How Tony Curtis persuaded Canadians to accept universal healthcare

Curtis cheerfully dissects Canadians in 'The Great Imposter'

The Great Imposter was the 1961 movie in which Tony Curtis played Fred Demara, who in real life successfully passed himself off as a Canadian navy surgeon, during the Korean War. Demara assumed the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr, an actual New Brunswick medico who was at the time busily engaged in cutting chests in Grand Falls, and oblivious to Demara’s deception.

Curtis, who died yesterday at age 85, portrayed the character of Demara as an outwardly brash fellow with an undercurrent of vulnerability — which was the standard Curtis role, put to very good use in thousands of performances. He played a working-class Joe from the old neighborhood, who liked to emphasize his own rough edges, calculating that it was to his advantage to have others underestimate his character and abilities. You think of Curtis in Some Like It Hot, confident enough to think he might masquerade as a woman, but quickly struck by doubt concerning the wisdom of his decision. Curtis’s character Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success had the same trait, as a smarmy press-agent who pretends to be a rat, because that is the nature of his work, but whose latent decency won’t remain entirely tamped down. Same again in The Defiant Ones, where Curtis’s dumb-ass racist act is eventually uncloaked through Sidney Poitier’s patience, humanity and fundamental Poitieritude.

This was, and remains, the essential American character-type: crusty and cheesy on the outside, with the good stuff concealed a layer or two below. You might see a metaphor in Curtis-as-Demara, brash and idiotic enough to purloin the identity of an officer in another country’s military, and, though untrained and unqualified, somehow lucky enough to be able to cut apart living humans, his ship-mates, without killing them. Non-Americans — i.e., Canadians — may have seen themselves portrayed in the film as rubes, dupes, or just the unappreciative recipients of Demara’s all-American boldness and know-how. (This may have been an accurate portrayal, by some accounts.) In contrast, American audiences likely saw in the big-screen Curtis/Demara that happy-go-lucky flim-flam man, another good-hearted Yankee adventurer footloose in terra incognita.

Tony Curtis, Father of Canadian Medicare

In 1961, during the film’s first release, the national debate over socialized medicine was just getting underway in Canada. Then, passions were high among both supporters and opponents of Canadian medicare, just as they are today in the US regarding Obama-care. Perhaps The Great Imposter film made a previously unrecognized contribution toward establishing universal health coverage in Canada, through Curtis’s depiction of what an under-regulated, open-market approach to medical care might create. That is: Bronx-born actors claiming to be doctors, guessing about how to perform heart surgery on Canadian patients. I’ll take medicare over that any day, thank you.

Perhaps the fake-daktari represented by Tony Curtis did as much to promote medicare as did scores of yammering Canadian politicians who took the credit for themselves, including the insufferable T.C. Douglas. If so, that would make Curtis, aka The Great Imposter, the unacknowledged, but true, father of single-payer health coverage in Canada.

The movie resonates for other reasons. A half-century before identity theft became a global concern, long before the invention of cyber-crimes and Lifelock, you had Demara claiming persuasively to be someone he wasn’t. Today, it’s a freaking growth industry. On the very same day Curtis croaked, it was announced that Snooki, the malodorous reality-TV skank, had successfully impersonated a book author (see this piece in the Times of India, of all places.) It further emerged yesterday that Christine O’Donnell, kooky candidate for the U.S. Senate from the state of Delaware, was discovered pretending to be a graduate of Oxford University, which is about as implausible as anyone can ever get.

Well, you’re bound to say, “That’s politics,” and you will note that each house of elected representatives all the world over is really a fetid breeding ground for generations of Great Imposters. True, quite true, but the consequences are the same everywhere.

Here in Canada, governments are running out of the drugs required to treat sick people. As we’ve noted, we can trace the roots of those circumstances all the way back to Tony Curtis. In a parallel development in the United States, governments are running out of the drugs required to execute felons. Is it reasonable to once again hold Tony Curtis accountable for this disappointing outcome?

Sure, it is. I would argue that Curtis as The Great Imposter gave inspiration to Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Carl Paladino, Sarah Palin, and countless other unqualified political charlatans and poseurs, clutching their invented credentials — thus creating current conditions.

When I say “current conditions,” I’m talking about the psychology that leads some opinion-leaders (Gov. Palin, et al) to state that it’s a calamity for the government to provide therapeutic drugs to cure the diseases suffered by poor people, and an equal affront when the government claims they can’t get their hands on sufficient doses of thiopental to provide fatal injections for each of the condemned inmates stacked up on death row. (The good people at Hospira say they’re working tirelessly to resolve manufacturing issues. Hospira supplies thiopental, the anesthetic, used in a life-ending cocktail mixed up by the authorities in several states. Last year, 51 of out of the 52 people executed in the US died via drug injections, making thiopental the indisputable gold standard for such applications.)

Darker Curtis

By coincidence, Tony Curtis also had a memorable movie role as Albert Desalvo, the Boston Strangler, who served a life sentence for committing 13 murders. Because Massachusetts has no death-penalty, Desalvo might have denied Hospira of some business, back when they were able to meet their orders, but it turned out not to matter. Desalvo was punctured several times, presumably by fellow inmates at the lockup in Walpole, Mass., and died in 1973. Not quite four years later, Utah executed convicted murderer Gary Mark Gilmour, at Gilmour’s famous insistence, paving the way for routine executions by states, and, with that, the complete and thorough brutalization of U.S. society. The post-Gilmour period is an especially sick chunk of history, involving privately-owned prisons operated for profit, so-called healthcare companies apologizing because they’re overwhelmed trying to supply an ingredient of death, absurdly high incarceration statistics, and 3,261 — count ’em — prisoners awaiting state execution.

Make no mistake, I totally dig Tony Curtis’s body of work. In particular, his portrayal of the sleazy hepster Sidney Falco has functioned as my life-long personal role model. But looking back on the trail of events he has wrought, it seems that the influence of my man Tone has yet to be fully understood or appreciated. The cat was a Pied Piper of something-or-other.

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4 thoughts on “How Tony Curtis persuaded Canadians to accept universal healthcare

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