Tony Curtis and voting with coloured beads.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg once observed that no public speaker ever uses a good line only once. (Actually, Borg has probably observed this more than once — that’s kind of his point!)

Borg made this comment while discussing the fact that there are different versions of some of Jesus’ sayings spread across the gospels. Scholars tend to assume that the differences are due to changes that were put there by one or more of the people who wrote these gospels, and they tend to want to trace these sayings back to some sort of “original” version that was spoken by Jesus himself; but, as Borg hinted, it stands to reason that Jesus spoke many original versions of these sayings as he traveled from town to town, and even that he modified these sayings on occasion to reflect some local or recent circumstance. So, some of the differences may indeed be due to editorial tweaks made by the evangelists, but some of them may also go back to Jesus himself.

I was reminded of that this week when some journalists began digging up their old interviews with Tony Curtis, who died two days ago at the age of 85.

Over on his Facebook page, Roger Ebert pointed readers to this 1985 interview, which he said was his favorite of the ones he did with Curtis. And near the end of that article, there is this bit:

” . . . Let me tell you a story, sort of a parable. One day in 1948 I went to Hollywood. My name was Bernie Schwartz. I signed a contract at Universal, and I bought a house in the hills. It had a swimming pool. Unheated, but it had water in it. One night I came home late, I jumped in the pool, I swam a few laps, I got out, I dried myself off, I put on my clothes, and I walked directly into this room and sat down and started to talk to you. Do you see what I’m saying? Thirty-eight years, I don’t know where they went. Gone like that.”

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wells re-posted part of this 2000 interview, which ends with this bit:

‘Can I tell you a story, Jeffrey?’ he said, about halfway through our talk. ‘In 1948, when I was 23 or 24, when I first came out here I lived in a house on Fountain Avenue. I rented a room there. And they had a swimming pool. I had an appointment and I got on a trolley car…they were running right down the middle of the freeway back then.

‘Then I got back, I jumped into the pool, I took a shower, got dressed and got into the car, and drove up here to meet you. That’s how quick these 50-fucking-two years have gone…quick as that.’

It’s fascinating to see how these two versions of the story begin and end on such similar notes, and how they vary quite a bit in the middle.

It’s also interesting to see how they contradict each other: in one, Curtis tells Ebert he bought the house with the swimming pool, whereas in the other, he tells Wells that he rented the house — or, rather, that he rented a room in that house. (Of course, this assumes that both Ebert and Wells transcribed their respective interviews accurately.)

In any case, I can’t help imagining that, somewhere, a scholar like John Dominic Crossan might some day compile a book called The Essential Tony Curtis that will feature an ur-version of this story that lends itself to multiple formulations without committing itself to any of them.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Of course, the point is that AT MOST one of the versions of Curtis' story is true, not both and possibly neither. Borg's observation applies equally to the transmission of Jesus sayings and activities just as much as it does to Jesus speaking style itself. It is entertaining to see it documented with a contemporary figure, but not so enlightening when we attempt to apply it 2000 years ago. One group will claim it vindicates the gospels as history and the other that it muddies our ability to know anything for certain about the same material.


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