Thursday, September 30, 2010

And this week they come in 3's: TONY CURTIS (1925-2010)

Full details can be found here.

As I was probably least well-versed in Curtis' career compared to Sally Menke and Arthur Penn, here below is a reprint of two of my reviews of Curtis' crowning achievements as an actor (rather, one of the only films of his I've seen and really responded to, outside of Sweet Smell of Success which, ashamedly, I need to see again in order to review as I actually remember Lancaster more than Curtis from that).   Oh yeah, and he was in Spartacus, too.  Again, a re-watch is in order.

Ladies and Gentlemen.... The Defiant Ones:

It's hard to conceive that the same man who directed The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer, would direct Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. While both films are after some level of reaching racial equality, one deals with the issue in the context of a thriller and gives a powerful script based on believable characters, both in their present contexts and their past, while the other is turgid and so preachy that you can feel the pulpit crack from which Kramer stands. It's worrisome to go from that over-praised pablum that, oddly enough, also co-starred Sidney Poitier, to another work, but thankfully The Defiant Ones holds up as a mostly powerful film because it doesn't shove race and bigotry in your face at every moment. At least, not every one. But when it does come up its put around the characters first, not the premise, the progression of the characters in this situation proves compelling... again, for the most part.

Premise: two guys on a chain gang escape after the car holding them and the other prisoners crashes in the middle of a rainy night. The two together are Cullen, Poitier, and Johnny "Joker", Curtis. They don't like each other, as shown in the first scene where Joker very clearly drops the 'N' bomb due to Cullen continually singing a chain gang song. They'd much rather not be together, but without a chisel and hammer there's little to do but to keep running, scrounge for food, make sure the other doesn't die and/or kill the other first (not so much to help the other but to help himself such as when they're in river rapids), and naturally not get caught.

Things happen to them and around them in the story that get them, against their own judgment, bond with one another. Not exactly as friends but guys with a common goal: reach the train and get out of the sticks. What's remarkable is not exactly how Kramer directs them or creates tension - frankly I put most of the credit to the craftsmanship on Oscar winner DP Sam Leavitt - but how he lets the two stars play the characters their own way. They're not stereotypes, and while they may encounter some along on their journey, such as the white trash lynch mob or Billy's mother as a desperate farmer's ex-wife, they hold their own as people we can go along for the ride with. It is about the issue, sure, but it's a thriller that sends us along and tries to have us not know where it will go.

For a while, too, it threw me off. I wasn't sure if they would escape, or together at least, and it's what kept me hooked. Even with the sorta twist with the swamp getaway Kramer kept things moving along at a good pace. It's only around the end that things get a little too, well, of the period. The edge is lost a bit, even as one can see why the film as to end the way it does. If it only could stay truer to the rest of the story and how the characters progress then it would be great. As it stands though The Defiant Ones is fine work and only dated inasmuch that it's from 1958 and on the cusp of the civil rights movement. There's some smoke and fire, which is more than can be said of Kramer's later films.

And Ladies and Gentlemen... Some Like it Hot:

Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot is about what makes men different than women. It's funny, uproarious even, because men who are big womanizers (they're musicians in 1929 prohibition-era Chicago after all) have to go in disguise as women so they aren't recognized as the men they are by mobsters who want to rub them out for several hits they witnessed. I loved seeing how the actors worked off of one another, especially because they had such wonderful dialog to work with. That is one part of it, and how steady the story actually is (it really never falters from being a classically told story for all of its wackiness that ensues), but it's just the repore of the stars, the power they exude on screen (that is, that Marilyn Monroe exudes) and how funny they are in playing it both serious and fun in a single beat.

Now that that premise is out of the way, what else is funny about it? Where to start? For one thing just how Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis have their reactions to how they look or who they are as 'women' ("I'm more of a Daphnme", Lemmon's Jerry says), and how they both react in varied ways to Marilyn Monroe's Sugar. Her character admits that she's stupid, but is she really? She's playing this "girl' in other movies before, and yet it's a little varied this time around; she'd love to find a rich man on a yacht, sure, but she'd also just like to find a man who would treat her right. It's here that the fun, and some hidden depth and incredible sexual innuendo, comes out of the relationship between 'Cary Grant' Joe (a great-bad imitation) and Sugar, especially the scene between the two on the Yacht and their meeting on the beach... which is almost all of their scenes. They're quite brilliant.

Jack Lemmon also scores very highly here with his performance as Jerry/Daphne. Any moment he has to react to Osgood is so funny because of how he reacts and how Joe E. Brown so consistently reacts to Daphne's expressions. It's surely one of the classic moments in movies at the end, but I perhaps loved even more just seeing how the two actors were in the tango scene (and Lemmon's reaction to that to Tony Curtis, the "We're engaged!" bit is one of the funniest scenes of its time, or any time). We get to see by Wilder's script and direction how men and women (or men as women or men as men) portray each other or react when trying to court. It's a sex farce that was somehow acceptable (I'm surprised some of the innuendo and dress got by with the censors at the time), but also has stayed fresh, maybe fresher, because of how precise it is in its observations on sex and relationships. It sort of goes between the very dark comedy of love in Sunset Blvd. with the lighthearted Hollywood stuff of Sabrina.

The former may still be Wilder's best film, but Some Like it Hot finds him working at the peak of his powers with comic timing and sharp dialog for able and ready performers. Was Monroe ever funnier? Perhaps sexier in Seven Year Itch, or a technically better or deeper actress in Don't Bother to Knock. But she's on par with her male co-leads in delivering the goods as someone who gets how to do this comedy. It's rare for lightning to strike like this in comedy in general- The Producers, Duck Soup and His Girl Friday had it- and this is another example.

PS note: It didn't hit me until I finished posting the reviews, but I realize that two of Curtis' best performances (and, to add to it, Sweet Smell of Success) all come at being paired up with someone else either just as great or better than he is.  Somehow I guess he needed that back-up to be at full charge.

Anyway, RIP, to his daughters, Jamie Lee and Kelly.

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