You gotta like the way Tony Curtis rolls. The 83-year-old, mainly confined to a wheelchair these days (after an extended, and debilitating, bout with pneumonia a few years ago), was a guest of honor at the Montreal World Film Festival this weekend. He appeared in person Saturday at a Festival press conference held at a downtown mall.
The night before, Curtis’ 1959 classic Some Like It Hot played to a packed street on a giant outdoor screen at the festival. He was also in town to promote another Festival screening, The Jill & Tony Curtis Story, a new documentary about the May-Dec. love affair of Curtis and his wife Jill Vandenberg, a six foot blonde who is 42 years his junior and who has involved the screen legend in her campaign to save horses.
Curtis had been at press tour earlier this summer as a guest of TCM (where he can often be heard in those between-movie vignettes paying homage to one of his idols, Cary Grant). After concentrating on painting in recent years (some Curtis canvas’ sell for 25 grand), he seems, with a new autobiography on the horizon, anxious to remind folks of his movie star past.
He certainly still knows how to make an entrance. About 50 or 60 people, press and citizens, mainly older folks, had gathered in front of the Festival platform where Curtis was to appear. As he emerged with a small party from an elevator, he came rolling up from behind and made a B-line to two older fans who had parked their wheelchairs at the back of the session. Curtis shook their hands, made a fuss over them, posed for photos and just generally bonded with his wheel buddies at the back. It was one of the most touching, classiest, sweetest acts I’ve ever witnessed in decades of chasing stars. It was a real mensch moment.
The press session was anticlimactic. Once on stage Curtis rose to his feet just to show he could still stand and then sat down again. The festival spokesperson at his right barely introduced him before throwing to questions. Curtis answered every one, sitting patiently while everything was translated into French. “I don’t speak French,” said Curtis, “but I’ll answer anything you like.”
He was asked, for the umpteenth time, about working with Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Curtis discreetly told how he and Monroe had dated as Hollywood newcomers, he 22, she 20, and then met years later when she was a big star on their film together. He very diplomatically explained how some actresses cannot handle stardom and that Monroe was crushed by her fame. He stated there was no way she was murdered, as some have speculated, it was all just more than she could handle.
Unfortunately, time constraints forced me to bail before asking my question: Did Curtis really once say that kissing Monroe in Some Like it Hot was “like kissing Hitler”? It would have seemed a bit churlish to bring it up at such a love-in but who knows when I’ll have a chance to ask him again. If he said it, Curtis was likely referring to the difficulty Monroe had at that point of her life in just getting to the set on time and how she forced all her co-stars to wait until director Billy Wilder (or her various acting coaches) could pull a performance out of her.
Curtis went on to say that he had once shot a film in Montreal but couldn’t remember the name of it. It was probably in the ’60s, he thought, and he might have played a boxer. He did recall ordering two suits while in the city and that he dated two lovely young women from Montreal (probably at the same time).
He also singled out co-star Jack Lemmon as one of his favorite actors, along with Grant, Errol Flynn and surprise choice Stewart Granger, who Curtis remembered as someone with incredible sensitivity. “If something was bothering him in his personal life at the time, you could always see it in his perform ace,” said Curtis.
My son, Daniel, who is 15 and who has been forced to watch (over and over again) my 16mm print of 40 Pounds of Trouble (starring Curtis and directed by Norman Jewison), was by far the youngest person at the 0pen-to-the-public press conference. He thought it was pretty cool to see a real live movie star, but he thought it was even cooler that Curtis was so kind to the strangers at the back. They don’t make them like that any more.
The Festival Des Films Du Monde Montreal runs until Sept. 1; for more info check out

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