An Irresistible Imp: Tim Curry at 75
Picture late-career Tim Curry, spotlit and standing in the center of a darkened Broadway stage. Imagine him singing mournfully of personal loneliness in the face of great responsibility, but in a way that conveys how that loneliness also reflects something deeper and universal about the loneliness of the human condition. His voice is rich and, despite the schmaltziness of the tune, you can’t help but feel somewhat moved by it. Now, picture him doing all this while dressed as Arthur, King of the Britons, and being mockingly accompanied in the song by his ever-present servant, Patsy, whom Arthur obtusely fails to recognize as a potential candidate to answer the central want of his song.
The song in question is “I’m All Alone”, from Spamalot, the musical adaptation of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Curry’s handling of the song is impressive because of how well he is able to convey both the humor and pathos of the song. Arthur does feel genuinely melancholy in this moment, which Curry delivers completely straight, even in the face of an uproarious audience and Patsy’s interjections. And still, Curry’s performance does come across as funny, but he gets there in character, without needing to wink at the audience to sell the laughs.
There is something I think under-appreciated about the kind of work Curry is doing here that is part of what draws me to write about him. An unfortunate hallmark of his long career is that he has frequently been the brightest spot of some otherwise very unsuccessful projects, and I think this may have obscured just how talented he has been. There could be a temptation - particularly given the number of commercial failures he has been in that has gone on to develop a rabid following - to label him as a cult film actor. To do so would not only miss how good he was in those cultish films but would also fail to account for how impressive and versatile he has been in his career.
On stage, Curry’s breakout, and most well-known role, came as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the original London stage production of The Rocky Horror Show. But, he was also a three-time Tony nominee. First, for the role of Mozart in the original Broadway run of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1981. Again for the musical My Favorite Year in 1993. And finally for Spamalot in 2005. In terms of acting credits, the overwhelming majority of Curry’s work has actually come from voice acting. This change in direction began in earnest after the twin flops of Clue and Legend in 1985. Aside from being a recurring presence in many of the cartoons of my childhood like Tiny Toon Adventures, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, Captain Planet, Gargoyles, or Freakazoid!, he won an Emmy for his work as Captain Hook in Peter and the Pirates and was nominated for a Grammy as the narrator of The Bad Beginning, the first book in the series, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. A mere cult film actor, Curry is not.
That Curry would find such success in voice work makes sense to me given how expressive and multi-faceted his performances could often be. Some of what Curry was doing as Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror, could be missed because of how big that character and film are, but he is really doing something nuanced throughout. Notably, in his last song of the film, “I’m Going Home”, Curry makes a believable shift from the limitless bravado he’s embodied for much of the film, to an almost maudlin vulnerability. And, while he’s sincerely conveying the homesickness in the song that the story demands, he is also delivering a knowingly Judy Garland-esque performance for a phantasmic audience it seems only he can see. It really should be too much and is in a way, but it completely works because of how well Curry sells it.
Similarly, another quirk of Rocky Horror that relies entirely on Curry to succeed is that, by all rights, Frank-N-Furter should be the unambiguous villain of the tale, but he is the character that we’re mourning at the end of the film. Over the course of the story, we see him trap two stranded motorists, later sexual assaulting each of them, remove half the brain from one person to turn another into a living sex toy, before murdering that unwilling donor and feeding the remains to his dinner guests. This is a monstrous character as written, that has also been hailed for decades as a symbol of self-expression and tolerance for difference. That is just bonkers and is wholly a credit to Curry’s performance.
The loveable or irresistible villain may be the most common theme of the characters Curry has played. There is something impish and mischievous he brings to his roles that makes it hard to treat the characters he plays as actually evil. Ridley Scott had a seemingly impossible wishlist when he was looking to cast the role of Darkness in his 1985 film, Legend. He needed someone who could convincingly play something like the Devil. He needed an actor that could simultaneously project menace, sexuality, power, and give a theatrically operatic performance, all while wearing stilts, and being covered head to toe in makeup and prosthetics.
Scott had seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and based on how brave and compelling he thought Tim Curry’s performance in that film was, Scott knew that Curry was just about the only actor who could pull off a role like Darkness. Scott turned out to be right. Curry is extraordinary in the role, and easily the best and most memorable part of an otherwise mixed film. It’s impressive that Curry was able to do as much with the role as he did because of the limitations he had to contend with. In terms of the costume, some of the heavy lifting of the role was done by just how impressive he looked, but in terms of performance, his mobility and sight were so limited by that makeup and prosthetics that about the only tool left for him to work with was his voice.
In the same spirit of Darkness, Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Clown is the most memorable part of the 1990’s TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It’s interesting to compare his performance against that of Bill Skarsgård in the same role for the 2017/2019 film adaptations of that story. This is something it’s hard to see past my own possible bias based on how old I was when I first saw it, but coming almost 30 years earlier, it’s Curry’s performance that I still find far more chilling. The biggest difference between the two seems to be that, though Skarsgård plays a compelling monster, particularly heightened by more modern costuming and effects, Curry’s performance hinges on him commuting to largely playing Pennywise like an actual schlocky clown and letting the horror build off of that. That choice gives him more range in that he’s actually able to bring humor that heightens the tensest scenes. It would go a bit far to say that one finds themselves rooting for Curry’s Pennywise, but it is true that he’s just about the only part of that 90’s adaptation that made an impression.
An almost perfect inverse to Curry’s performance as Pennywise is his portrayal of Long John Silver in Muppet Treasure Island. What’s most impressive about this role is that Curry manages to make Silver just as believable as a dangerous cutthroat as he is as a surrogate father figure to the young boy protagonist, Jim Hawkins. In those moments where it makes sense to play the scene for tension, Curry does; When the scene calls for warmth he plays that just as sincerely; And, when the scene requires him to sing alongside his muppet costars, he takes to it with gusto. In the case of the song “A Professional Pirate”, he needs to do all three in quick succession and he lands it perfectly. It’s a performance that would almost come off too manic to be coherent, but Curry seems to recognize how much wider a palette he can paint within the Muppet universe.
All of this brings us to the role that I think may best capture what I’m trying to highlight with Tim Curry. The degree to which Clue works as a film hinges on a dizzying and multifaceted performance from him that needs to work for three different endings to the story. The endings break down into the two in which Curry, as Wadsworth the Butler, solves the case, and the final ending in which Curry, as Mr. Boddy, is the villain. Now, we’re talking about a broad, farcical comedy, so suspension of disbelief does some of the heavy lifting, easing the way towards being able to accept Curry as either the hero or the villain of the story, but it matters that there is something compelling about Curry’s villainous turn in the final ending that doesn’t leave the audience feeling cheated, or like the ending hasn’t been earned.
Curry’s performance throughout the film is impressive, particularly the break-neck pace at which he is solving the murders in the final act, but it would be all for naught if he had lost the audience for any of the three endings. He pulls it off, though. He’s convincing as the hero. And, even more importantly, while revealing himself to be the villain, he overcomes the fact that this final ending does not make a whole lot of sense in relation to the rest of the film. There is something so welcome about Curry’s heel turn, that the viewer just goes with it, even welcomes it. I think there is something a bit magical about that, and, like so many of his roles, I don’t know that there is anyone else that could have pulled it off.
Thankfully, Tim Curry is still with us for his 75th year, but an unfortunate stroke in 2012 has largely deprived us of his presence onscreen. His last acting role came that same year in a previously filmed performance of Eric Idle’s What About Dick? After that, a few voice performances that he had recorded before his stroke trickled out over the next few years. Rarely appearing in public at all, it seemed likely that this would have been the end of Curry’s career. Fortunately, and unexpectedly, he managed to find the perfect bookend to his career with a pair of returns to the story that started it all. With the help of some judicious editing, he was able to play the Criminologist in the 2016 TV Adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. And, in 2020, with a great deal of help from his fellow cast members, he was able to return to the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter as part of a live-streamed performance to raise money for the Wisconsin Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 elections. The limitations of his speech are apparent in both, but each of these performances is still worth seeking out if only to see the infectious light to the man that still shines through.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.