American Prince

It makes a curious kind of sense that Tony Curtis arrived in Hollywood during the waning glory days of legendary studio moguls like Louis B. Mayer, because just like Mayer and other self-made titans from the East, Curtis too was fueled by a desperate desire to outrun his past. Curtis did in fact achieve the worldwide success he so desired, but in his intermittently absorbing autobiography American Prince, it’s not the glitter of Tony Curtis’s Hollywood that fascinates but rather the tales of his hard-knock childhood as Bernie Schwartz of the Bronx.

Curtis’s rise to fame and fortune may itself resemble a Hollywood melodrama, but his childhood in New York City actually reads more like something out of Dickens. In the book’s most engrossing sections, he details an upbringing spent in poverty, one utterly lacking in love or the slightest hint of emotional support. So joyless was his parents’ marriage, and so dire were the finances, that after surviving a stint living in an abandoned building, Curtis’s parents dropped Bernie and his younger brother Julie at an orphanage, with no explanation other than a cursory “We’ll be back soon” (“soon” turned out to be two weeks). It’s no wonder Curtis developed an instinctive belief that he “couldn’t count on anyone else” and escaped his unhappy life by virtually living at the movies. Out of such desperate circumstances was born his overwhelming desire to become an actor — or, more precisely, a star.

Curtis escaped his miserable surroundings by faking his age and enlisting in the Navy in 1942, when he was only 16. There may have been a world war raging, but in the eyes of Bernie Schwartz, the Navy provided him with a surrogate family: “or the first time ever I felt like I had a purpose.” Released from the service after years in the Pacific, he was greeted by his mother with an oblivious “So how was Paris.”

After agent Joyce Selznick arranged a screen test at Universal, Curtis parlayed his good looks and sex appeal into a long-term contract at the studio and a nearly instantaneous status as a teen heartthrob. Curtis maintains enough perspective to wryly admit that his biggest weapon in the early 1950s may well have been his hair. In those pre-Elvis days, his own carefully coiffed long hair “took on a life of its own.” With no formal training as an actor (he lasted one day at the Actors Studio), Curtis relied on his exuberance and boyish charms to attract steadily bigger roles, as well as a marriage to actress Janet Leigh.

Curtis is strong on interesting anecdotes from those far-off studio system days: he was offered $30,000 to marry Piper Laurie because their movies together had been successful, an offer that presented just one problem — he didn’t much care for Laurie. One of the odd charms of the book is the fact that Curtis is, if nothing else, bluntly honest in his assessment of his costars. Terming Shelley Winters a “pain in the ass — a real yenta” and Danny Kaye “bitter and mean,” he does effusively praise both Gene Kelly and Jimmy Stewart (“an incredibly nice person”). Taking pains to dispel the myth that he actually bellowed the Bronx-inflected words “Yonda lies the castle of my fadda” in Son of Ali Baba, he relates that the line actually took on a life of its own when snidely relayed as fact by Debbie Reynolds on a television talk show.

It’s ironic that the book begins to suffer just as Curtis’s career swings into high gear with the first of his hit starring vehicles — Houdini (1953) and Trapeze (1956); the anecdotes may intrigue, but there is no context to the stories, no true attempt to dig deeper and understand the repeated patterns of misbehavior — and repeated they were. Worried that Janet Leigh was having an affair with Bob Fosse, Curtis rationalizes, “Sure I had had affairs myself, but for one thing they always made me feel very guilty and for another I made damn sure that Janet would never find out about them.” When Curtis later blames the collapse of the marriage on Janet’s “love affair with the bottle,” his own infidelity does not appear to have entered into his analysis of the events.

Which is not to say that the stories he spins, particularly about his best films, don’t exert their own pull. Finally taken seriously as an actor after starring in the knife-edged Sweet Smell of Success, Curtis went on to film 1958’s The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and earned an Oscar nomination in the process. He reached a career peak with a terrific performance in the following year’s Some Like It Hot, the classic Billy Wilder film serving to reunite Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, with whom he shared a tender relationship years earlier when both were unknown. He delivers a succinct analysis of what caused Monroe to be so difficult and why the two actors clicked: “Marilyn just couldn’t relax? Being comfortable was just not something she did very well” — traits Curtis instinctively recognized in himself. Dispelling the myth that he was serious when wisecracking “kissing Marilyn is like kissing Hitler,” Curtis acknowledges his costar’s difficulties but treats her with admirable restraint and dignity.

After the first-rate Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus and a strong performance in the title role of 1967’s The Boston Strangler, life began to spin out of control for Curtis. While still dealing with his parents and schizophrenic younger brother Bobby, Curtis married and divorced two much younger women in quick succession; the demands of alimony and child support caused him to accept substandard roles, with junk roles begetting more junk roles until, finally, there were no offers at all. Prone to depression ever since childhood, Curtis developed a severe cocaine addiction, and he relates a chilling scene in which he stands outside the hospital room of his dying mother, still filled with such anger and resentment toward her that he can’t bring himself to enter the room and say goodbye. Although highly amusing on the unexpected perils of filming 1980’s Sextette with the octogenarian Mae West, the Curtis of this time was so lacking in perspective that even now he blithely writes that with his third marriage in a mess, he went to live for three months in the one place he felt would give him stability — Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion?

Finally kicking his cocaine habit, Curtis seemed to stabilize in the 1990s, but family problems persisted. Indeed it’s one of the shortcomings of American Prince that Curtis devotes no meaningful time or space to a discussion of his (troubled) relationships with his children until page 325 — seven pages before the book ends. He recognizes the gulf that still separates him from daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly, as well as son Benjamin, but simply offers a wan “I guess I wasn’t wired to be a good father” by way of explanation.

It is only with his fifth wife, Jill, whom he married in 1996, that Curtis seems to have gained any sense of peace, moving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and developing an acclaimed career as an artist. One receives the distinct impression that Curtis would leave Vegas in a heartbeat for a return to the movie set and a place at the center of the action, but he appears to have made a somewhat grudging peace with the fact that his acting days may be over. In the end, Curtis sums up his life by musing, “When I could set aside my insecurities, I appreciated — and was grateful for — each and every second of my good fortune.” Would that he could have done so more often, in life and autobiography alike.