“We’re like sisters!” the big ugly woman with the Bronx baritone replied caustically and I laughed. I laughed so hard I had to roll off of my 8-year-old belly so as not to hurt myself on that bleak Friday night in front of my grandmother’s old RCA television. My sense of humor, still in its embryonic stage, didn’t grasp a lot of the humor in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, but Tony Curtis in drag attempting to justify his relationship with Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane was one of the funniest things I had seen in my young life.
Tony Curtis was easily the best part of my first excursion into the world of black-and-white films — or any film that pre-dates Star Wars, for that matter. It was a world that seemed remote, antiquated and anything but fun, a world that I entered under duress because, as my grandmother put it, “I needed a little culture.”
Watching Tony Curtis bellowing and stomping his way through Some Like It Hot, sometimes as a woman, sometimes aping a tycoon with the worst British accent this side of Keanu Reeves, and sometimes as his movie star self, made black-and-white films accessible to my childish sensibility in a way that his much more lauded co-stars, Monroe and Jack Lemmon, could not. While Lemmon strained and stammered and Monroe cooed and sighed, Curtis was having a blast and just seemed happy to be there.
And he was “just happy to be there.” Born Bernard Schwartz, he never for an instant forgot a youth filled with family turmoil, foster homes and petty crime in the Bronx. He was one of the last stars of the studio era and with the transition toward a grittier, more realistic cinema in the late ’60s, he was, like many of his contemporaries, left to collect dust long before his prime had passed; by the time he was 40 he was considered a relic, and he spent the remainder of his career working primarily in television, a significant step down for a man who had once been one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But fame and prestige seemed less important than the work itself for Curtis and he was quoted in numerous interviews up until his death about how grateful he was to have the opportunity to do what he loved to do.
It wasn’t until I was older, a struggling actor and comedian, rewatching Some Like It Hot in my dingy basement apartment in Chicago — far more concerned about gleaning technical insight from the performances of Monroe and Lemmon than revisiting my childhood belly laughs — that I was able to identify what it was that I found so appealing that Saturday night in front of my grandma’s old RCA. There was a joy, a sheer delight, to Curtis’ performance that was transformative. There are many great film actors, many far greater than Tony Curtis could ever have hoped to be, but it is the rare actor who can make the audience enjoy themselves simply by watching him enjoy himself. Tony Curtis had that gift; indeed he made it all seem like a heck of a lot of fun.