Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

More passings

Joe/Josephine (1925-2010)

One evening back in May of 1989, my friend Dayle and I went to see a couple of movies at the Seattle International Film Festival. The titles of the two movies both began with the letter L, but other than that they had absolutely nothing in common. The first was David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, a much-honored classic starring the wonderful Peter O’Toole in his breakout film performance. The other was called Lobster Man from Mars.

A movie about making a movie, Lobster Man from Mars told of a young film student trying to sell his sci-fi flick to a film producer, who needs a tax write-off. In a way, the title of the movie may have been its best joke. Dayle and I would invoke it often in coming years when laughing about movies we’d seen. Perhaps the most notable thing about this no-budget send-up, however, was the fact that the producer was played by Tony Curtis. In one way, it showed that this once large Hollywood name was a good sport. In another, it was a bittersweet commentary on where his career had gone.

If you read any of Curtis’s obituaries last week, then you’ve got the idea that he was a pretty boy actor who never got taken as seriously as he wanted or deserved. Personally, I always thought it was because of his strong Bronx accent (he was born Bernard Schwartz) that he never seemed to be able to ditch entirely. Among the numerous famous movie lines that never actually got said is Curtis’s mythic, supposed utterance “Yondah lies da castle of my foddah” in the 1954 movie The Black Shield of Falworth. To me that deep New York voice was that of a man’s man, so it was only much later that it dawned on me that the young Tony Curtis was actually one of those androgynous stars whose sculpted face, large lips, intense eyes and thick, curly hair made him an object of fascination to just about everyone. Reportedly, Elvis Presley modeled his hairstyle on Curtis’s.

And Hollywood knew just what to do with that perceived physical ambiguity. In the 1964 supernatural comedy Goodbye Charlie, Curtis’s character is attracted to Debbie Reynolds, who turns out to really be his deceased best friend, who was played by Harry Madden until he was shot by a jealous husband. Four years before that, he was a slave in ancient Rome in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. When the movie was re-released in 1991, 14 minutes deleted from the original release were restored. This included a bath scene in which his master, Laurence Olivier, attempts to seduce him. Because the audio had been lost, Curtis re-dubbed his lines three decades later, while Anthony Hopkins filled in for the deceased Olivier. In that movie, Curtis uttered one of the immortal lines of cinematic history. In an act of rebellion, he is the first of a horde of slaves who yell, “I’m Spartacus!”

Curtis’s most memorable gender-bending role, of course, was his comedic turn in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like It Hot, in which he and Jack Lemmon spend much of the film in drag. When he’s not wearing a dress, he is wooing Marilyn Monroe with a spot-on impersonation of Cary Grant—something he apparently perfected after working with the actor the same year in Operation Petticoat.

Despite Tinseltown’s penchant for casting Curtis in sexually ambiguous roles, the man himself was a confirmed serial heterosexual—so much so that he pointedly refused to see the movie Brokeback Mountain. He was married six times, starting with Janet Leigh in 1951. They would appear together in Houdini, The Black Shield of Falworth, The Perfect Furlough, The Vikings and Who Was That Lady?, have cameos in Pepe and become parents of the actors Jamie Lee and Kelly.

Other memorable movies in which Tony Curtis appeared: a supporting role in the original Francis (the talking mule), his turn as press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success, an escaped convict chained to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (earning his only Oscar nomination), a fictionalized version of real-life chancer Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. in The Great Imposter, a womanizing reporter in Sex and the Single Girl, the voice (uncredited) of John Cassavetes’s unfortunate professional rival in Rosemary’s Baby, Rodriguez in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Blackie in the 1980 version of Little Miss Marker, a senator in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance and a cameo in the 1993 romantic comedy Naked in New York. The makers of the upcoming Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Morella are currently looking for an actor to replace him.

At least one other Tony Curtis role deserves to be mentioned. In 1968 my friend Eric and I got severely creeped out in a Bakersfield drive-in by Richard Fleischer’s based-on-actual-events The Boston Strangler. It wasn’t until about an hour into the movie that its star finally appeared. But when he did—as Albert DeSalvo, the criminal who will be forever remembered as the strangler, despite the fact he was never actually convicted of the murders—Tony Curtis showed that he could really inhabit a role and give an audience goosebumps.

American Godard (1922-2010)

Here’s another drive-in movie memory involving my friend Eric. In 1967 we went to see this movie that was getting a lot of hype called Bonnie and Clyde. There were lots of bank robberies, which kept it interesting, but it was unusual for the bank robbers to be the heroes of a movie. When the title characters died in a hail of bullets, we were clearly meant to feel sorry for them, which was also unusual. I really didn’t know what to make of it.

Then, six years later, I went to France and was shown a movie by Jean-Luc Godard called Breathless. Darned if it wasn’t more or less the same movie, but in France. You would think that this Godard fellow could be a bit more original. Except that Breathless came out about seven years before Bonnie and Clyde. Eventually, I would get it. Bonnie and Clyde’s director, Arthur Penn, was basically bringing the French New Wave to America.

But he was no mere copycat. Two years before Breathless, he had made The Left Handed Gun (based on a Gore Vidal play), in which Paul Newman had played Billy the Kid as an alienated, misunderstood youth. Two years before Bonnie and Clyde, Penn and Warren Beatty honed their European-influenced film sensibilities with the absurdist crime flick Mickey One. Next Penn engaged in more social criticism with the Texas-set The Chase (adapted from a Horton Foote play by Lillian Hellman), featuring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. If Penn’s movies seemed a perfect fit for the 1960s, then it should be no surprise that he made a movie based on the popular Arlo Guthrie song Alice’s Restaurant. And in 1970 he did his best to undermine the entire U.S. military industrial complex with his sly picaresque deconstructing of the western genre, Little Big Man, in which Dustin Hoffman scrambles from one misadventure to the next, finally winding up at the Battle of the Little Bighorn with General Custer, played by Richard Mulligan. In the mid-1970s, Penn put his unique stamp on the film noir genre with Night Moves, in which Gene Hackman is a private eye working on an ever complicating missing person case. Shortly thereafter, he made The Missouri Breaks, a rather strange western in which Marlon Brando’s eccentric hired gun pursues Jack Nicholson’s fun-loving cattle rustler. Penn’s last effort for the big screen was in 1989 and, once again, it was typically odd: Penn & Teller Get Killed.

While Bonnie and Clyde may represent Arthur Penn’s greatest impact on popular culture, it was arguably not his very best movie. In my opinion, that would be The Miracle Worker, which told the true story of how a teacher named Annie Sullivan managed to teach blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate. Adapted by William Gibson from his own play, it earned Oscars for both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, both of whom Penn had directed for 719 performances on the stage. It also got Penn his first Oscar nomination for directing. He would get two more, for Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, but he never actually won the statuette.

-S.L., 7 October 2010

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