Friday, October 1, 2010

RIP Tony Curtis

Hollywood actor Tony Curtis, 85, died from a cardiac arrest on 29 September 2010 at his home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson.

- News report

It is sad when a man’s lifetime of work and dedication is summed up in a remembered line that is used to mock him. It is even sadder when that is not even a true or correct reflection. So it was with Tony Curtis and I confess that I was one of those who quoted that line.

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in 1925 in the Bronx, New York, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Until age 6 he spoke only Hungarian, resulting in his schooling being delayed. Life was not easy for the Schwartz family. Curtis’s mother suffered from schizophrenia and frequently beat her 3 sons. Older brother Robert was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and later institutionalised. When he was eight, Curtis and his brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a month because his parents couldn’t afford food for them. Julius was killed 4 years later when struck by a truck.

Curtis enlisted in the US Navy in 1943, inspired by his idol Cary Grant in the movie Destination Tokyo. He saw active service and was wounded at Guam. Serving on a submarine tender, he also witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. Using funding from his GI Bill, he studied acting in New York with classmates Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger.

Arriving in Hollywood in 1948, he changed his name to Tony Curtis, the second name being an adaptation of “Kurtz”, a name form his mother’s family. He was signed by Universal Pictures, originally for his looks and physique, and leaves behind a legacy of films that include The Defiant Ones, The Vikings, The Great Imposter, The Boston Strangler, Taras Bulba, Houdini, The Great Race, and of course, Some Like It Hot.

There is often an element of snobbery about movie quality, almost as though popularity is in inverse proportion to a film’s perceived merit. So it was with Tony Curtis, it being considered amusing to mock him, summing up his career and persona by quoting a line from one of his movies, delivered in a Bronx accent: “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda.” The implication was that he couldn’t act and didn’t even have the ability to tone down his accent for the character he was portraying.

The truth of the matter is different.

Curtis discussed the famous (mis)quotation in his book American Prince. In it he pointed out firstly that the line came from the 1952 movie The Son of Ali Baba, and that the correct line is “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle.”

A clip from the movie, although not the above celebrated line, can be seen at:

To me the accent is no different from any of the movies in which he received critical accalim.

How he came to be associated with the alternative "castle of my fadda" line is described by Curtis in his book. According to Curtis, the line did not become notorious until Debbie Reynolds (America’s sweetheart and former wife of Eddie Fisher, the latter dying last week) made fun of it on a talk show, saying “Did you see the new guy in the movies? They call him Tony Curtis, but that’s not his real name. In this new movie he’s got a hilarious line where he says ‘Yonda lies the castle of my fodda.’ “

Curtis writes “You could chalk her ridicule up to my New York accent but when she mentioned the issue of my real name on television, I began to wonder if there was something anti-Semitic going on there.”

At a time when many in Hollywood changed their names, it is hard to see why Reynolds considered Curtis's change of name significant. Coupled, however, with the reference to his accent when other actors with accents, such as Olivier, were ignored, and taking into account that anti-semitism was prevalent at that time, there is substance to his belief that the comments were motivated by his Jewish background.

In an interview in 1985 with Roger Ebert he said:
“I never said Yonder lies dah castle of my faddah. That line has become part of the folklore. You go to see the movie, listen for yourself. What I said was, clear as day, father. See, I was born Bernie Schwartz. I'm a Hungarian Jew from Brooklyn. So they thought I had to pronounce it faddah, because it fit the stereotype. Lawrence Olivier was in the same picture, but nobody thinks he ever mispronounced anything in his whole life.”
Elsewhere he said:
“A lot of things that would have meant a lot to me were denied me by Hollywood. I didn’t speak properly. I spoke with a thick New York accent. Everyone knew my name was Schwartz – and Jews were not welcome. [I suffered resentment from the Hollywood establishment for marrying a "shiksa goddess" in Janet Leigh.] “Debbie Reynolds was the centre of gravity for a glitzy Caucasian crowd, and I could tell they didn’t appreciate me. They didn’t pick on you, they just ignored you. I couldn’t understand it.”

RIP, Bernie.

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