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This is mamie today, at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival !


by Alex Deleon for

The seventh edition of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) opened on May 4 at the plush Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills with a feature length documentary on 

recently deceased Jewish actor Tony Curtis and a Gala reception at which another legendary youth idol and sex symbol of the fifties, Mamie Van Doren, was the dominating figure -- and whattta figure! -- still.

The Curtis documentary, directed by Ian Ayres, entitled "Tony Curtis:Driven to Stardom", is a gem of the genre and traces the life of this mid century screen legend who was a driven man, driving himself up from rags to riches, through movie star fame and fortune, a cocaine fueled fall from grace and to ultimate resurrection as a painter of talent.  What makes this documentary stand out is that it is not just a chronology of events during an interesting half century in Hollywood, but more than that a study of obsession, realization of dreams, and then having to deal with disillusionment in the midst of success. Curtis got into films basically on his good looks, quickly became a matinee idol and sex symbol in gobs of youth oriented B movies (Son of Ali Baba, etc.) and was so incredibly handsome that it was a long time before he was taken seriously as an actor.

A point is made in the film of his androgynous "beauty" -- such a pretty boy that there was a feminine aspect to his sex appeal --but all his co-stars, among them Mamie van Doren, herself no slouch as a sex symbol in her time, attest vehemently to the fact that there was nothing "gay" about Tony -- even when he played a female cross dressing male in "Some like it Hot" opposite Marilyn Monroe. The ladies found him irresistible and Marilyn was in fact one of his first Hollywood girlfriends when both were young unknowns, but by the time of Some Like it Hot he was so distressed by her pampered behavior on the set that he made the famous crack, "Kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler".


By his own admission Tony always wanted to be a star, not an actor, and never completely shook off an atrocious bronx accent ('Yonda lies da castle of me faddah") but he was so good looking and so talented that it didn't matter. He had a gigantic fan following and eventually earned the respect of his colleagues in a diversity of roles from Hungarian escape artist Houdini  ('53)  to a trapeze artist opposite Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, in "Trapeze" to the lowlife sidekick of Lancaster's in "Sweet Smell of Success" ('57}, a racist chain-gang escapee tied to Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" ('58) and finally displayed his comedic skills in Billy Wilder's "Some like it Hot"('59) Opposite Jack Lemmon and Marilyn.  His last great role was as "The Boston Strangler"('68) in the film of that name in which his interpretation of the notorious serial killer was an astounding departure from his earlier matinee idol image. Curtis was always bitter that the industry never saw fit to reward any these remarkable portrayals with an Oscar and this lingering disappointment in conjunction with the failure of his first two marriages undoubtedly contributed to a descent into cocaine oblivion, but he took the cure and reinvented himself as a painter late in life with a devoted wife half his age, horse lady Jill Vandenberg,  who remained at his side until the end in 2010 when Tony passed away, finally happy at age 85.


Most people are probably not even aware that Tony Curtis was Jewish because he was such an all-American icon and never played any overtly Jewish characters.  He was Born Bernard Schwartz into a Jewish immigrant family from Hungary and barely spoke English until he was enrolled in grade school. To escape the grinding poverty and miserable home life of his early days he would sneak into the local movie house and became not only enamored of the swashbuckling antics of Errol Flynn but decided that he would emulate him in real life and become a movie star himself, and that is exactly what he did  --in spite of seemingly impossible obstacles, except for that one great asset, his amazing physiognomy.  This film, while it is doubtless a tribute to the ambition of a ragged kid from the ghetto making his dreams come true, is no hagiography, and is a warts and all portrait of a difficult life lived in the limelight. 


The film is structured around segments of one long interview with an aged Curtis himself seated at an easel in his studio, puffy faced under a woolen cap, recalling incidents from his long life and spectacular career. In between many others who knew him recount their memories of working with him and the effect he had on them -- notably Mamie van Doren who got her first break because of Tony's help, actress Debbie Reynolds, Teresa Russell, Piper Laurie and numerous others. This is of course interspersed with key scenes from his most important movies and segments focusing on his much publicized marriage to actress Janet Leigh, an equally big star of a different more genteel kind. They were regarded at the time as the ideal young couple, but when the marriage ended after 11 years and two children it was a severe blow to the Curtis ego. He recalls painfully at one point,"The divorce just made me feel like I wasn't good enough for her".  


Redemption for Tony came when he married his third wife, Jill Vandenberg, and basically retired to the desert to paint.

One sees a lot of pain in the face of the elder Tony Curtis in this film, but he seems to have come to terms with the demons within, having found a true life partner in his twilight years.  Although not much is made of his Jewishness in the course of the film after the early days in New York, the funeral which ends the film is most definitely a Jewish ceremony which sort of justifies the placing of this film in a specifically Jewish Festival.  However, aside from ethnic considerations, this is a film with much wider resonances and director Ian Ayres, who resides in Paris, is to be complimented on assembling a cubistic portrait on film of an iconic Hollywood film personality which is so rich and multi-layered that it requires multiple viewings to fully absorb.   


The screening was preceded by a seven person panel discussion on stage moderated by film critic Pete Hammond of Entertainment Tonight.  The participants all from the film were: Hammond, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, (Tony's statuesque widow), Mamie Van Doren, tightly wrapped in a clinging black gown parted just enough to reveal still shapely legs (What is her secret!), Sally Kellerman (Boston Strangler) tall and lively in designer jeans, Actress Marion Collier (Some Like it Hot), narrator of the film Max Roeg (son of Teresa Russell), and author/actor John Gilmore who was asociated with Tony Curtis at various times.  Rather than a Q & A this was more like a live prevue and an event in itself as each person expounded extemporaneously on their relation with Curtis and their perceptions of him. Last wife Vandenberg nearly broke down at several points recalling tender moments and emphasizing that for her he was a "my husband" not a movie star. His last words were "I love you" as he clung to her on his death bed. This was an exceptionally witty panel whose remarks if filmed would have made an enjoyable little documentary on its own. A dramatic moment occurred when a man from the audience took the stage and made an impassioned speech condemning the film industry for ignoring Tony Curtis's talent by never recognizing him with an Oscar.


All in all it was a rousing and most satisfying opening night for this festival which will present a total of 26 films relating to Jewish experience in the coming week.  Among coming highlights are a 1924 silent film by Hungarian director Mihaly Kertesz who, like Bernie Schwartz, changed his name to fit Hollywood requirements, and it came out as Michael Curtiz, who some may recognize as the director of a movie called "Casablanca". The film in question is called "The Moon of Israel" and is the picture that brought  Curtiz to the attention of Jack Warner and was his ticket to Hollywood where he became a prolific director of many films now regarded as classics. This film will be introduced by Penelope Ann Miller who appeared in the French neo-silent movie "The Artist" which swept the oscars here just two months ago. 


Another Oscar connected film to be shown this week is called: "OSS-117: Lost in Rio". This is a French spoof of James Bond made in 2010 and set in the Bossa Nova Brazil of the sixties. So, what's the connection?

Well the director is Michel Hazanavicius, Oscar winning director of "The Artist" and stars Jean Dujardin, Best Actor Oscar winner for "The Artist" and -- guess what -- Hazanavicius is a Frenchman of Lithuanian Jewish origin --  A Litvak yet!

Fasten your seatbelts --looks like a lively week ahead.




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