Tony Curtis had passed away Wednesday evening at age 85, I found myself flashing back 25 years, to a memorable encounter in a lavishly appointed hotel suite during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.
It my one and only meeting with the Hollywood icon who was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, who first attracted attention as an impossibly handsome ‘50s movie heartthrob before establishing himself as an impressively versatile actor in edgy dramas (The Defiant Ones, Sweet Smell of Success, The Boston Strangler) and crowd-pleasing comedies (Some Like It Hot, Operation Petticoat, The Great Race). He was not quite yet 60, but already had endured some dispiriting career downturns, and seemed optimistic that the film he was promoting at Cannes – Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, which, ironically, proved to be the last significant movie credit on his resume – would help launch his next comeback.
Fade in: Curtis, at his most charming and ingratiating, is in the middle of his second apology in five minutes: ''Look,'' he says, wiping a sandwich crumb from his mouth, ''you're sure you don't mind my having lunch while we talk . . .?'' Then, suddenly, the smile drops from his face, vanishing like the image on a TV screen after someone hits the off switch. He's not mad, mind you, or even upset. But he's stern. And adamant.
As soon as he sees an associate edging toward the door to the hotel hallway, the interview comes to a dead halt. ''I don't want to talk with this gentleman alone,'' Curtis barks, his bluntness tempered by just a smidgen of anxiety. ''If you have to go, tell the publicist to come back then. I want a witness on every one of these interviews.''
He returns his gaze to me and, no doubt noticing my startlement, adopts a slightly softer, ''Nothing personal, you understand'' tone: ''It's just that, you see, this is where you get that little savvy, or little knowledge of this business of interviews and living together and being together. I'll do an interview, and then the next day I wake up and I find the most horrendous piece of writing I've ever read in my life about myself. Obviously, it's just done for effect, or for The National Enquirer. And I won't have that anymore.
''I mean, they call me a drunk, they call me a panderer. I've even had interviewers say I made passes at them while we were talking.''
Well, I suggest, perhaps those people were indulging in wishful thinking?
Curtis smiles and relaxes. A little. ''Perhaps,'' he agrees. ''But it winds up in the newspaper and there's nothing I can do about it.''
So we talked. Most of the time, there was someone -- a traveling companion or a publicist - in the room to serve as Curtis' witness. Eventually, however, we were left alone, if only so Curtis' lady friend, en route from elsewhere, could be greeted in the lobby by a familiar face. By then, fortunately, Curtis didn’t seem to mind. He warmed quickly to the idea of talking about his life, freely and candidly, mindful of the tape recorder but not at all intimidated by it.
Curtis had been to the Cannes Film Festival ''about a dozen times'' before, but this year was different. This year, he knew he was appearing in the wake of newspaper accounts and gossip column items about his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. He also knew, however, that he was represented at the 1985 festival by Insignificance, Nicolas Roeg's audacious fantasia about fame, role-playing and thermonuclear war. (''It's one of the best movies I've ever made,'' Curtis told me, and I readily agreed.) In the film, Curtis played a sexually repressed U.S. senator who may or may not be Joseph McCarthy, and who interacts with characters who strongly suggest Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) and Albert Einstein (Michael Emil). It was the sort of performance that often attracts attention, revives careers and ignites Oscar hopes. More important, it was the sort of work that usually leads to even more work.
Unfortunately, while Curtis did indeed continue to work, on stage and screen and in television, for decades afterwards…
OK, let’s be fair: Co-starring in films like The Mummy Lives and Lobster Men from Mars might have helped pay the bills, and provided some after-dinner anecdotes. And maybe it was fun learning how to tap dance to play a supporting role in a touring company production of Sugar – the musical version of Some Like It Hot – that kicked off in Houston back in 2002. And there’s no denying that Curtis enjoyed an enviable degree of success during the final decades of his life by re-inventing himself as a novelist, memoirist and artist. But despite the high hopes he had for Insignificance…. Well, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Back to 1985:
Q. How would you describe your career right now? Do you think you’re hot again?
A. Well, someone once said, “Nobody loves me but the public.” I loved it, 'cause it kinda made sense, you know? And that's the purpose of it. I've made over 130 movies in my lifetime. You know? And I keep making them. Sometimes I want to work more, sometimes less. But it's got nothing to do with when you're hot or you're not hot. Nobody's ever that hot.
You're always on the periphery of this profession. You're never in the vortex of that world -- you're always whirling around in it. One picture away from utter disaster or a little more success. Utter, utter failure or a rousing success. People say, “When you're hot, you're hot.” Well, that hot, you're not. That hot, you can never get.
There's never the ultimate success. Getting an Academy Award is not the ultimate of anything. You know? Because it's a limited audience, it's an audience that gives you awards for your behavior more than your performance, usually. You don't know if the people that are voting on them have seen the pictures or not.
[Curtis, it should be noted, earned only one Oscar nomination throughout his entire career. In 1958, he competed in the Best Actor category, for The Defiant Ones – but lost to David Niven, who won for Separate Tables.]
Q. What about the work itself? Is acting still as much fun for you? Does it give you as much satisfaction as it always has?
A. Oh, I love the work. But I don’t love the environment [in Hollywood]. The environment can be drug-infested, alcoholically inclined. It can be disastrous, envious, angry -- all of these qualities. I used to be a druggie, and I used to be an alcoholic, so I know what I'm talking about…. I was using cocaine. All the prescription drugs. And a lot of whiskey.
Q. And now?
A. I feel wonderful. I've been in a recovery stage now for the last 100, 200 days. Recovering from my alcoholism and my drug addiction. And I learned a lot of important things about myself. It's a disease, you know. A disease, not a matter of the mind, about being weak-willed or lacking guts. It's a disease, a physical disease. Learning that about it, you know, I was able to re-evaluate my thinking. It's a matter of re-thinking yourself -- to recognize that your life is unmanageable and you're powerless over the addiction. And you have to let a higher power, another spirit, take charge. And not try to control and manipulate. And not deny, not say to yourself, "Well I can quit any time I want to, only I don't want to." To accept those realities about yourself is the secret of the freedom you're going to see.”
Q. Are you feeling better about yourself these days?
A. Well, I don't know about “feeling better.” I'm alive. I'm able to talk with you. I'm able to maintain myself. Before, when I was drugging and drinking, I didn't see anybody. You know?
Q. Well, do you feel like you're now capable of giving better performances than you did when you were drinking and drugging?
A. No, I couldn't give better performances. I always give a good performance. I don't let anything stand in the way of my performances. That's my profession. That's my job. I have no excuse not to give a good performance. You don't see a title card at the bottom of the movie that says, ''Tony didn't feel well today, so the scenes you're gonna see are not as good as any other day.''
Q. But didn't your drinking and drugging lead to your being dropped from Neil Simon's play, I Ought to Be in Pictures, during the pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles back in 1979?
A. No. The problem with the play was that I wasn't given enough time to prepare for it. And they switched directors, and I was working with a man that I disliked, Herb Ross, who is a very destructive person. And he created in me a tremendous amount of stress and tension that provoked me to use more than I'd been using. My disease was always there. And he took advantage. I will never forgive him for that. I felt that he was just cruel and uncaring. And that goes for Neil Simon as well. I think they're both fucking scumbags.
Without even telling me, they started rehearsing an understudy somewhere else. While I was working onstage with the cast. And they were rewriting and re-rehearsing scenes, so that people would come on stage and play these scenes with me, with different lines and different innuendoes. And there I was. I was supposed to stand on stage and read the old lines as they were in the original, which was a very bad play to begin with. I mean all of a sudden, it was like I'd say to you, ''How are you feeling today?'' And your answer to me would be, ''I'm feeling fine, pass the ketchup.'' Instead, you say to me, ''You know it's going to rain tomorrow.'' Well, it had no bearing on anything I said. And I began then to notice that something fishy was going on.
The prop man told me that I wasn't gonna be in the play in New York. Yeah, these are the gentlemen of the theater. Mr. Simon, Mr. Ross. These are the aristocrats of our supposed profession. A guy like Herbert Ross, who was like a martinet on the set, pushing everybody around. A very disagreeable gentleman. And that goes for Neil Simon.
Q. The play itself . . .
A. It was junk, it was junk. And, listen, I gave some really interesting performances in it. That wasted, I wasn't. Let's understand that right from the beginning: That wasted I wasn't. You know?
Q. But the play dealt with a father-daughter relationship. Did you draw on your own relationship with your actress daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, while preparing for the role?
A. Not at all. I mean, no relationship between them at all.
Q. Well, how does it feel to see Jamie Lee in so many movies these days? Do you feel a little like you're part of a dynasty, a tradition?
A. No, I don't think of that at all. To me, it's my daughter making a living -- just like my son would make a living, just like I'm making a living. I had nothing to do with her career.
Q. But do you feel a bit like the baton has been passed . . .?
A. No, no, no. The baton, I mean my profession, I pass to the new actors that are coming along. Not to a member of your family. 'Cause if that were the case, all actors who have no children would be miserably unhappy. You know, "I'll never get anybody to pass my baton to. Here, take my baton, somebody, please." Jamie Lee Curtis deserves all the credit for herself. She did it on her own. With nobody to help her. She was involved in the profession and saw it and knew it. The gift is there, and how many people have the gift? I can't say I gave her a gift. All she got from me was life. And a point of view, perhaps.
I love the idea that my daughter is a successful actress. But I'd be equally as proud if she were a successful doctor or a lawyer. To think that she doesn't have to get in the meat market, or be used as a woman to make a living. I mean, the world is based on that, you know. But she's independently sufficient. I'm very proud of her. But I'm proud of her as a person. You should hear us when we both talk. I mean, we talk like two bricklayers, you know? We're both members of the same profession. The fact that we're father and daughter, I forget it right away. And so does she.
Q. Any chance you'll ever make a movie together?
A. I don't know. (Laughing) I mean, it would be hard for us to play lovers in a movie.
Q. That would raise a few eyebrows.
A. Well, if that is all it raised, it wouldn't be bad.
Q. Finally, have you ever thought about directing a movie?
A. I've thought about making a movie, but not just directing. Directing a movie is a menial task, particularly when the producer's wife can tell her husband that she doesn't like the cleavage on one of the girls in the movie -- and then, the next thing you know, that scene has been cut. Very few directors have complete control. So I'd like to make a movie where I'd do everything: write it, direct it, produce it, even play a part in it. And one day, maybe, I'll make one of those.
But, you know, that's not such a big deal. Making movies is not so important. Nothing's a big deal, really. Living is living. You know?