“All they had to tell me was New York. I was raised in that city. I should have done it as the first movie I ever made.” – Tony Curtis on his fantastic performance as Falco in Sweet Smell of Success.
Excerpt from the Vanity Fair piece on Sweet Smell of Success called “A Movie Marked Danger”, by Sam Kashner:
Enter Sidney Falco, press agent on the make and uneasy protagonist of this twisted tale, played by Tony Curtis in arguably the greatest role of his long career. Falco is Hunsecker’s lapdog – he’ll do anything to stay in the columnist’s good graces: lie, cheat, pimp his girlfriend. And destroy Steve Dallas by libeling him as a pot-smoking Communist. When Hunsecker says to Falco, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic,” Falco just smiles. It was a hell of a role.
It sure was. Written by Clifford Odets, who was a good friend of Curtis, much of the part of Falco was tailor-made. You can tell. I love the following excerpt from the Kashner piece, because it shows the connection between good writing and good acting, and how the writing gave Curtis the “key” to what he should be doing as an actor. This is an intelligent actor here, susceptible to suggestion. Words are great. You hope the script is good. But words are not enough. Words are not the only “way in”. As my great acting teacher Sam Schacht always said in class, “The name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.” You must be active as an actor. Another acting teacher of mine always talked about “the reality of the DOING.” Actors can often get lost in trying to create an emotional state. It is a common problem. You can see it in beginning actors and you can see it in movies that you pay 12 bucks to go see. You can tell when an actor isn’t DO-ing and ACT-ing but FEEL-ing. So Curtis knew he had the role of a lifetime. He had Odets dialogue to chew on, one of the greatest writers of dialogue in the American canon. But still: what should he be DO-ing? How would he ACT?
Watch in this excerpt how Curtis works it out for himself. How he translates the words into ACTION, something he can DO.
Tony Curtis remembers his first meeting with Odets. “He used to call me ‘boychick,’ right from the start.” There was a kind of bond between Odets and Curtis – the playwright may have seen in the younger man his own youthful, urban beauty, now rumpled and fading. “The picture is loaded with little references to my looks,” Curtis points out. “‘the boy with the ice-cream face’… and Rita, the cigarette girl, calling me ‘Eyelashes’.”
One of the things Odets did was to give Curtis the key to Sidney Falco. He said, “Don’t be still with Sidney. Don’t ever let Sidney sit down comfortably. I want Sidney constantly moving, like an animal, never quite sure who’s behind him or where he is.”
Curtis took Odets’s suggestions to heart and gave what many consider his breakthrough performance. Up until then he had swashbuckled his way through numerous “tit and sand” movies, such as Son of Ali Baba and made lots of money for Universal, which had transformed a rough-cut Hungarian Jew named Bernard Schwartz from Brooklyn into a brilliantined teen idol who called himself Anthony Curtis. Sweet Smell of Success would reverse that transformation.
There’s sweet irony in the fact that Curtis went back to his roots – back to being Bernie Schwartz – to unleash the character of Sidney Falco on the world. Falco’s little aria on success, delivered to his lugubrious secretary while he’s getting dressed in the cramped bedroom behind her desk, could easily have been Curtis’s credo as well: “Hunsicker is a golden ladder to the places I wanna get. Way up high, Sam, where it’s always balmy and no one snaps his fingers and says, ‘Hey, shrimp, rack the balls!’ … From now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.”
“I was really astounded by the twist of it,” Curtis says about playing Falco. “I was able to grace the part with little physical innuendos. Not for nothing, I wanted to make him an excellent athlete, growing up in the streets of New York, playing stickball. He punched, he boxed, he did everything, always on his feet, always moving.”
Being able to justify character motivation and behavior is one of the things that separates the men from the boys. Curtis could have taken Odets’s tip to “never stop moving” and done it as a surface thing, a “character thing”, which would have been (it always is) general, although perhaps interesting to watch. “Oh, there’s a guy with a lot of nervous energy,” the audience might think, and because he’s talented, that might have been enough. But Curtis went further, creating a backstory of WHY this guy was like that, the former athlete, the guy used to combat and competition, all the sports he used to play … where he comes from. You don’t HAVE to be that detailed as an actor, but it sure helps. You must be tireless. You must be like a toddler, asking, “Why, why, why, why …” of every single line. It’s not enough to say “This guy never stops moving.” You have to ask WHY. And the ghost of that former self, the kid playing stickball on the streets of New York, does hover around the cynical ambitious Sidney Falco: You can SEE it there.
That is all Curtis.
It’s a brilliant performance.
And then of course there’s this.
I am going to miss knowing he’s around.
Rest in peace, Mr. Curtis.