by Josh Rotter
As the legendary actor prepares to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Castro Theatre Tuesday, he reflects on his career, the “gay” roles, and his friendships with Rock Hudson and James Dean.
Interviewing Tony Curtis, the hunky heartthrob of the 50’s and 60’s, who Elvis modeled his hair after, whose image was splashed on the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover, and who even inspired a Flintstones character — Stoney Curtis, was admittedly one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my career.
While I knew that the iconic actor was comfortable playing gay (or close to it) on screen, I wasn’t sure how asking an 83-year-old straight man gay questions would play out.
Let’s not forget that only a couple years ago Curtis, an Academy member, told Fox News that he would not even see the film “Brokeback Mountain” before voting against it, because it “diminished” cowboys as iconic figures in movies. “This picture is not as important as we make it,” Curtis said in the interview. “It’s nothing unique. The only thing unique about it is they put it on the screen. And they make ‘em [gay] cowboys.”
It’s not that it’s so much easier to ask these questions of heterosexuals 60 years his junior, who in a way, might still feel that they have more to prove when it comes to their masculinity. Still, through greater exposure today they are perhaps more tolerant of alternate sexualities than previous generations. As we know, it wasn’t the youngins that voted Prop 8 in… it was the elderly. Just like it wasn’t the younger Academy voters who hindered “Brokeback Mountain”‘s Best Picture win, but the older ones.
But in other ways, the grandfatherly man with the Brooklyn accent was ahead of his time and even ahead of ours, in that he didn’t consider homosexuality a sin nor something to sensationalize. He saw and sees it as a fact of life, and over the course of a 140-film career, he’s worked his hardest to imbue it with the dignity that it deserves in movies like “The Defiant Ones,” “Some Like It Hot,” opposite Marilyn Monroe (whom he briefly dated) and “Spartacus” — years before a film like “Brokeback Mountain” reignited the conversation of gays on film.
For this and his other achievements on celluloid, on Tuesday Nov. 18, the actor will be honored with “A Tribute To Tony Curtis” at the Castro Theatre, where he will be presented with the Mill Valley Film Festival Lifetime Award. He will also be interviewed by KRON’s Jan Wahl, following the program which includes a screening of “Some Like It Hot,” closing the week-long “Curtis at the Castro” series. Finally, Curtis will sign copies of his new autobiography “American Prince – A Memoir” at the end of the evening.
Gay.com’s Josh Rotter was excited (albeit nervous) to chat with Curtis about finally getting his due recognition as an actor, his own oppression that like Spartacus he had to rise up against, his classic hunky roles, and playing gay in Hollywood’s golden age.
Hi Tony, you once said that you didn’t feel as recognized as you should have been for your film work. Now you’re getting the Mill Valley Film Festival award for your lifetime achievement in cinema. How exciting is that?
It’s wonderful to be alive to get a lifetime achievement award. Any award I get for work is always pleasurable and meaningful to me. I never thought of it as much more, but as time goes on, I feel very rewarded by my profession and for being treated this way.
You have a new autobiography out. What will people learn about you from the “American Prince” memoir?
I would think that they’d learn a lot. You’d understand perhaps my behavior, the personality I’ve got, and learn a lot about what it’s been like, and all you had to do to become whatever you are. So the first chance you get, you should go out and get it.
OK, one of the topics you address in the book is the experience of being a Jewish immigrant in the first half of the 20th Century named Bernard Schwartz. Talk to me about that experience.
Well, inadvertently, not because I sought it out, my parents would take me to Jewish experiences, going to Shul, special dinners and things like that, that they would go to. I would go with my father during the high holy days even though I did not have too much knowledge. I didn’t speak the language, but he would tap me on the shoulder, and point to where I should read from the prayer book. But like most Jewish boys, we were not too good at it; we were clumsy, but we did it because our parents liked to do it. So my life was not particularly Jewish, but I would kill to maintain my Jewishness.
I imagine, though, that it wasn’t all culturally enriching. You must have also experienced anti-Semitism during that era.
You have to understand that I had no idea of what it meant to be a Jew; I enjoyed it, but did not have much more knowledge. As I got older and was in different, anti-Semitic environments, where I was riled upon and abused and thought badly of, I started to protect myself. If you told everybody that you weren’t Jewish, then you’d have no trouble. But I didn’t think that it was fair that I had to abnegate from my family tradition, so every chance I had, I spoke out. I sought it out, even when it was rather likely that the aggression was to come to the point of blows… because it was a way of defending my Jewish faith.
Another emotional outlet for you, I’d imagine, is painting. I read that you’ve been painting since the early 80’s and even have art at the MoMa and The Met, in New York. What is the experience of painting like for you and how is that different from acting?
Let me explain it to you. It comes from the inner self where a lot of dialogue occurs; since I’m well aware of my background, when I paint, it comes forward; not the experience, but the form and sense of it. All of a sudden, there’s a guideline, and it’s abstract and surrealist, and I work my way through the signs with color and styles that are practical to get at what I’m after — thoughts, memories and attitudes of feelings about whatever I’m doing. But it’s not easy to read what I’m painting. You have to have a psychiatrist there or have me saying what a shot of blue on top of red on top of a hat means.
How is that different than acting?
The thing that makes it possible is that painting is not a physical experience, just a mental experience. Being mental, you get to it quicker. When I use a brush, colors, and charcoal, every stroke is pertaining to what I’m thinking about. And that’s the way it comes together.
You’ve said that acting no longer charms you in the same way. Why is that?
Acting, it hasn’t really. I’ve made over 140 films and in making them, I explored in many ways to find the secret of what acting was, and did quite well; and still a lot has to be examined, but you can’t do it when you’re not working. Until I have another project, I won’t be thinking about it. But I know when it does, I’ll have a fix on it.
In “The Defiant Ones,” where you and acting legend Sidney Poitier play escaped convicts manacled together, there’s a scene where you lay on him as he sings, which would never be done, at least in a straight scene, on film today. You’ve even described the film as having a homoerotic subtext in previous interviews.
It is. How could it not be? You have two men chained together, running for their lives, going to the bathroom together, one sleeping while the other one is awake, a very powerful pair; and how did they handle the fact that they were lying together in the middle of the mud and dirt? So what prevented them from finding esoteric ways? It wasn’t explained, but it’s the important part. For me it was easy to play, because I had a lot of that in my life.
Released at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, how groundbreaking would you say the film was from a racial standpoint?
It helped people who were on the fringe about black and white relationships, because they all of a sudden saw it, in its pure hatred and love, so they could make their own decision while watching the film rather than have someone else making it for them.
In “Some Like It Hot,” you and Jack Lemmon pose as female musicians Josephine and Daphne to hide from the mob. Everyone remembers that final scene where the Osgood Fielding character says to Jack Lemmon’s Daphne character “Nobody’s perfect” when he discovers that she’s male — which was very overt for the time. Years later you even went on to play Osgood Fielding in the musical. What appealed to you about that story?
I found it a very appealing experience. I wanted to know more about it. There I was dressed as a girl. But all three films, ‘Some Like It Hot,’ ‘The Defiant Ones,’ and ‘Spartacus’ had sexual connotations. I liked them for that, because I liked the idea of breaking the rules. I feel those three pictures did in succession what they were meant to do. If you examine them, you found that they came in the proper order to realize and examine, and to understand better, so we’re not making foolish and stupid considerations.
People continue to talk about your homoerotic bathing scene in “Spartacus” opposite Sir Laurence Olivier. Describe the experience of shooting that scene, and how do you feel about it now?
When I did it, it was the way I feel about it now. There’s a reality in the scene. A man wanted to have me physically in his arms, his version of making love to me. That was the only purpose of the scene, and understanding that dilemma. I’ve experienced men wanting to be with me. I never explored it, but the feeling was always there. When I did the scene with Larry, I felt comfortable, because I had thought about it before. So I brought to the scene my own trepidations and feelings.
From a historical perspective, what’s important about that scene?
You’ve never seen a scene like that in a movie. Since ‘Spartacus’ it’s never been done on that delicate level, using abstract terms to make people understand what the relationship was. I think I said, ‘I love oysters,’ and he said, ‘I love oysters and snails,’ and the meaning was quite evident. It was an articulate scene. I don’t remember something like that in any film or theatrical production that ever came so close to explaining it.
Why, when so many of your contemporaries, gay and straight, shied away from the topic of homosexuality, were you so quick to tackle it onscreen?
Simply because I was able to understand both ends of the dilemma. I was able to understand my brothers that were homosexuals and understand my brothers who were not. I could extend myself to both ends. I never flinched from it. I was able to touch both areas without acquiesing.
You were friends with Rock Hudson, who certainly went through a difficult time since he couldn’t address his own sexuality for most of his life.
It’s difficult for any guy. For any guy who comes along who’s important in one way and finds another section, his soul, could be his downfall. He’s the perfect example of that, because he was tall, handsome and masculine, and yet his soul was the opposite of that. He became a very important symbol of that. Everybody could see the difference and understood it — that a big, strong guy could succumb to another feeling. Homosexuals were seen as wimps who couldn’t manage their lives, as feminine men incapable of handling their problems, which is not true. As a symbol, he proved to them that it was not true. But the sad part is that he had to die for it.
Another gay icon that you befriended back then was James Dean. To put rumors to rest, in your opinion, was he bisexual?
There’s no way you can determine that. A lot of men who are not homosexual will have these experiences to improve their position in life in whatever they’re doing. They will do it because it helps them, and not for any other reason. If it has any other effect, and the man finds that that’s the way he wants to be, that’s another story; but sometimes it’s nothing more than improving their lot. You cannot give it any more than that.
What motivated you to discuss that golden era in Hollywood in the acclaimed Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman documentary “The Celluloid Closet”?
It was important to me because I wanted people to see the differences. The picture gave different feelings and a different understanding of the topic, and I wanted all my brothers to feel comfortable — whatever they are.
More recently you appeared as a guest on the popular UK chat show “Friday Night With Jonathan Ross” alongside another gay icon, Grace Jones. That must have been a trip.
It was a very interesting experience with Grace on it, particularly. She really expressed herself on the show. She even said at one point after we finished that if you’re interested in me, then consider me a man. I said, ‘I would, if you’d start wearing pants.’
November 17, 2008