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Penn and Curtis: They Were Good for the Jews

Fast (these &%*&$# deadlines) thoughts on the loss of two famous Jews who’ve just left us, Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis. One seminal, game-changing masterpiece like Bonnie and Clyde is not too bad for a lifetime, and if you haven’t read Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, this is a good time to immerse yourself in the cultural ferment of the mid-sixties (and to reread Pauline Kael's seminal, game-changing essay). In Harris's wonderful book, you see how screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were inspired by the French New Wave, and how they and Penn wrestled with the emotional tone of the violence, moving from larky and liberating to shocking and finally tragic. (Rewatching Bonnie and Clyde, I think it’s easy to see why Kael would be so angered by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which combined the Beatty-Dunaway glamour with the nihilism of The Wild Bunch — but added facetious jokes amid the killing.) I can add little to Lance Mannion on Penn’s Night Moves, a film I think captures as well as anything (and better than more flashy paranoiac thrillers like The Parallax View) what it felt like to be alive and at sea at the height of the Watergate era, when the debris left behind by the counterculture had begun to fester and the reactionary overlords had gone even deeper under the surface to do their dirty work.

Penn was also (along with Sidney Lumet) one of the few directors to move successfully from the New York stage to live television drama to movies, and you can feel the urgency of that early sixties brand of psychological realism not only in The Miracle Worker (which he directed onstage) but also The Left Handed Gun, starring New York actor Paul Newman as an emotionally ravaged Billy the Kid. Penn became a specialist in "revisionist" Westerns full of harsh truths about the rapacity of American frontier capitalism, and every so often someone makes a case for his Vietnam-era Little Big Man, a whimsical tall tale capped with the massacre of Native American women and children and the carnage of Little Big Horn. But despite its angry, heartfelt evocation of a genocidal past, the picture is tone-deaf in ways that give revisionist Westerns a bad name.

I met Penn once, after a screening of Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant in 1990, and found him remarkably engaged, thoughtful, and — miraculously — unassuming. He spoke so fondly about the theater that I said I hoped he’d go back to it. The occasion was also the start of a retrospective that included his much-reviled Western The Missouri Breaks, which I had the challenge of introducing. The film doesn’t click on any level, but there’s a lot in it. Working with Thomas McGuane and Robert Towne, Penn was able to capture, in 1976, the sadness in the air at the loss of the idea of a utopian collective — here violently assaulted by a capricious hired sociopathic (transvestite, half-breed, Hibernian) killer played by Marlon Brando (whose comeuppance is over before you know it, a death scene that’s deeply unsatisfying yet, paradoxically, will haunt you for decades). The Missouri Breaks can now be read in the larger context of what was happening to directors like Penn in Hollywood as the counterculture stars were either drug-addled or nuts, the studios were swallowed by conglomerates, and actors fees began their climb. Brando, paid an unprecedented sum (at the time) for about a week’s work, showed up with the thought of turning his character into a symbol for the tragic estrangement of Native Americans. Penn reportedly listened politely and said, “Gee, Marlon, not at these prices,” and Brando nodded and did whatever the fuck came into his head … He and Penn were, at that point, only going through the motions.

Early this morning, I was awoken by a call from CBS radio to say something about Tony Curtis and didn’t acquit myself well. But I had just rewatched Trapeze and all I could think of was what a fine specimen Curtis was in his prime. He was so pretty, prettier than his female co-stars — so pretty that when Blake Edwards made his white teeth literally sparkle in The Great Race, the joke didn’t seem so outlandish. His prettiness gave his onscreen rapport with the once nearly-as-pretty Burt Lancaster in Trapeze and, later, Sweet Smell of Success such erotic undercurrents. (In the latter film, there was a creepy vibe to the crooked cop’s, “Come back, Sidney, I want to chastise you” that had a lot to do with messing up that pretty face.) And while I don’t want to take the gender-bending aspect too far, Curtis’s peerless impersonation of Cary Grant (with whom he’d worked in Operation Petticoat) in Some Like It Hot was more than mimickry: It was one gifted preener’s tribute to another. Olivier didn't have to act his lust for Curtis in Spartacus — and did Curtis know it! (See Scott Brown's personal reminiscence of the man with the "preposterously beautiful Disney-princess eyes.")

Boyish prettiness under siege by alcohol and cocaine is not a pretty sight, but his face, amazingly enough, never fell too hard. He was good even in The Last Tycoon as a fading, impotent idol, watchable even in that demented monster picture The Manitou hunting a furious demon that looked like Curtis turned inside out (a cookie full of arsenic). He should have had a better last act — he was talented enough to have come back. Maybe the problem was that he never went away. He stayed in L.A., where someone that pretty has it way too easy.

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Photo: AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images , Mario Tama/Getty Images