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The Strip Sense

[The Strip Sense]

Still the defiant one

The incurable angst of Tony Curtis

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Tony Curtis in his Henderson back yard.

If you’ve ever watched even a single episode of the E! True Hollywood Story, you know the formula: A star hits it big, looms large in our collective consciousness, struggles with his fill-in-the-blank inner demons, hits rock bottom, comes to terms with his problems, triumphs and enjoys either a resurgence or at least a peaceful dotage.

Except after more than two hours of interviewing Tony Curtis in his home in Henderson, something striking becomes painfully obvious: Curtis has enjoyed neither that resurgence nor that peaceful dotage. He tries to make it seem that way both in the first hour of our conversation and in the last chapter of his new sex-soaked memoir, American Prince, but even in the book there are hints that he is wrapping the story up in a sloppily tied bow merely to give the saga the ending that Hollywood and the book-publishing business demands.

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From the Archives
The Last Profile of Tony Curtis You Will Ever Need (11/27/03)
At the Benefit Bash (6/30/05)
Beyond the Weekly
IMDb: Tony Curtis
Wikipedia: Tony Curtis
American Prince
Recasting his life (Las Vegas Sun, 6/11/07)
UNLV Entertainer/Artist Hall to honor Tony Curtis (Las Vegas Sun, 9/14/04)
Been there, done that by Tony Curtis (Vanity Fair (2/12/07)

At nearly 83 years old, Curtis is not contented. In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that he’s somewhat bitter and sorrowful about how his life and career have turned out, what happened in his marriages, why his kids have little to do with him.

“I don’t know why I’m so dissatisfied,” confides the star of Some Like It Hot, Spartacus, The Defiant Ones and another 120 films. “What am I looking for? What am I chasing?”

If he doesn’t know at this stage of his life, I’m not sure who or what is going to supply that answer. By objective measures, Tony Curtis ought to be happier, and not only because he kicked his late-career cocaine habit thanks to Betty Ford and has been married to his sixth wife, Jill, for a decade. Yes, he battled intense depressions his whole life—for which it does not sound like he was ever properly treated—but now, he says, they come less frequently and stay for far shorter spells. His home sits on a perch along the Anthem Golf Course with a view that stretches across the Valley. It’s got to be something to see at night.

And, of course, Tony Curtis enjoyed one of those American lives most would die for. He was a matinee idol who appeared in films with his own idols, from Burt Lancaster to Cary Grant; who enjoyed wild sexual dalliances with the world’s most lusted-after women; who had genuine friendships with a list of Hollywood and Washington royalty. Curtis had the fortune of being present for several historic moments, none more amazing than visiting Joe Kennedy in January 1961 when then-President-elect John F. Kennedy phoned in to read a draft of his soon-to-be-classic inauguration speech.

None of that seems to provide him with any comfort; he feels he never got the great movie roles he deserved and is saddened that he did not transition to older parts like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando did. He earned just one Oscar nomination in his career, for The Defiant Ones, and he complains that his co-star in that film, Sidney Poitier, also was nominated.

The face that stole a million hearts.

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"I was just hoping for that conquest, hoping for that physical affection... that ejaculation ... All the guys at the studios, including myself, would feast on them (young women), taking their sweetness."--Tony Curtis to WENN.com
Slideshow: Tony Curtis' celluloid life (Vanity Fair 2/12/07)

In the book he attacks a long list of Hollywood contemporaries that includes Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Shelley Winters, Piper Laurie, Angela Lansbury, Bobby Darin, Yul Brynner, Joan Collins and Neil Simon. He seems to find anti-Semitism in every corner, even though Hollywood was run by Jews, a long list of Jewish actors—including him!—had major careers, and Curtis (né Bernard Schwartz) admits his Judaism is personally of no significance to him.

One of his pastimes particularly fascinates me. Curtis, a respected artist with works in the permanent collection of the Musem of Modern Art, spends much of his time painting over blown-up copies of a 50-year-old studio publicity photo of himself.

“I embellish them; I keep making more of them,” says Curtis, his head now bald, his once-pristine body deteriorated by age and illness. He’s had a heart attack, and, in 2006, he was comatose for a month from pneumonia. “I want to find another quality about me that’s in there somewhere.”

Intriguingly, modern Las Vegas is one of the few things that agrees with Curtis. As someone accustomed to hearing how great Old Vegas was from people of Curtis’ era, I find that refreshing. Here’s a man who says he scavenged for showgirls to pleasure Frank, Dino and Sammy as a Rat Pack crony back in the day, and yet he finds Las Vegas to be beautiful, cosmopolitan, comfortable.

“I smile a lot here,” he says. “I don’t have the stresses in LA. I had a lot of them.”

Indeed, even his responses to his Vegas life drive him back to his broader unhappinesses. When we speak about his relationship with his daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, he again tries, unconvincingly, to make it sound better than it is. He speaks to her occasionally, calls her “a very intelligent, thoughtful actress.” I ask if she asks him for acting advice or talks about his or her films.

“She asks me about some movies, but nobody really talks to me about acting much,” he grouses. “Nobody asks me, now that I think of it, what my contribution to films should be.”

So I do. I ask him that question.

“There’s no way to answer that,” Curtis says. “There’s no way to put a label on it. Maybe there is no label. Maybe I stop jerking off and just enjoy everything around me and leave it all alone.”

Maybe. Unlikely, though.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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