The 1959 gender-bending film farce Some Like It Hot came at an interesting juncture in the careers of writer-director Billy Wilder and stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.
For each legend it marked a career boost. It reaffirmed Wilder as a comedy genius after a succession of mediocre mid-’50s.dramas and comedies. It further stretched Curtis. It began Lemmon’s long, fruitful collaboration with Wilder. It represented Monroe’s last great comic role.
Paying tribute to a classic named the funniest American movie of all-time by the American Film Institute is a no-brainer for Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford. He’s presenting a one-night revival April 24 at Joslyn Art Museum as an Omaha Parks Foundation benefit.
“Some Like It Hot is to film comedy what Casablanca is to film romance,” says Crawford.
Casablanca found a magical mix of perfect casting, memorable lines and universal themes to make its wartime romance work for any generation, Hot miraculously made a one-joke men-in-drag-meet-sex goddess premise into a timeless romp of provocative puns, innuendos, sight gags and set pieces.
The 7 p.m. event will have special guest Kelly Curtis, the oldest daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, introduce the picture. Her sister is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
Kelly accompanied her late mother to Omaha for a 1994 Crawford event feting Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. This time she’ll share reminiscences and insights about her father, who died at age 85 in 2010. In a recent Reader interview she spoke about how Hot came at a crucial time in his Hollywood ascent.
Starting with Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, The Defiant Ones and on through Hot and Spartacus, Curtis showed a heretofore unseen range in rich, demanding parts of enduring quality.
“I think he wanted to prove to himself and to the world he was more than than just a pretty face and those films gave him a great opportunity to do that,” Kelly says. “He loved that he was given a real gift in Some Like It Hot to be able to show his comedic talents as fully as he did. Doing comedy like that is very difficult.”
The plot finds two down-on-their-luck Depression-era Chicago musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), needing to skip town after witnessing a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-style slaying. The only open gig is with a touring female band and so they pose as women musicians. Aboard the Florida-bound train they fall for the band’s woman-child singer, Sugar Kane (Monroe), only Joe’s more determined to bed her once they hit the beach.
Kelly says her father’s idea to impersonate Cary Grant within the context of his character posing as a millionaire in order to seduce Sugar Kane, reveals much about the man who became Tony Curtis.
Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx to Hungarian parents, he grew up running the streets with a gang. Talent agent-casting director Joyce Selznick discovered the aspiring actor at the New School in 1948. His quick rise to movie stardom as a Universal contract player was the American Dream made good. Kelly says it only made sense he would pay homage to Grant because the actor was his model for learning how to court women and to project a sophisticated facade.
“Once he had money my father really took to the trappings of being a suave, debonair, European-style playboy. He loved fine houses, fine wines, fine cars. He loved living the life of an Italian count. That was one of his personas and stages he went through. So I think jumping into a role like that to woo a woman is what he’d been playing at his whole life. Even back when he was in a Hungarian Jewish gang, he used his black hair, blue eyes and olive skin to pass as Italian so he could spy on the rival Italian gang I think he always pretended to be something he wasn’t just to survive.”
Much as Grant transformed himself from his poor Bristol origins as Archie Leach into the screen’s most desirable gent, Kelly says, “Tony Curtis was an avatar – it’s the man he invented for himself, which was an amalgamation of all his parts, yes, but it definitely was not Bernard Schwartz.” She adds, “Tony of the Movies is what he liked to call himself and that’s what he aspired his legacy to be.”
She says the multifaceted man she knew took his off-screen work as a painter, photographer, assemblage artist and sculptor seriously.
“It was much more than a hobby. He was constantly creating and he exhibited and sold his art late in his life.”
His heritage was important to him, too.
“My father was a lot more a Jewish man than he presented himself to the world. I think he had a deep sense of Jewish values and a deep love for Judaism. I think he wanted to be more religious but with his lifestyle and interests it just wasn’t to be.”
Kelly worked with her father on the Emanuel Foundation in raising money for the restoration of cemeteries and synagogues in Hungary damaged during World War II.
“It’s something he was very committed to and proud of and during that time we got very close. It was a very good time for us.”
Despite a “libertine” way of life as a notorious Hollywood wild man, she says her father was a staunch American patriot and conservative Republican. Yes, she says, he fell prey to the excesses of fame with his multiple marriages (six), infidelity and substance abuse problems, but he appreciated how far America allowed him to rise.
“Here’s this immigrants’ child who made it, who became rich and famous, which is why he considered himself an American prince. It’s why he loved America as a land of opportunity. The possibilities are endless. He said you just have to want it bad enough, have the talent to back it up and really go for it.”
She says her father’s career descent afte The Great Race and The Boston Strangler was largely self-made.
“He didn’t transition very well into New Hollywood. He wanted to but he wasn’t really interested in letting down the facade of the young virile guy by playing older roles. It bothered him until his death he wasn’t asked to do more but he burned a lot of bridges. He went through a lot of dark years in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That could have been a lot riper time for him had he not fallen to prey to his demons.
“Here was this gorgeous man getting older, going through a mid-life crisis and perhaps an existential crisis of trying to figure out who he was and what he was. It was a very troubling time for him.”
There were a couple bright spots (The Last Tycoon, Insignificance) but mostly Tony Curtis was an artifact from a long gone Hollywood. He did live the last several years of his life sober. As his old studio peers died away and his own health failed, he could take solace in having made several stand-the-test-of-time films.
He thought enough of Hot to write a book about its making. Kelly says the movie allowed him to show “his chops” as an actor. He wrote that during the shoot he had an affair with Monroe, whom he claimed was his lover years before. Kelly says, “I don’t know if it’s just one of my father’s stories, but I would love to know.”
Tickets are $23 and available at all Omaha Hy-Vee stores.
For more info, call 402-926-8299 or visit www.omahafilmevent.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.