The movie star Tony Curtis died this past week at 85.
Curtis occupies a special place in my mental pantheon, as the embodiment of Hollywood’s shrewd and cynical rendering of cultural identity during the middle years of the last century. In the milieu I came up in, a much-loved pastime was identifying the hidden Jews among the most visible celebrities: “Did you know that Tony Curtis’s real name was Bernard Schwartz?” someone would ask. The uninitiated would exclaim, “Really?” while the cognoscenti would nod knowledgeably, chiming in with other did-you-knows: Kirk Douglas, John Garfield, Hedy Lamarr, Dinah Shore, Tony Randall….
When I mentioned this to a friend, he said, “I thought he was Italian,” which is what we were supposed to think. After all, how many Jews born in 1925 were given the first name “Anthony,” associated with a Catholic saint? By combining the Italianate “Tony” and the British “Curtis,” Hollywood branded the actor with a vaguely Mediterranean identity that didn’t place too much strain on his prospects as a romantic lead.
You see, half a century ago, Jewish actors could be comedians or character actors, but before they could succeed as cinematic objects of desire, they had to be cleansed of that identity by being placed in a category with a frisson (but not an excess) of otherness. Someone I knew who grew up in the whitest parts of white America used to say that people there characterized the few who didn’t fit the dominant blond profile of his hometown as “Jewish or Catholic or something,” belonging to a group that possessed “curly dark hair and a folk dance.”
I’m fascinated by what we can learn from Hollywood history about identity and legitimacy in our country, with its vast gap between the mythology of equality for all and the actuality of finely calibrated racial and ethnic distinctions and the privileges that attach to them.
My grandmother adored another fifties movie star, Jeff Chandler (born Ira Grossel in Brooklyn). I wonder if anyone else remembers him now. Although he played a Jew in one of his earliest films, Chandler, a burly, deep-voiced heartthrob of the forties and fifties, was best-known for playing Native Americans, as in his portrayal of Cochise, leader of Apache resistance, in the 1950 film Broken Arrow, considered the least objectionable of Hollywood westerns in terms of racial politics. (It was written under a pen name by the blacklisted writer Albert Maltz).
Broken Arrow was notable in part because Geronimo was actually played by a Native American actor, Jay Silverheels (a Mohawk, born Harold J. Smith, to note a bit of Hollywood naming turnabout), best known as the Lone Ranger’s radio and TV companion, Tonto. Years ago, when I was engaged to do a project researching PBS’s treatment of work by filmmakers of color, one Native American filmmaker pointed out that among all the excluded minorities of Hollywood, Indians stood out, since on the whole, unlike African Americans, for instance, “We don’t even get to play ourselves.”
When Jeff Chandler died young in 1961, Tony Curtis was one of his pallbearers.
Of course, Jews were by no means the only group to scour Hollywood for evidence of hidden identities. In Frank Chin’s 1972 play The Chickencoop Chinaman (the first major New York production of a play by an Asian American), the Lone Ranger appears in a fantasy sequence conditioned on the main character’s belief that the Ranger’s mask disguises his true identity as a Chinese avenger of injustice. I have heard Latinos trade did-you-knows about Rita Hayworth’s true identity (born Margarita Carmen Cansino, her father was a Spanish flamenco dancer of Jewish heritage) and Gilbert Roland’s (Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso from Ciudad Juárez). And so on.
Some categories are non-negotiable: gender is pretty much gender, and Denzel Washington had no alternative but to succeed or fail as an actor who is African American. But nowadays, those whose physical characteristics leave room for ambiguity may choose to keep their original names and cultural identities without placing so much of a limit on their opportunities or popularity.
Back in the day, hidden identity had a double edge. When Tony Curtis married Janet Leigh, or Eddie Fisher married Debbie Reynolds—meta-perky all-American girls—the revealed story celebrated beautiful and glamorous couples walking down the aisle. But the hidden story contained something transgressive, something I remember being framed in the spirit of the trickster stories, like Kokopelli in Hopi and Zuni lore and the signifying monkey in Afro-American tales: the figure who understood himself to be Other, using guile and charm to trick the powerful into doing his bidding, thus gaining access to the inner sanctum and its privileges. In the private jokes that were told when no one else was listening, Curtis was seen to have put one over on the guardians of ethnic purity.
I am a generation removed from my forebears’ immigrant origins, such that Yiddish was deployed in my childhood home as a code to keep secrets from the children, rather than shared as a heritage language. I know that I give an impression of assimilation, because during my first marriage, when I took my husband’s WASP last name, I often glimpsed the casual, unguarded antisemitism of people not aware of the need to watch their tongues. “I jewed him down on the price,” someone would say, or “you know, he’s one of the chosen people.” When we got divorced, I couldn’t wait to take my original name back for many reasons, but topping the list was this: if people were bigoted, I preferred them to know that they ought to conceal it around me.
I am pretty comfortable in my skin, but there are still times—say, finding myself the only Jew in what I think of as an uptown Protestant crowd nibbling Christmas cookies—when I feel my membership in a category apart, as someone a little too brightly colored, animated, excess to requirements. My friend Lawrence Siegel included a piece in his oratorio Kaddish entitled “Is My Voice Too Loud?” that sums it up rather well.
Tony Curtis’s backstory is remarkably unlike the characters he played either on screen or in real life. He came up in extreme poverty, abused by a mentally ill mother. As a teenager in the Bronx, he survived the kind of anti-Jewish gang warfare my own father endured in London’s East End, only my father’s handsome face was marred by a much-broken nose, while Curtis reported that he knew from the first to protect his own face, his meal ticket.
After serving in World War II, Curtis took acting classes at New York’s New School (which provided a home for many European intellectuals who could no longer teach in their own countries under Nazi and Fascist regimes). He studied for a time with the great left-wing German director Erwin Piscator, who was Brecht’s partner in conceiving and promoting epic theater. (The McCarthy era sent Piscator back to Germany in the early fifties, his politics becoming unwelcome in the nation that had once granted him refuge.)
The hidden and the revealed come together in Curtis’s astounding portrait of Sidney Falco, a driven press agent in Alexander Mackendrick’s amazing 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. (Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of martinet newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker, modeled on Walter Winchell, is viciously brilliant. See this film now if you haven’t already!) The film had more than one writer, but Clifford Odets put his stamp on every scene. Odets was the brilliant son of immigrant Jewish parents, best known for his work with the Group Theatre and his anti-capitalist, pro-labor plays such as Waiting for Lefty. During the Red Scare, he purchased immunity from the House Committee on Un-American Activities by naming names, incurring shame he reportedly regretted until his death.
In the last decades of his life, Curtis started a foundation dedicated to the memory of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust; its mission was to rescue synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Hungary, the home of his ancestors.
The shiny America manufactured by Hollywood in Tony Curtis’s heyday was cobbled together by outsiders with fractured identities, the hidden bulging through rips in the supposedly seamless fabric of the revealed. The outsider always understands the insider best: understanding is earned through intense observation impelled equally by the desire to take the insider’s place and anxiety about being further excluded. The outsider studies, imitates, and finally achieves an impersonation that is simultaneously so perfect both as tribute and parody, the insider must pay to see it enacted.
Rest in peace, Bernie Schwartz, whose pale blue eyes captured the attention of six wives (and countless others). Somehow Lou Reed seems just right: “Pale Blue Eyes.”