Arts & Entertainment
3 min

The legacy of Tony Curtis

Late actor and gay icon to be remembered on Oscar night

Tony Curtis (right) as Antoninus, oyster-loving body servant to Laurence Olivier's Crassus, in the 1960 film Spartacus.

One of my favourite parts of Oscar night is the montage of clips of actors who have died in the past year. The moments are nostalgic and often make me farklempt, recalling landmark points in cinematic history and the stars who breathed life into them.
This year’s montage will feature clips from the films of Tony Curtis, who died in September at 85. I had the thrill of sitting down with the screen legend in 2008 when he came to Montreal to accept a lifetime achievement award from the World Film Festival and to hock his latest book, the autobiography American Prince.

Sitting in a wheelchair as if it were a throne, Curtis regaled journalists with crazy stories of his time in Hollywood. His eyes remained the same, and when he opened his mouth, there was that low, husky, unmistakable voice.

Curtis occupied a distinct place in the movies, given that he starred in four crucial features, all of which are essential viewing for any serious film buff: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959, arguably one of the greatest comedies Hollywood ever created) and Spartacus (1960).

“It’s good to be here, to meet people like you,” Curtis said, clutching my hand. The book was providing a chance to clear things up, he told me. Having lived a crazy existence in Hollywood, filled with numerous lovers and plenty of the sauce, there are volumes of lore surrounding Curtis – some of it fact, some fiction, some a blend of the two.

Curtis has often been quoted in relation to his affair with Marilyn Monroe. The two worked together on Some Like It Hot, a role in which Curtis famously donned drag. When the rushes were being screened, some of the technicians working on the film asked Curtis what it was like kissing her. His response: “Kissing Marilyn was like kissing Adolf Hitler!” Naturally, the quote stuck in people’s minds. He now explains that he was dumbfounded by such a silly question.

“Of course Marilyn was amazing to kiss,” he says. “I was making a joke.”

Curtis went on with more details of his time with Monroe: “I had a lot of fun with Marilyn. A friend of mine had this house on the beach, and I would take her there, and we would make love on the beach. We would get hamburgers and steak to cook, and then we’d build a fire. Because Marilyn knew I might screw up the steak, we had the hamburgers to fall back on. We were in love with each other. She learned about men with me, and I learned about women from her.”

And then he leaned in to me, as if to let me in on the ultimate punchline: “That dame’s pussy tasted like champagne!”

Suddenly, sweet Tony (he insisted I call him that) had morphed into someone resembling Grandpa Simpson on Viagra and crack.

Curtis shifted back into a sweet gear, recalling that Monroe had a tremendous sense of humour.

“During the shoot of Some Like It Hot, someone told her that I had a better-looking ass than she did. She looked at him, unbuttoned her blouse and said, ‘He doesn’t have tits like these!’”

Curtis found himself in an odd position in 2005, when he was widely quoted as blasting Brokeback Mountain, apparently taking offence at the notion of “gay cowboys.” He insisted that he was widely misquoted.

“I never said I didn’t like the film. I just didn’t know what the big deal was. To see two guys falling in love?… People didn’t want to see the subtleties unfold.”

Curtis told me he loved his gay fans and says he worked with many gay men in Hollywood over the years, including director Vincente Minnelli. And he says he loved the references to his work in the teen comedy Clueless (1995), in which star Alicia Silverstone realizes the boy she is pining over is gay, in large part because he has rented a series of Tony Curtis movies.

“I loved that!” he says. “I’ve always had great, profound friendships with gay men.”

But make no mistake, Tony was adamant that he was straight, despite all the rumours of bisexuality.

“I think one of the most beautiful moments a man can have is when he’s going down on a woman,” he told me. “It’s entirely pleasurable. The corridor, that lasts forever. You know the only thing bad about it? The view! When you’re down there, what can you see?”

As we said goodbye, he took my hand again.

“One of the great joys of travelling around is meeting people like you. I love it!”

In a delusional moment, I handed him one of my cards, thinking I might actually one day get a phone call from Tony Curtis.

“What a great card! What a beautiful design!” he proclaimed. “I hope we get a chance to meet again.”

With that, his sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, wheeled Curtis back to his room.