Interview reprinted from the June 2002, OutSmart magazine
Some like it hot. Some like it cold. Actor Tony Curtis likes it hot and cold AND … everything in between.
by Blase DiStefano
In the bathing scene from the 1960 film Spartacus, the Roman senator Crassius (Laurence Olivier) is discussing with his young slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) how to treat women, when he starts talking about food:
Crassius: Do you eat oysters?
Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Of course not. It’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it?
And taste is not the same as appetite and therefore not a question of morals, is it?
It could be argued so, master.
Um, that’ll do. My robe, Antoninus. Ah, my taste … includes both oysters and snails.
This exchange about Crassius’s taste for women and men was cut from the film (although it was restored in the 1991 rerelease). In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, Tony Curtis says that Antoninus “realizes he’s going to be asked to do something that he’s not prepared to do. I like Antoninus for that, you know? Take me out to dinner first, give me a little good time. Don’t throw me in the tub and drop the soap.”
OutSmart talked to Curtis by phone while he was in Las Vegas taking singing and dancing lessons for the new musical Some Like It Hot. When asked how long he had been preparing, he said about five months for the dancing and three months for the singing, and then he burst into song: “I fall in love too easily. I fall in love too fast.” (The 77-year-old legend is in his fifth marriage. His first marriage was to actress Janet Leigh—their daughter is actress Jamie Lee Curtis).
To get the full flavor of the interview, try to hear his New York Jewish accent in your head while you’re reading.
OutSmart: You’re playing Osgood in the new Some Like It Hot musical, right?
Tony Curtis: I’m playing Osgood Fielding III, the eccentric millionaire. And they cast me perfectly—I am an eccentric millionaire. But I’ve got a dress in the closet. They don’t know it yet.
I remember reading that you and Jack Lemmon got completely dressed up [for the 1959 film Some Like It Hot], went into a ladies room to see if anybody would notice, and nobody did.
I put my lipstick on looking in the mirror and the girls were coming in and out of the stalls in the back. And as we got outside, I said, “Jack, it worked.” And just then a girl comes walking out of the bathroom and says, “Hi, Tony.”
What was it like? You apparently hadn’t dressed up and put on heels before.
Oh, you had!?
Oh, yes. Well, listen, I was brought up around it. My mother wore heels. All my girlfriends wore heels. A couple of wives wore heels. How could you avoid not knowing how to put on heels?
Was it uncomfortable?
I didn’t find it uncomfortable. But you learn to balance once you learn the rhythm of the walk. You don’t have to exaggerate it. In my playing the part, I let the heels do the work. Jack was a little over the border, as they say … bumped around a little bit. But I didn’t, boy, I was Eve Arden and Grace Kelly and my mother.
How in the hell did you choose Eve Arden, of all people?
Well, Eve Arden, her chin was always up in the air. Notice if you ever see a picture of her, we look very much alike. And I patterned it off of her. My social graces were Grace Kelly. And my mother was hid underneath all of that.
I don’t know when your mother died, but was she able to see…
Oh, yeah, she saw Some Like It Hot—that may have put her in. My son is my daughter!
And now it’s going to be a musical.
Yes, and I get a chance to play in it. And it’s over 40 years later. I’ll be able to be in eight performances a week all over the place.
You’re starting in Houston, right?
We’re starting rehearsals in New York, then we’re on to Houston, Texas. It’s so Americana, you know, it’s so kind of sticking its nose out at people who are nervous about being men, nervous about being women. You know, at the end of the play when the guy pulls his wig off and says, “I’m a man!” And I’m gonna say, “Nobody’s perfect.” Don’t you love it?
Isn’t that good? Doesn’t that do better than anything?
Totally. What’s the big f—ing deal, Blase?
Speaking of men and men … well, first, how old were you when you got to Hollywood?
I was 22. That was 1948.
And as beautiful as you were … I mean, you are still good-looking…
But as beautiful as you were, I’m assuming that you…
I had more action than Mount Vesuvius.
So, both men and women put the make on you.
Men, women, children. Animals!
I can’t wait for the headlines—”TONY CURTIS INTO BESTIALITY.”
[Laughs] I loved it, too. I loved the affection of everybody around me. I participated where I wanted to, and I didn’t where I didn’t. It wasn’t like I said, “Well, I won’t do this or I won’t do that.” I just had a chance to have great wonderful friends of all ethnic backgrounds, all sexual genders, and that’s the joy of being an American, that’s the joy of being alive, where all of your friends can be whoever they want to be.
Apparently, you were pretty open about it.
I’ve always been open about it. I couldn’t be any other way. I’ve never allowed that to inflict me, and I don’t even like movies that have homosexuality and heterosexuality as a theme. I don’t feel it’s necessary. You tell the story as the story is. You don’t have to inflict on it your opinions. You see, I don’t like to use the word “gay,” because gay is a word in the dictionary that means happy and thoughtful, and I think we’re using that word out of context, although it represents what we feel like. But still I don’t like to use that word in describing all of us. I want to be very straight and honest with everybody. You know, I don’t see any reason why not. Aren’t we allowed to have privilege of choice? If you don’t offend or hurt anybody, you should have that privilege; we are in America, we are Americans and are allowed that privilege, or we should.
But the problem is the laws.
Yes, absolutely. And the ethnic vibrations of all that. We have to come to grips with that. We have to come to grips with many, many things. But that’s all right, we must carry on, arm in arm, walk down that street, and not be ashamed of anything. Bet you didn’t think you’d get all this on Monday morning, did you?
Well, sure, why not.
Why not, dear.
Any time of the day, sweetie. Oh, dear.
So, do you eat oysters?
I do. Oysters and snails.
I’m not prejudiced in any way. That was a fabulous scene in that movie.
It was cut, wasn’t it?
When the movie came out, that scene was not in. It showed me with Larry Olivier and he’s asking me what I did, and that was the end of it, and the next thing you see me escaping.
And that scene was key to the project. They photographed it, but they never did closeups of it and they never processed the sound. Universal Pictures in their own way was trying to critique the movie; they didn’t want that to be spoken. So, they said they lost the sound. But they didn’t lose the sound. And just after making the movie, Larry Olivier and I realized that’s that what they were trying to do. So we insisted they shoot the scene, but they never recorded it.
And then years later, they had the scene, but they had no soundtrack. So what they did, they went to Anthony Hopkins and asked him to do Olivier, and they asked me to do Antoninus, and that’s where we got the dialogue in that scene. Isn’t that intriguing?
Is it ever.
It just shows you how studios, the fear they had in mentioning anything like that. They didn’t want to touch the scene as the picture was being made, but as it was finished, they thought they could do anything they wanted. Well, they couldn’t get away with it.
So the scene was key to why Antoninus left.
To the whole project. To Antoninus, Spartacus, and Crassius … these three men. That was the love story. Sure, Spartacus had a woman pregnant—that was his child for the future. But still the story was a boy who was loved by a man [Crassius]. And the boy did not want to capitulate, because he wasn’t sure what that was about. So he escapes and runs to his father figure, who is Spartacus. And then at the end Crassius has Antoninus and Spartacus fight. And I say to Spartacus, “I love you like I loved my father,” and Spartacus says, ” I loved you like the son I’ll never see,” then kills me. That’s the powerful story of Spartacus. It’s valuable to the film, because now it makes sense in a lot of areas. I feel Spartacus should have been about the three men. That would have made an intriguing and interesting story, wouldn’t it?
Definitely. So, you also made Goodbye, Charlie.
“Goodbye, Charlie, I hate to see you go.” Yes, that was a wonderful movie.
With Debbie Reynolds…
Debbie Reynolds is coming back as a woman. She is my best friend as a man, then dies and comes back as a woman. You gotta be careful who you go out with, dear. You never know, does one?
That’s right. Okay, you also did The Great Race, another film with Jack Lemmon.
Well, yes, you know, in The Great Race we had a gender conflict. He’s the king, the real king of Russiatania. So, he’s madly in love with me: “You great Leslie, you.” He doesn’t want me to go away. So, you see, I’ve had a lot of interesting lovers or lovers-to-be in movies I’ve been in.
That’s the truth.
If you want to really examine it, what about Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones. We know they didn’t “make” it.
We don’t know. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.
Weren’t you nominated for an Oscar for The Defiant Ones?
Yeah, but I didn’t take that serious. That was the first time they nominated a black man and a Jewish man. Chained together. I don’t have much respect for the Academy.
It’s mostly a popularity contest.
That’s all it is. They ought to step up and say that’s what it is, instead of trying to fake it. I don’t know what they think a best performance is.
Speaking of best performances, you were excellent in The Boston Strangler.
Thank you. I loved that movie. I always played great these sexual deviants.
I know you’re a painter. How long have you been painting?
All my life. It’s always been my biggest avocation. Has nothing to do with movies or acting or anything else. It’s a language that I speak, an unspoken language.
Is it sort of like meditation?
No, it’s not. Painting is work, it takes a lot of work. Repetition, you’ve got to do it over and over again—and slowly I’m beginning to have control over what the lines and colors I put on paper have to say.
Tell me a little bit more about Some Like It Hot. You’re playing Osgood…
Yes, and it’s going to be a musical, a two-act musical. I’ve got five or six excellent funny scenes with the character of Daphne that I’ve fallen in love with. So that’s really going to be an amusing thing, because the audience will be the only ones who know that Daphne is a guy.
And you don’t.
I don’t know nothing. So I pursue her like madness. And at the end, I pull the wig off and say, “Nobody’s perfect.” For a minute there, you say, “Wait a minute, what does he mean by that?” And it’s over.
In the film, you worked with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. How was it working with the two of them?
There were a lot of rumors about Marilyn, but she was having a difficult time getting through the picture. She couldn’t memorize lines, she had emotional difficulty, but Billy Wilder told Jack and me, “You guys better get it right every time we do it, because once she gets it right, I’m going to print it, and if you got your finger stuck in some orifice, that’s where it’s going to be.” So, he kind of read us the law very early.
I really appreciate you and your time. Thank you so much.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you. And we’ll be seeing you in Houston. Come over and say hello to me. You’ll recognize me by the carnation in my lapel.