Sept.30,2010 -- News of the passing of legendary movie actor Tony Curtis has no doubt sent millions of film aficionados to their stash of DVDs. And as they comb through the pile, most will no doubt pull out "Some Like It Hot," the 1959 gem directed by Billy Wilder that co-starred Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon.
In the movie, Curtis plays Joe, a musician. When Joe and Jerry (Lemmon) accidentally wind up witnessing a mob hit, the duo goes on the lam, in female disguise. Curtis' Joe, who poses as Josephine, takes on yet another disguise -- that of an oil magnate -- and hooks up with Marilyn Monroe's character, Sugar Kane.
The role proved to be Curtis' calling card to the big time.
"Curtis was a midlevel star when Billy Wilder cast him in 'Some Like It Hot.' He wasn't big yet," said Ed Sikov, a film historian and author of "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder," "Film Studies: An Introduction" and "Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis."
"Curtis had been in Blake Edwards' "Mister Cory" and the great New York publicist-as-sleazeball movie "Sweet Smell of Success." He was a terrific scumbag," said Sikov. "He had also appeared in a few other films, as well as some popular TV dramas in the mid-'50s. But nothing compared to "Some Like It Hot," which is No. 1 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years … 100 Laughs" list."
"Curtis made his performance work by virtue of his innate talent. As far as I know, he had no formal acting training," said Sikov. "He was intuitive, not technical. Just as important, though, he was damn good-looking, even kind of pretty.
"The '50s were full of pretty veal cake -- Curtis, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Elvis, Ricky Nelson -- and audiences loved watching them simply because they were beautiful men. In fact, there's a story about 'Some Like It Hot"'s costume designer, telling Marilyn, 'You know, Tony's got a better ass than you.' Marilyn simply replied, 'Yeah? Well he doesn't have tits like these,' at which point she ripped open her blouse and proved it."
Tony Curtis' Beauty Made Him Believable
Sikov believes that Curtis's physical beauty made it possible for audiences to accept that the other characters in "Some Like It Hot" believed his drag act. "But," said Sikov, "he was masculine enough -- just enough! -- to play the rich Shell Oil character as well, though it's worth noting that Shell Oil claims to be impotent."
Another zinger: Who knew Curtis had the comedic gene?
"That he was very funny in this movie probably came as a surprise to film audiences in 1959 who weren't used to seeing him play comedy," said Sikov, adding that Wilder brought in a performance artist named Barbette to teach Curtis and Lemmon how to play convincing women.
"One way was to walk by crossing one leg over the other slightly on every step," said Sikov. "Curtis did exactly as he was told and, according to Barbette, was a model student. Lemmon, though, refused to do it. So his drag character, Daphne, is kind of a disaster as far as conventional femininity is concerned."
For Annette Insdorf, professor of film at Columbia University, what makes Curtis' performance in "Some Like It Hot" so rich and iconic is the way he layered his roles.
"Joe-Josephine was one of his most risky and fulfilled roles," said Insdorf, author of "Francois Truffaut," "Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust" and "Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski."
"It's not just that his character Joe pretends to be Josephine. When he is drawn to Marilyn Monroe's Sugar on the beach, he adopts a second disguise, that of a millionaire snob who talks like none other than Cary Grant.
"When they meet on the beach, both are playing roles. Sugar claims to be a society girl, because each thinks it's what the other wants to hear. We see that even when Joe is in a male disguise, he adopts a female pose, namely the reticent object of interest rather than the aggressor. It's Sugar who must ask to see him again, while he acts like she has intruded on him."
Insdorf described how the seduction scene on the yacht takes these reversals to an extreme.
Tony Curtis Plays 'Effeminate' as Marilyn Monroe Plies Him With Champagne
"Joe plays effeminate as Sugar plies him with Champagne, turns on the romantic music and dims the lights," she said. "Sugar is the masculine to Joe's feminine. Talk about layers! Monroe's character is attempting to cure a phony millionaire's phony impotence!"
Audiences of the time loved the way Curtis and Lemmon impersonated women, said Insdorf, perhaps because there was something nonthreatening in the heterosexual "drag" characters of "Some Like It Hot."
"And now we can appreciate all the more Curtis' courage, craft and charisma," she said.
For Curtis, "Some Like It Hot" brought more screen opportunities. "He got some great roles afterward -- in Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," which would be enough to put him in the pantheon of great stars even if he'd never made another picture," said Sikov. "He went on to make "The Great Race" and "The Boston Strangler."
Many fans, however, will choose to savor "Some Like It Hot" over the next few days as they reminisce about the passing of another great screen legend.