We've Got Hollywood Covered

Tony Curtis & Arthur Penn: Classic Matinee Idol, Counter-Culture Rebel

An appreciation: Two giants of Hollywood died this week — one was a mainstay of the studio system that the other helped upend

Tony Curtis and Arthur Penn, both of whom died within a day of one another, were nearly the same age, yet their careers in Hollywood ran along markedly different trajectories.

One personified classic Hollywood glamour; the other ran with the "Easy Riders" and "Raging Bulls" that threw an old system out of orbit.

Curtis’ star had been extinguished by the time that Penn, Warren Beatty and others came along with their then revolutionary, ultra-violent crime film, “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Arriving at a critical juncture in American movie history, Penn’s film perfectly captured the anti-establishment sentiment overtaking the country.

“There was a balletic presentation of violence, that seemed appropriate to a time we were waging an unpopular war in Vietnam. All of that paved the way for the sea change in movies that followed, where the villains were the heroes,” Peter Biskind, author of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” which documents that era in film, told TheWrap.

Thanks to the cheerleading of film critics such as “The New Yorker”s’ Pauline Kael, “Bonnie and Clyde” became one of 1967’s top grossing films and was nominated for ten Academy Awards.

“You hadn’t seen violence handled as emotionally and you hadn’t seen anti-heroes gunned down in such spectacular fashion," Craig Detweiler, a film historian at Pepperdine University, told TheWrap. "You hadn’t had an audience cheering for people who made them uncomfortable. All of those things are part of Vietnam’s legacy.

"By asking what kind of violence are we capable of as a society, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ helped us come to grips with our conflicted feelings about Vietnam — without ever mentioning it.”

But it was more than Vietnam.

For studios still grappling with television’s incursions into their marketplace and the costly failure of lavish entertainments such as “Cleopatra” and “Doctor Dolittle,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and counter-culture films like it represented not just a new way forward. It looked like the antidote to Hollywood's flagging fortunes.

“People like Penn and Coppola and Lucas and Hopper and Peter Fonda were hired because Hollywood figured the kids could save the industry. The keys to the car were given to the kids — smart kids with long hair and a head full of ideas and a taste for European cinema,” Desson Thomson, a former film critic for the Washington Post and this website, told TheWrap. “Curtis, indeed, was a person who came up through the ranks. He believed the system would make good for him; the studios taught him fencing and riding.”

Of course, the old Hollywood, with its manufactured stars and rigid studio control, that Penn helped slam the door on, was largely responsible with plucking one hard-scrabbled Bernard Schwartz out of obscurity and transforming him into the debonair Tony Curtis.

When the '60s dawned, Curtis was at his zenith — "Some Like It Hot" hit the big screen in 1959 — but within five years both he and the system that had made him would be relegated to the dust heap of film history.

“The studio system rested on a formal reinvention of self — where people like Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis and Cary Grant who came from nothing took on totally artificial personas. With Penn and ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ you get the rise of American auteurism and that was all about authenticity,” Alissa Quart, a cultural critic and author, told TheWrap.

In this new Hollywood, Curtis came across as an anachronism. He would try to reinvent himself playing a serial killer in 1968's “The Boston Strangler” — with a fake, bulbous nose to hide his notorious Hollywood beauty — but the public wasn’t interested.

“Because of that manufactured persona, it was often hard to see the true artist. Curtis was probably more comfortable playing Sidney Falco in ‘Sweet Smell of Success,’ but he got caught up by the studios’ airbrushed versions of things. That’s probably one of the reasons that he wasn’t able to transition into the grittier pictures that Penn defined,” Detweiler said.

To be sure, drugs and alcohol sidelined Curtis in his later years, and it's impossible to fully quantify what effects his many addictions had on his flailing career. Still, he wasn’t the only Old Hollywood icon to be treated uncharitably by audiences, who shunted them aside in favor of a more ethnic kind of movie star such as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.

“He tried, he really tried — you wonder what would have happened if Curtis had came of age as indie films were happening,” said Leah Rozen, former film critic for People Magazine and now a columnist for TheWrap, said. “But there was a generational shift. Tony Curtis may not have been old, but he was not my generation’s movie star.”

The great irony, of course, is that Penn and the anti-heroes he favored would be given a similar cold shoulder from moviegoers less than 10 years later. While the long tail of “Bonnie and Clyde” is easy to detect in '70s movies such as “Mean Streets,” “The Godfather” and “The Last Picture Show,” the challenging, often experimental stories they unspooled were eventually swept aside by the mania for tentpole pictures like “Star Wars” and “Jaws.”

Just like Curtis before him, there was no place for Penn in this new Hollywood. And, ironically, there was another commonality.

In their best work — “Sweet Smell of Success” and "The Defiant Ones" "for Curtis, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Night Moves” for Penn — both men chipped away at the darker side of the American experience to expose the criminals, hangers-on and helpless strivers who had been largely ignored by mainstream cinema.

Be it Sidney Falco taking a shiv to Broadway stars and starlets, broken down Harry Moseby desperately trying to unravel a massive conspiracy, or Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow gleefully sticking it to the man before being gunned down in a hail of police bullets, these characters comprise some of the most iconic and endlessly troubling figures in film history.

That they defy easy categorization is a testament to both Penn and Curtis.