Monday, October 4, 2010

Hollywood Legends Depart in Threes

Tony Curtis (1925-2010) and Janet Leigh (1927-2004). Their marriage didn't last, but together this talented couple produced Jamie Leigh Curtis, a formidable talent herself.

In newsrooms we always say that famous people die in threes and thus it has been in the past week in the world of the movies: actress Gloria Stuart, director Arthur Penn, and Tony Curtis, all gone to their Great Rewards within a few days of one another. Here's a look at some of their best, starting with Curtis, who was one of the most charismatic actors ever to hit the movies, and had parts in some of the best.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river." "Match me, Sidney." And: "I love this dirty town!" are just a few of the memorable lines from this noirest of films set in 1950s New York City. It is so dark, Pauline Kael called a "sweet slice of perversity." Curtis, as the greasy press agent Sidney Falco, does everything but grovel for powerful columnist Burt Lancaster's J. J. Hunsecker in one of Lancaster's creepiest roles. Playing against his handsome, charming type and turning it on its head, Curtis seems to stand in a harsh spotlight in this story of shadows. How could they all be so mean to Martin Milner? With a screenplay by Clifford Odets (Golden Boy, None But the Lonely Heart) and Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, North by Northwest) SSOS is all smell and none of it sweet, but you just can't turn your head away until the last frame. "You're dead, son," says Hunsecker. "Get yourself buried." Don't be caught dead missing it.

Operation Petticoat (1959) This very funny movie with the stupid title has both Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, and World War II going for it. Curtis later said that when he hit it big in Hollywood the executives asked him what he would like to do next, and he said; "A submarine movie with Cary Grant." And this is the result. Grant deadpans and underplays his way through this comedy so well he almost steals the show from Curtis, who plays a hustling Naval officer determined not to get his feet wet or his uniform dirty. When necessary, however, he proves how resourceful he can be at, what is known in the military as scrounging. The result? A very unusual color for their submarine, and a number of scenes (my favorite involves a pig) that will make you laugh away any troubles that may come your way. I think this movie is highly underrated, probably because the stars make it look so easy.

The Outsider (1961) Tony Curtis plays Ira Hayes, the reluctant Navajo war hero, in a bio pic role that should have won Curtis an Oscar. It's a tribute to Curtis that he continued to take on antihero roles like this one, in which he stars as Hayes, the American Indian Marine who was unprepared for life "outside" the reservation and who found himself tortured by the focus he received as a "hero" of Iwo Jima. Ira Hayes' story is true, touching and sad, and Curtis makes us care about this troubled man.

I'm assuming you've seen the Curtis "standards" including his turn in drag in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), and his turn handcuffed to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958). He's also famous for a very suggestive scene with Lawrence Olivier in Spartacus (1960), in which his Brooklyn accent (on a Roman slave) is the least odd thing about it. And for the record, Curtis claims he never did say: "Yonda lies da castle of my fadda," but it made a great story about this talented man.

Gloria Stuart was a success in 1930s Hollywood, and is now known for her role as the elderly Titanic survivor in James Cameron's overrated epic Titanic. When she died recently at the age of 100, she could claim credits in more than forty feature films, understandable considering the century she spent on earth. Besides Titanic, she was known for her big roles in small films and her small roles in big ones. Two of her best?

The Invisible Man (1933) She doesn't get much to work with here, playing against Claude Rains who is almost always, well, invisible. But this film, from Universal Studios, was an landmark in the horror genre, with which Universal became so associated. Halliwell's Film Guide (one of the best film reference books around) gives it four stars. You'll enjoy seeing Stuart at her young and lovely best.

The Old Dark House (1932) This film has a first rate cast, which chews the scenery shamelessly in this prototype of all the "scary house" movies that came after it (and that's a lot). Starring with Stuart, who looks stunning in the shimmery negligee she slips into that she just happened to have in her overnight bag and which looks a tad chilly in that non-centrally heated English Victorian house with its ghastly aspects, are; Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, and Boris Karloff. How could you go wrong? The storm rages outside, the wind howls, the rain comes down in torrents, and around every corner there is something very strange. A great Halloween treat, and another of Halliwell's four star classics.

You'll also see Stuart playing maternal roles in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), both starring Shirley Temple. And, my friend, screenwriter Steve Latshaw says to look for Stuart, much later in her life, in the wonderful movie My Favorite Year (1982) in which she plays a bit part in the restaurant scene as Peter O'Toole whirls her around on the dance floor.

Arthur Penn, who died recently at the age of 88, is much acclaimed as a director and was very talented, though I confess to be not a huge fan of his work. There is something special in that family, though, as he is the brother of the hugely talented still photographer Irving Penn, who is so good at his advertising images, he has forced me to buy a number of things I have had no use for whatsoever but couldn't resist thanks to Penn. Director Arthur Penn is best known for his turn directing Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a movie that now looks better for its fashions than its exploitation of sex and violence that producer and star Warren Beatty used as a means of getting headlines. Penn's best, I think, is his first, The Miracle Worker (1962) starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the story of Helen Keller's childhood struggle to overcome her twin handicaps. Both Bancroft and Duke won Oscars for this one. Penn is also known for Little Big Man (1970), starring Dustin Hoffman, and Night Moves (1975) with Gene Hackman.

Penn has a lot of 'splain' to do about the weird Missouri Breaks (1976), a Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson special in which Brando changes his accent from scene to scene and which has no discernible plot. But hey, it was the seventies and there were a lot of drugs around so stuff happens. I enjoyed his somewhat obscure documentary, Visions of Eight (1973), about the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which he gathered eight talented feature film directors to look at different aspects of the contest--but that film also has a big flaw. The huge story there--the deaths of all of Israel's athletic team at the hands of PLO terrorists--is only a tiny part in the film. And to paraphrase the movie Broadcast News (1987) that "buried the lead."

Tony Curtis, Gloria Stuart, Arthur Penn: examples of America's exceptionalism. May they all rest in peace.

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