Theresa Russell, Jill Curtis among others!) along with exclusive footage and film clips are given deeper meaning and clarity by the most honest and intimate interview the actor may have ever given. Here, in the definitive film about Tony Curtis, filmmaker Ian Ayres forms this incredible material into a revealing portrait of one of the greatest Hollywood celebrities of all time Tony Curtis - Driven to Stardom ... Written by
A gem of the Biodoc genre, a warts and all portrait of a life lived in the limelight
Viewed at the 2012 L.A. Jewish film festival, this documentary, entitled "Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom", is a gem of the genre and traces the life of a mid century screen legend who was a driven man, forcing himself up from rags to riches, through movie star fame and fortune, a cocaine fueled fall from grace, and to ultimate resurrection as a painter of talent. What makes this documentary stand out is that it is not just a chronology of events during an interesting half century in Hollywood, but more than that a study of obsession, realization of dreams, and then having to deal with disillusionment in the midst of success. Curtis got into films basically on his good looks, quickly became a matinée idol and sex symbol in gobs of youth oriented B movies and was so incredibly handsome that it was a long time before he was taken seriously as an actor.
A point is made in the film of his androgynous "beauty" -- such a pretty boy that there was a feminine aspect to his sex appeal --but all his co-stars, among them Mamie van Doren, herself no slouch as a sex symbol in her time, attest vehemently to the fact that there was nothing "gay" about Tony, even when he played a female cross dressing male in "Some like it Hot" opposite Marilyn Monroe. The ladies found him irresistible and Marilyn was in fact one of his first Hollywood girlfriends when both were young unknowns, but by the time of Some Like it Hot he was so distressed by her pampered behavior on the set that he made the famous crack, "Kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler".
By his own admission Tony always wanted to be a star, not an actor, and never completely shook off an atrocious Bronx accent, but he was so good looking and so talented that it didn't matter. He had a gigantic fan following and eventually earned the respect of his colleagues in a diversity of roles from Hungarian escape artist Houdini ('53) to a trapeze artist opposite Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, in "Trapeze" to the lowlife sidekick of Lancaster's in "Sweet Smell of Success" ('57}, a racist chain-gang escapee tied to Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" ('58) and finally displayed his comedic skills in Billy Wilder's "Some like it Hot"('59) Opposite Jack Lemmon and Marilyn.
His last great role was as "The Boston Strangler"('68) in the film of that name in which his interpretation of the notorious serial killer was an astounding departure from his earlier matinée idol image. Curtis was always bitter that the industry never saw fit to reward any these remarkable portrayals with an Oscar and this lingering disappointment in conjunction with the failure of his first two marriages undoubtedly contributed to a descent into cocaine oblivion, but he took the cure and reinvented himself as a painter late in life with a devoted wife half his age, equestrian lady Jill Vandenberg, who remained at his side until the end in 2010 when Tony passed away, finally happy at age 85.
Most people are probably not even aware that Tony Curtis was Jewish because he was such an all-American icon and never played any overtly Jewish characters. He was Born Bernard Schwartz into a Jewish immigrant family from Hungary and barely spoke English until he was enrolled in grade school. To escape the grinding poverty of his early days he would sneak into the local movie house where he became enamored of the swashbuckling antics of Errol Flynn and decided that he would become a movie star himself, which is exactly what he did --in spite of seemingly impossible obstacles, except for that one great asset, his amazing physiognomy. This film, while it is doubtless a tribute to the ambition of a ragged kid from the ghetto making his dreams come true, is no hagiography, and is a warts and all portrait of a difficult life lived in the limelight.
The film is structured around segments of one long interview with an aged Curtis himself seated at an easel in his studio, puffy faced under a woolen cap, recalling incidents from his long life and spectacular career. In between many others who knew him recount their memories of working with him and the effect he had on them -- notably Mamie van Doren who got her first break because of Tony's help, actress Debbie Reynolds, Teresa Russell, Piper Laurie and numerous others. This is of course interspersed with key scenes from his most important movies and segments focusing on his much publicized marriage to actress Janet Leigh, an equally big star of a different more genteel kind. They were regarded at the time as the ideal young couple, but when the marriage ended after 11 years and two children it was a severe blow to the Curtis ego. He recalls painfully at one point,"The divorce just made me feel like I wasn't good enough for her".
Redemption for Tony came when he married his third wife, Jill Vandenberg, and basically retired to the desert to paint. One sees a lot of pain in the face of the elder Tony Curtis in this film, but he seems to have come to terms with the demons within, having found a true life partner in his twilight years. Although not much is made of his Jewishness in the course of the film after the early days in New York, the funeral which ends the film is most definitely a Jewish ceremony which sort of justifies the placing of this film in a specifically Jewish Festival. However, aside from ethnic considerations, this is a film with much wider resonances and director Ian Ayres, who resides in Paris, is to be complimented on assembling a cubistic portrait on film of an iconic Hollywood film personality which is so rich and multi-layered that it requires multiple viewings to fully absorb.
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