Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Match me, Sidney"

Back in the early Eighties, when I was a baby Broadway critic, a young theatrical press agent whom I knew named Jeff Richards  always used to assemble a rat pack of fellow young press agents for a pilgrimage any time a movie called "Sweet Smell of Success" was playing at one of the many revival houses that still existed throughout New York City in those days.  The whole gang of them would go see the movie together as a kind of tribute.  Jeff, who is now a very successful Broadway producer, even invited me to join them once.

Their devotion to the movie came as a real surprise to me.  Partly because I didn't know anyone else who'd ever heard of "Sweet Smell of Success," a hard-boiled, truly nasty little 1957 black and white drama that was quite obscure at the time.  But mostly I was surprised because it's a movie about a malevolent Broadway columnist named J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster) who preys upon and steps all over a cheap, conniving little schnook of press agent named Sidney Falco, who was played by Tony Curtis.  The movie hardly portrayed the profession of press agentry in a flattering light.  And yet these guys adored the movie.

They also seemed to notice something that seemingly all movie goers and critics had somehow failed to recognize over the years.  We recognize it now, of course.  Because pretty much every obituary I read about Tony Curtis, who passed away this week at the age of 85,  singled out his portrayal of the press agent Sidney Falco as the greatest acting job of the great star's entire career.  That and the three roles he played in Billy Wilder's classic 1959 farce "Some Like It Hot" -- Joe the sax player, Josephine the sax player and Shell Oil, Jr., a millionaire who talked astonishingly like Curtis' boyhood idol, Cary Grant.

I was born in 1952 and Tony Curtis was one of Those Guys for me.  I don't remember a time when he wasn't a huge Hollywood star.  He's just always been around my whole life.  Paul Newman, who died not long ago, was one of Those Guys, too.  Actors like Curtis and Newman starred in some of the very first movies my parents ever took me to see.

The Tony Curtis movies I remember most fondly are those that I saw when I was a kid.  The ones where Tony Curtis played, well, Tony Curtis.  Like "Operation Petticoat," a 1959 World War Two service comedy that he starred in with Cary Grant.  It's rather broad.  It takes place aboard a pink submarine, okay? Curtis plays Lieutenant Holden, a slick, fast-talking, twinkly eyed charmer who knows how to cut corners and con people and get things done.  You can't help but love the guy.  And "Captain Newman, M.D.," a 1963 World War Two service comedy/drama he starred in with Gregory Peck that takes place in the psych ward at an Army Air Corps hospital.  Curtis plays Corporal Liebowitz, a slick, fast-talking, twinkly eyed charmer who knows to cut corners and con people and get things done.  Again, you can't help but love him.

Tony always seemed most at home in those kind of glib roles.  Giddy with delight, in fact -- much the same way James Cagney was when he played a character like Rocky Sullivan in "Angels With Dirty Faces."  That's what makes his portrayal of Sidney Falco in "Sweet Smell of Success" so inspired.  Sidney is Tony Curtis playing Tony Curtis except the mask has slipped and we can see right into fast-talking Sidney's desperate, pathetic, tortured soul.  Sidney -- unlike the nasty J.J. Hunsecker -- isn't an evil man.  He's just hungry.  Starving, in fact.  And a tremendously poignant figure in the end.  I guess that's why those young press agents loved "Sweet Smell of Success" so much.  Sidney's pain was their pain.  They felt it.  I know I feel every time I see the movie.  There's just something about the way he jumps every time J.J. pulls out a cigarette and barks, "Match me, Sidney," that breaks your heart.  

Like I said, Tony Curtis was one of Those Guys.  There are very few of Those Guys still among us, and I don't want to say their names out loud for fear of jinxing them.   Every time one of them dies I feel as if another one of the historic landmarks in my hometown of Los Angeles has been torn down to make way for a McDonald's or a gas station.  The world is never quite the same after that.  And I feel a cold wind on the back of my neck that makes me shudder.

Unlike Paul Newman, who enjoyed a long, full career until the very end of his life, Tony Curtis flamed out in the middle of Act Two.  There was hardly any Act Three at all.  His last major Hollywood movie was "The Boston Strangler" way back in 1968, and he had to fight to get the role.  There weren't many roles after that.  Too many personal demons.  Too many drug problems.

It gives me no pleasure to say this but my TV writing partner and I once turned Tony down for the lead role in the pilot of a series I was writing for CBS in the early Nineties.  It was a revival of "The Saint." We were green-lighted to film the pilot and we had a solid list of very fine, virile young British leading men who we felt were ideal to reprise the role of Simon Templar made famous in the Sixties by Roger Moore.  Anthony Andrews was our top choice.  The network turned him down cold -- and countered with Tony Curtis.  "He looks fabulous and he feels great," one executive told us.  Tony was even willing to pay his own way to New York to read for the role.  We said no.  So did our executive producers.  We all said no. For two reasons.  Because Tony was about 65 years old and because Simon was supposed to be a Brit.  Tony was no Brit.  But he was a hell of a movie star.  And there aren't many people who you can say that about.

In case you're wondering, the network backed down and didn't force Tony on us.  Instead, they forced us to use an Australian actor named Andrew Clark who happened to bear a striking resemblance to another CBS star named Tom Selleck.  The pilot wasn't picked up because Andrew tested poorly with focus groups.  I have no idea what happened to Andrew.  Tom Selleck is still working.

Me, I no longer write for television.  I no longer smoke either, which means I never get to stick a fresh Marlboro in my mouth and say, "Match me, Sidney," to whomever is sitting next to me.  I miss saying that.



  1. David, this is a terrific piece. I am thrilled I can enjoy your writing between books. Why don't you get a steady gig as a NYT columnist? You need a much, much wider audience. Just do a weekly--you'll still have time for Dorset:-)

  2. ditto, paulette.

    and i was just going to say that i never knew you smoked, david.