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Two Passing Greats: A Tribute to Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis

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Funny how proximity in death can unite for posterity two very different personalities who just happened to make a huge impact on movies and show business during roughly the same era.

These two men must have met, but to my knowledge, never worked together. In fact their career peaks missed by roughly a decade. Arthur Penn only got to direct his first movie in 1958, having learned his craft on the best training ground imaginable: live television. By that time, Tony Curtis was already a big star, in the midst of doing his best work.

By the time Arthur Penn became a household name roughly a decade later, Curtis was embarking on a downslide, due to a combination of bad career choices and a rocky domestic front marked by an excess of most everything -- including, just perhaps, ego.

I was lucky enough to interview Arthur Penn several years ago. In addition to his all too evident brain power, he was clearly a gentleman: thoughtful and measured in his insight and recollections of an incredible career in the performing arts.

One need not have met Tony Curtis to know he was different. Handsome and blazingly talented (in addition to acting, he was an accomplished painter and flautist), Curtis was also voracious in his appetites as regards wine, women and song. This led to six wives, six kids (with whom he was reportedly not close), and a cocaine problem which he eventually conquered.

Still -- in all, one had to acknowledge and admire Curtis's sheer spirit and zest; the term "chutzpah" seems to have been coined for him.

While Tony was the ultimate public personality, Arthur Penn was basically a private man. A wunderkind of the more cerebral variety, he loved directing human-scale dramas, feeling equally at home in theatre and film. He had a clear sense of what he wanted to do and what he was good at, and his own career would slow as what he himself termed "outer-space epics and youth pictures" came into vogue.

Beyond this clarity of purpose, there was steel there too -- when Penn had a vision for a picture, he fought for it. Memorably, he went up against no less imposing a figure than actor/producer Burt Lancaster on The Train (1964), and was eventually replaced by John Frankenheimer.

So what did these two men have in common?

First, both came from fairly humble origins -- Penn's father was a watch-maker; he and his older brother Irving (the celebrated photographer) grew up in Philadelphia, while Tony started out in the Bronx as Bernie Schwartz, one of three sons born to an immigrant tailor and his wife.

More notably and fundamentally though, these two men -- seemingly a study in contrasts -- each achieved the rare feat of stretching the boundaries of movies, in the process helping create some enduring classics of the screen.

Tony's role in Stanley Kramer's groundbreaking The Defiant Ones (1958) proves the point, and his request that co-star Sidney Poitier share top billing with him was a noble and quite daring act at the time.

Meanwhile Penn's contribution in bringing us Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a signature film that took motion pictures to a whole new level of realism, hardly requires further argument. It remains to this day a stunning cinematic achievement, but Penn did some other fabulous work, films that always gave the audience credit for brains-an increasingly rare commodity these days.

Both of these men led full lives, but the sorry state of most cinema today only increases my own regret at their passing. It is largely an issue of nostalgia for an earlier time when movies were a bigger force in our lives, and earned that place honestly, via what was up on the screen.

Here then are my favorite films from the respective careers of Tony Curtis and Arthur Penn, which I fully intend to revisit in tribute. I hope you do too.

Sweet Smell Of Success
(1957) -- Desperate to promote one of his clients, slimy press flack Sidney Falco (Curtis) turns to the most powerful man he knows: acid-tongued gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break anyone in New York. Falco gets what he needs from Hunsecker, but then is maneuvered to help ruin a mild-mannered jazz trumpeter (Martin Milner) with eyes for the poison-pen scribe's younger sister (Susan Harrison). Turning from his comedic work at Britain's Ealing Studios to direct this noirish, all-American masterpiece about greed, ambition, and the perversity of power, Alexander MacKendrick relied on estimable playwright Clifford Odets and writer Ernest Lehman for their scripting talent. What resulted was one of the most cynical, caustic films ever made about the sleazy underbelly of Manhattan show business, featuring blistering performances from Lancaster and a young Curtis in his prime. "I love this dirty town," proclaims the Walter Winchell-esque Hunsecker, and you never once doubt him. Sinister, tawdry, and burnished with a tone-perfect jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, "Success" was never this twisted.

The Defiant Ones (1958) -- When convicts John "Joker" Jackson (Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) escape a chain gang manacled together, they must put aside their mutual antipathy. Jackson's an uneducated Southern bigot who doesn't hide his contempt for Cullen, while Cullen exhibits his own well-earned hatred of "crackers". Still, given the circumstances, they must rely on their combined resources to survive. Another of maverick producer/director Stanley Kramer's consciousness-raising social films, this tale proved a potent metaphor for race relations in 1958. Virtually simultaneous with the rise of the civil-rights movement, this progressive adventure eloquently presented the case for racial harmony in the story of a gutsy prison-break film. Poitier -- who at age 30 was set to go where no black actor had gone before -- more than holds his own with Curtis, then a big star, who plays the despicable "Joker" to perfection.

Some Like It Hot (1959) -- Out of work musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) nab a job performing in Illinois, only to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre after the gig. To escape the gangsters on their tail, the two disguise themselves as female musicians (Josephine and Daphne), and head to Florida with an all-girl orchestra. Both men fall for lead singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), but their fake identities prevent them from acting on their desires-at least at first. Long before Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, Wilder gave us this comic, gender-bending masterpiece, which came at the very end of the conservative '50s, providing a preview of the more liberated decade to come. Here the director is in pure comedy mode, and pulls off a tricky premise brilliantly. Lemmon and Curtis make an ideal comic duo, Monroe sparkles as the object of their sisterly affections, and Joe E. Brown nearly steals the picture as a dotty millionaire besotted with Lemmon's Daphne. A howl, truly.

The Miracle Worker
(1962) -- Set in the late nineteenth century, this incredible but true tale of teacher for the blind, Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), who through sheer will and saint-like patience, transformed a blind, deaf, and dumb girl named Helen Keller (Patty Duke) from wild beast to a feeling, reasoning child, connected to the world around her. Not only does she have to play lion-trainer with the uncontrolled Helen, but must also manage the narrower expectations of Helen's parents, who believe little can be done for the child. Adapted from the hit Broadway play which the leads also starred in, director Arthur Penn (who also helmed the play, winning a Tony for it) preserves two incredible performances and one amazing story for posterity. Lean and powerful, with no excess melodrama, The Miracle Worker will earn a standing ovation from your armchair. Penn, Duke, and Bancroft were all Oscar-nominated for this, and both Bancroft and Duke won. All we can say is, no wonder! (Trivia note: Duke would perform Bancroft's role in a TV remake seventeen years later, but in our book, the late, great Anne will always own that part. )

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) -- Loosely based on the real-life exploits of the infamous 1930's-era bank-robbing couple, this film follows cocky outlaw Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and renegade moll Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) from love at first heist to their legendary demise in a blaze of gunfire. Embarking on a cross-country crime spree with Clyde's brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), Clyde is hailed as a Depression-era hero, but the gang's days are numbered as they try to outrun and outgun the coppers. With its gritty outlook and unapologetic celebration of anti-authoritarianism, Arthur Penn's brilliant Bonnie and Clyde helped usher in the New Cinema of the '70s. Skittish about the film's violence, Warner Bros. almost soft-pedaled the movie's release into an early, anonymous grave, but producer/star Beatty fought to make sure audiences got their say -- and of course, they loved it. In just her third film role, Dunaway captivated men and women alike, holding her own scene by scene with veteran star Beatty. Her costumes also set off a brief retro-twenties fashion craze. Ocar nods went to Penn, Beatty, Dunaway, Hackman, and Parsons, but only Estelle took home the prize. Also look for Gene Wilder in a key supporting part.

Little Big Man (1970) -- Arthur Penn's incomparable western epic details the (fictional) reminiscences of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), the last remaining survivor of Custer's Last Stand. The expansive story sounds more like the lives of ten men, as Jack gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians, then assimilates to white, and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while encountering Western characters Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer himself. Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our treatment of the Indians, "Man" is a dazzling accomplishment, a vivid tapestry of all the opposing qualities that made the old west the basis of so many great movies. In a virtuoso turn, Hoffman plays Crabb from teenager to 121-year-old man, and early on, even gets a bath from a sexually repressed Christian lady (played winningly by Faye Dunaway). Don't miss this offbeat, tongue-in cheek gem -- it's a Western with a difference.

Night Moves (1975) -- Private-eye Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) takes on a missing-persons case: former Hollywood starlet turned alcoholic has-been is missing her wild young daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith), who's taken off for parts unknown. The case is a welcome distraction from Harry's own problems, as he's just learned his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is having an affair. Harry finds Delly with her stepfather in the Florida Keys and after a time, returns the precocious girl to her much-despised Mommy. With this disillusioning assignment behind him, Harry can't shake the feeling he was missing something down in Florida. A tragic event spurs him to uncover the missing piece in the puzzle. The revered private eye film gets updated to the 1970s at the expert hands of director Arthur Penn. Hackman is tailor-made for Moseby, a regular guy who once played football, and who's much better at snooping on others than figuring out his own disordered life. Young Melanie scores in her feature debut as the teenage temptress, and look for James Woods in an early role as Delly's good-for-nothing boyfriend. Though it took two years to get Moves released in theatres, this smart, twisty whodunit was well worth the wait. Vastly under-rated, it merits re-discovery.

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