Tony Curtis was an Oscar-nominated performer who starred in dozens of movies throughout his career, becoming famous as the charismatic leading man of romantic comedies, action films, and prestige dramas. But how many of his titles remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 15 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1925 in The Bronx, New York, Curtis got his start in movies thanks mainly to his good looks. He first gained attention as a serious actor thanks to Alexander Mackendrick‘s searing drama “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), in which he played an unscrupulous publicist who agrees to do the bidding of an amoral Broadway critic (Burt Lancaster). The film brought him a BAFTA nomination as Best Actor.
He earned his one and only Oscar bid the following year as Best Actor for Stanley Kramer‘s “The Defiant Ones” (1958), which centered on two escaped convicts (Curtis and fellow Best Actor nominee Sidney Poitier) who must set their racial animosity aside in order to survive. The film brought him additional noms at the Golden Globes and BAFTA.
His final brush with awards recognition came for playing against type as a serial killer in Richard Fleischer‘s “The Boston Strangler” (1968), which earned him a Golden Globe nomination as Best Drama Actor. On the TV side, he competed at the Emmys as Best Movie/Mini Actor for playing mega producer David O. Selznick in “The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980).
Curtis is the father of actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis with his first wife, fellow thespian Janet Leigh, proving that sometimes talent runs in the family.
Tour our photo gallery of Curtis’s 15 greatest films, including the titles listed above, as well as “Some Like It Hot,” “Spartacus,” “Operation Petticoat” and more.
15. HOUDINI (1953)
Directed by George Marshall. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on the novel by Harold Kellock. Starring Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Torin Thatcher.
Though highly fictionalized and more than a bit fantastical, this biographical drama offers a fascinating look at the life and work of magician Harry Houdini. Curtis stars as the famed illusionist, from his beginning as a carnival side show performer to his death-defying feats of trickery. The film delves into Houdini’s dealings with the occult and his obsession with his mother, both of which it argues drove his career. Curtis’s then-wife, Janet Leigh, costars as Mrs. Houdini, making for a bit of art-imitating-life.
14. TARAS BULBA (1962)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Screenplay by Waldo Salt and Karl Tunberg, based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol. Starring Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis, Sam Wanamaker, Brad Dexter, Guy Rolfe, Perry Lopez, George Macready, Ilka Windish, Vladimir Sokoloff, Daniel Ocko, Vladimir Irman, Christine Kaufman.
J. Lee Thompson’s massive adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s historical novel is a beauty to look at but a bore to sit through. Set in 16th century Ukraine, it centers on Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) and his son, Andriy (Tony Curtis), leaders of the Cossack army, who must make a pact with their Polish rivals to defeat the invading Turks. There’s certainly a great deal of attention paid to the period sets and costumes, but the characters never feel like anything more than toy soldiers. Curtis’s love interest is played by Christine Kaufman, who would be his second wife. An Oscar nominee for Franz Waxman’s sweeping score.
13. SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL (1964)
Directed by Richard Quine. Screenplay by Joseph Heller, based on the book by Helen Gurley Brown. Starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Mel Ferrer.
Helen Gurley Brown’s landmark sexual liberation bestseller makes for a pretty tepid romantic comedy from Richard Quine. But what it lacks in stinging social commentary it makes up for in sheer star power. Curtis stars as a sleazy tabloid reporter who goes undercover to snag an interview with Brown (Natalie Wood) following the publication of her book. Opposites attract, and a romance ensues. Old Hollywood legends Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall show up as a long-married couple who are experiencing marriage woes.
12. THE VIKINGS (1958)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Dale Wasserman, based on the novel by Edison Marshall. Starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ernest Borgnine, James Donald, Alexander Knox, Frank Thring.
Ruben Fleischer’s “The Vikings” never quite lives up to its potential, ending up as an A-level production with B-movie storytelling. Shot on location in Norway and Brittany, it centers on the rivalry between a Viking prince (Kirk Douglas) and a slave (Curtis) for the love of a beautiful princess (Curtis’s then-wife Janet Leigh). Ernest Borgnine co-stars as Douglas’s father, a feat of casting considering he was born almost two months after his co-star. The stunning cinematography by Jack Cardiff is the real standout here, although at times it comes close to achieving something grand and exciting.
11. BOEING, BOEING (1965)
Directed by John Rich. Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Marc Camoletti. Starring Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, Thelma Ritter, Christiane Schmidtmer, Dany Saval, Suzanna Leigh.
After his professional breakup from Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis sought out new leading men to play the suave playboy to his rubbery-faced antics. One of the best was Curtis, who stars in this bedroom farce as an American journalist stationed in Paris who’s engaged to three airline stewardesses at the same time. His plan goes awry when his various mistresses find themselves in the City of Lights at the same time, and his friend (Lewis), a visiting reporter, decides to take over the living situation for himself. Thelma Ritter is a hoot as Curtis’s long-suffering housekeeper.
10. THE GREAT RACE (1965)
Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay by Arthur A. Ross, story by Blake Edwards and Ross. Starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn, Arthur O’Connell, Vivian Vance.
Everyone’s having great fun in this epic farce from Blake Edwards, which reunites Curtis with his “Some Like It Hot” costar Jack Lemmon. Set in the early 20th century, “The Great Race” centers on a 22,000 mile competition between the heroic Leslie Gallant III (Curtis) and the villainous Professor Fate (Lemmon). Curtis’s straight-laced leading man charms are a perfect match for Lemmon’s hammy theatrics. The barrage of gags all leads up to the longest pie fight ever recorded on film. The Academy rewarded it with nominations for cinematography, sound, film editing, and song (“The Sweetheart Tree”), plus a victory for sound effects.
9. TRAPEZE (1956)
Directed by Carol Reed. Screenplay by James R. Webb, adaptation by Liam O’Brien, based on the novel by Max Catto. Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez.
Carol Reed’s “Trapeze” is big top, high wire fun, a trashy melodrama about the ins-and-outs of a traveling circus. Burt Lancaster stars as a once-great trapeze artist whose career ended after a sudden accident left him paralyzed. Curtis is the aspiring aerialist Lancaster takes under his wing, and Gina Lollobrigida is the beautiful new tumbler who steals both their hearts, threatening to tear their friendship apart. A former acrobat, Lancaster performed many of his own stunts for the movie, except for the most dangerous ones.
8. THE OUTSIDER (1961)
Directed by Delbert Mann. Screenplay by Stewart Stern, story by William Bradford Huie. Starring Tony Curtis, James Franciscus, Bruce Bennett, Gregory Walcott, Vivian Nathan, Edmund Hashim.
This little-seen biographical drama casts Curtis as Ira Hamilton Hayes, nicknamed “Chief,” a Native American who leaves the reservation to enlist in WWII, where he helps raise the flag at Iwo Jima. When he returns home, he fails to reconcile his actions during the war and succumbs to alcoholism, dying at the age of 32. Admittedly, it’s a tad jarring seeing the caucasian Curtis donning dark makeup to play an indigenous person. Cultural appropriation aside, he’s excellent in the role of a tormented hero. Adam Beach later portrayed Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s war epic “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006).
7. THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968)
Directed by Richard Fleischer. Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerold Frank. Starring Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman, William Hickey.
Curtis plays radically against type in this true crime story about Albert DeSalvo, aka The Boston Strangler, who terrorized Massachusetts with a series of seemingly random murders of unrelated women. Henry Fonda costars as the state-appointed officer tracking him down, little realizing DeSalvo is leading a double life as a devoted husband and father. Under Ruben Fleischer’s restrained direction, Curtis creates a haunting portrait of evil masked in mundanity. Perhaps he proved too authentic for Oscar voters, because he was overlooked for the performance, despite earning a Golden Globe nomination.
6. INSIGNIFICANCE (1985)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Screenplay by Terry Johnson, based on his play. Starring Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey, Will Sampson.
Though he often squandered his talents late in his career, Curtis sporadically displayed the acting chops that made him a movie star, particularly in this eccentric drama from Nicolas Roeg. Based on the play by Terry Johnson, “Insignificance” centers on four unnamed people who congregate at a hotel, each one representing an icon of the 1950s: the Professor, Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), the Actress, Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), the Ballplayer, Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and the Senator, Joseph McCarthy (Curtis). Though it follows the play pretty faithfully, it never feels stagey thanks to Roeg’s creative direction and first-rate performances by the entire cast.
5. OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959)
Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay by Stanley J. Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, story Paul King and Joseph B. Stone. Starring Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Joan O’Brien, Dina Merrill, Gene Evans, Dick Sargent, Arthur O’Connell.
Set sail for high seas hilarity and fun with this WWII farce from Blake Edwards. Set in the days following Pearl Harbor, “Operation Petticoat” centers on a Navy commander (Cary Grant) who finds himself in charge of a dilapidated pink submarine. To make matters worse, he’s straddled with an inexperienced lieutenant (Curtis) who’s also a bit of a grifter and five beautiful nurses who distract the crew. Needless to say, high jinks ensue. Edwards directs with his usual light touch and eye for visual gags, while Grant and Curtis prove a winning comedic team. An Oscar nominee for its original screenplay.
4. SPARTACUS (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Howard Fast. Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis.
Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” is one of the grand epics of cinema, with Kirk Douglas (who also produced it) portraying a slave who leads a revolt against the tyrannical Roman Republic. Though certain aspects have dated, the film is surprisingly modern in its view of politics and sexuality, especially in a famous deleted scene (later restored in 1991) in which Laurence Olivier, playing bisexual Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus, takes a bath with the slave Antoninus (Curtis). When Olivier tells Curtis, “I like both snails and oysters,” the celluloid closet’s door got edged open a little bit wider. Peter Ustinov won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his delicious performance as a gladiator manager, and prizes were also handed out for its cinematography, art direction, and costumes.
3. THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)
Directed by Stanley Kramer. Written by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith. Starring Tony Curtis, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney Jr., King Donovan, Claude Akins, Cara Williams.
Typical of Stanley Kramer’s output, “The Defiant Ones” is a well-intentioned drama with a strong social message that’s still surprisingly timely today. Though most would dismiss his work as preachy and didactic, this one retains a raw emotional power thanks in large part to its dynamic stars. Curtis and Sidney Poitier play escaped convicts chained to each other who must put their racial animus aside in order to survive. Both earned Oscar nominations in Best Actor, with Poitier becoming the first black male performer to contend in any acting category. They lost to David Niven (“Separate Tables”), and while Poitier would go on to a history-making victory for “Lilies of the Field” (1963), Curtis never competed at the Academy again.
2. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan. Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, Pat O’Brien.
“Some Like It Hot” has a premise of almost Olympian silliness that’s executed with wit, sex, and style by Billy Wilder. Curtis and Jack Lemmon star as Chicago musicians who have to go on the run after witnessing a mob hit. Desperate to not draw attention to themselves, they decide to don dresses and join an all-women’s band, led by the alluring Marilyn Monroe. While Curtis tries to romance Monroe by also playing a Cary Grant lookalike, Lemmon finds himself being chased by a wealthy bachelor (Joe E. Brown), leading to one of the all-time greatest final lines (“Well, nobody’s perfect” says Brown when he finds out his beloved is actually a man). The film earned nine Oscar nominations, including bids for Wilder in Best Director and Lemmon in Best Actor, though both Monroe and Curtis were overlooked.
1. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on the novelette by Lehman. Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Joe Frisco.
As Sidney Falco, a scrappy, sleazy press agent who’ll do anything to get ahead, Curtis created one of the most unscrupulous antiheroes in movie history. Burt Lancaster is his equal as J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful New York gossip columnist who rules Broadway with an iron pen. The plot of “Sweet Smell of Success” is as pitch-black as they come: desperate to impress Hunsecker, Falco agrees to break up a relationship between J.J.’s younger sister (Susan Harrison), who he loves in the creepiest possible way, and a budding jazz musician (Martin Milner). Directed by Alexander Mackendrick from a cynical, acid-laced script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, this is a ruthlessly entertaining Darwinian parable, with James Wong Howe’s black-and-white cinematography painting Manhattan like a jungle where only the fittest will survive.