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Interview with Tony Curtis

CANNES, FRANCE - Tony Curtis was trying to think up a better title for his new movie. The current title was "Othello, the Black Commando."

"What do you think about 'The Othello Conspiracy?'" he asked. "How about 'The Othello File'? 'The Othello Connection?'"

His eyes drifted restlessly out of the window of his third-floor room in the Carlton Hotel. Suddenly he jumped to his feet and pressed his nose against the glass.

"Will ya look at the build on that lady!" he shouted. He pushed the curtain aside. "There . . . the one with the blonde hair and the leopard-skin leotard! See her?" I did not. "Standing in the middle of the intersection, chewing the hell out of that guy?"

I saw her. But from the third floor, I could not see so easily what Tony Curtis saw in her. "Jesus, I got great eyes!" he said. "She's really mad at that guy. Menachem, take a look!"

Menachem Golem, whose Cannon Group will distribute Othello once it is named, glanced out of the window and shrugged. "Women like that are a dime a dozen at Cannes," he said. He turned his attention to a gigantic wall chart with colored pins stuck in it to record the sales of his 27 current productions in 56 different world marketing territories.

"She's turning this way!" Tony Curtis said.

He turned to move to another window. An overstuffed chair was in his way. He stepped on the seat cushion and hurdled the chair. He opened the French doors leading to the balcony and shouted: ''Mon petit! Mon petit! Yoo hoo! Up here! Look up here!"

Incredibly, the blonde in the leotard heard him above the tumult of the Carlton Terrace, which on the last Sunday of the Cannes Film Festival was shoulder-to-shoulder with distributors, exhibitors, and movie stars ranging from James Keach to Harry Reems. She shielded her eyes against the sun and looked up at the balcony where the tanned middle-aged guy with the thinning hair was waving at her.

"Mon petit!" Tony Curtis shouted. "Don't be so angry! It's all right!"

Does she know who you are? I asked.

Curtis hardly glanced back over his shoulder. "She knows exactly who I am," he said. He shouted again: "Come up here, mon petit. Up here. Room 241! Two . . . four . . . one!"

She waved and turned to walk back toward the hotel entrance. She was followed by another blonde lady and by the small man in the gray suit whom she had been shouting at.

Curtis turned back from the window with a triumphant grin. "And what were you asking?" he said.

"Well, about this new film . . ." I said.

"We're here selling the film. You call this a festival? I call it a marketplace. I'm in my element. This is my heritage. Some people criticize this festival for being too crass. Ha! What do they sell at the Fulton Fish Market? Fish! What does the Fulton Fish Market smell like? Fish! Case closed."

He sat down again in his chair by the window, put on a gray top-hat, and picked up a silver-headed cane. He was otherwise dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

"I've never sold a movie here before," he said. "I've acted, I've produced . . . now I've got a new job! Salesman. I sold the film to Australia this morning. The guy said would I come to Australia to promote it? I said sure. He said a lot of people make promises they don't live up to. I said he hadn't done business with me before.

"Besides, this picture, I got a piece of the action, so to speak. In fact, not just a piece. Let's put it this way. If your shirt is this film, my piece is a sleeve. I wonder where those girls are?"

He leaned back in his chair and let the sun fall through the window onto his face. He does not have, in middle age, the stunning handsomeness that first made him a movie star in the late '40s and early '50s, but he has something that is perhaps more rare, boundless energy and optimism. Here he was, promoting a film that frankly sounded like B-grade exploitation, and his eyes shone with enthusiasm.

"This is a modern version of Shakespeare's great tragedy, Othello," he explained. ''Max Boulois plays Othello. He's a black general with two or three hundred mercenaries working for him. Just a small army, you know. He gets hired by minor league Arab oil sheiks who are fighting over a valley of land or something.

"I play his aide. My name is Colonel Iagovich. Get it? Then this white chick comes along. Her name is Dede, which is short for Desdemona, and she's worried about all the starving children; and wants to hire Othello's soldiers to fight for right. She is disturbed, to put it another way, by the inequalities of world leverage." He paused for a moment to listen to how that sounded. "Or call it what you will. Anyway, you can easily imagine what happens next."

He stood up and struck a pose with his cane. "Shakespeare," he said, "when he wrote this story, he got it from somewhere - and we got it from Shakespeare. What goes around, comes around. Only our version is a lot more human than Shakespeare, and the human condition is examined much more fiercely in our film than in Shakespeare. There will be no posturing! Next case."

How is life going for you right now? I asked.

"Terrific! I've just been granted a divorce, and in the settlement, I keep the house. I've had 19 houses and three wives so far. Not necessarily in that order. This is the first time I've had any peace. I'm learning to sleep alone in a bed. I'm developing an insular relationship with myself. I'm so privileged to be with me everywhere I go. I hope I don't screw it all up."

The movie was released as "Black Commando."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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