Tony Curtis seems such a sweet man in person.
He’s in Montreal to accept his lifetime achievement award from the World Film Festival, and to hock his memoir, American Prince.
At one point, Curtis takes my hand firmly, and tells me how great it is to meet up with people like me and talk about his life. And it is a life —as evidenced by the book.
There were the landmark film roles, of course —among them his turns in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958) and Some Like It Hot (1959) —but Curtis’ off-screen shenanigans have been every bit as titillating.
Sitting and listening to Curtis, now 83, look back on his life is not comparable to a sit-down with your average grandpa. When I bring up Marilyn Monroe, his co-star in Some Like It Hot and also his lover, he’s quite blunt about, well, how she tasted.
"That dame’s pussy tasted like champagne!” he says.
His eyes light up as he recalls their tender romance, and he begins to sound a bit like Grandpa Simpson on a cocktail of Viagra and speed.
"I had a lot of fun with Marilyn. A friend of mine had a house on the beach. I would take her there, and we would make love on the beach. We would get hamburgers and a steak to cook, and then we’d build a fire. Marilyn knew I might screw up the steak, so we could rely on the hamburgers. We were very in love with each other. She started to learn about men with me, and I was learning about women with her."
Writing the book (with co-author Peter Golenbock) was a great task, Curtis says, in particular as he was able to set the record straight about various bits of Curtis lore.
He has been quoted far and wide as saying that kissing Monroe was “like kissing Hitler.” This led to far-reaching speculation that, if he didn’t like kissing one of the most powerful female sex symbols of the 20th Century, then Curtis must just be a wee bit queer.
But Curtis says that while the quote is accurate, he was saying it as a joke to some of the crew of Some Like It Hot. And while he’s not queer himself, Curtis says he loves his gay fans and has had many close friendships with gays in Hollywood.
Tony —he insists I call him that —now concedes that the very fact that he’s still around is a miracle.
He’s less mobile than he was —he conducts this interview from a wheelchair —but he continues to paint and act occasionally.
His book is a litany of brutal Hollywood clichés, multiple marriages ending badly (including to ex-wife Janet Leigh), stints in rehab, a son’s life taken by drug abuse, and a chapter titled simply “Cocaine."
But Tony now seems at peace, despite a still-frosty relationship with daughter Jamie Lee Curtis. He credits much of his happiness and stability to wife number six, Jill Vandenberg, who he wed in 1998.
Then there are things that are just plain strange.
Elvis Presley went on the record to credit his famous, rolling coif hairdo to Curtis’ influence. “Elvis and I knew each other, but not very well. And that’s what we handed to each other, to give it to the next generation. It was like the Olympic relay races. It’s important that members of the younger generation continue to have hair like that."
And while Curtis weathered hard times as an actor —many of the roles dried up for him after the ‘60s —he still speaks keenly about the Method and about what makes for a great performance.
"With Sweet Smell of Success, I was able to bring a lot of my own emotions to the role. I think you’ve got to do it without overloading yourself. And it is about spontaneity, about being in the moment. I don’t think you can relive an emotion. It should be called on because you’re able to use it one time."
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 insists now that he was widely misquoted.
"I never said that I didn’t like the film. I just didn’t know what the big deal was. To see two guys falling in love? A lot of people were waiting for them to break out the Vaseline and start fucking each other up the ass. People didn’t want to see the subtleties unfold."
Curtis now says he loves his gay fans, and notes that 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’s pining over is gay, in large part because he’s rented a series of Tony Curtis movies.
"I loved that!” he says.
Curtis racked up more serious queer film cred when he appeared in an amorous scene with Laurence Olivier in a hot tub in Spartacus (1960) —a scene that was famously cut by prudish censors, only to be restored in the director’s cut decades later.
"I’ve always had great, profound friendships with gay men."
But Curtis closes our interview with an assertion of his heterosexuality: “You know, I think that one of the most beautiful moments a guy can have is going down on a girl. That corridor that lasts forever. What’s the only bad thing about oral sex? The view! I mean, when you’re down there, what can you see?"