Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
Some Like It Hot is a great movie, but I’ve never agreed with the traditional line that it’s the finest of all Hollywood comedies. In even the myopic scope of Billy Wilder movies, we need only to look a year ahead to The Apartment to weaken that argument. And speaking generally, revisiting the film I find not so much that I like it less than I did some years back — if anything, my affinity toward much of it strengthened — but that I had initially overrated it as a result of the intense intellectual connection it inspires, as opposed to any gut-level emotional resonance. Because one thing we can say unequivocally is that Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is just about the most impeccably crafted — in any genre — of the Hollywood era; Casablanca might have it beaten, but that’s pretty much it. I’m impressed by the film, in other words, without being head over heels in love with it.
On some level, our distance might come out of the hallowed nature of the film; it’s so iconic it can be difficult to wrap our arms around it. “Cross-dressing musicians during Prohibition” sounds like a bad sitcom pitch, but the actual approach taken and the complex interrelationships and the structural nuances of the story give virtually every scene, particularly those that find heroes Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hiding in transit in ladies’ garb, a hint of indomitable size and night-fever magic; despite humor being its ostensible goal, Some Like It Hot ultimately amounts to the casting of a spell.
There is awe at the film’s (and the actors’) prescient fearlessness in examining and subtly jabbing at gender roles and norms in a manner no other film of its era would’ve had the guts to even attempt; this one does it with full conviction and no apology, as if it’s no big thing to see a straight male actor even joking about marrying another man in 1959. In the androgynous innuendo, the turmoiled and physical conundrums of the setpieces, and the playfully multilayered dialogue, we have here a story and screenplay that are almost Shakespearean — elegant enough that it’s seemingly designed to be spoken of in hushed, reverent tones.
Surely nothing contributes to that feeling more than the casting of Marilyn Monroe — one reason for the film’s modern fame — who’d appeared in Wilder’s earlier film The Seven Year Itch but whose embodiment of Sugar Kane may be one of the greatest testaments to the actual level of her gifts, which go beyond the body that Wilder nevertheless emphasizes — he had to, in order to assuage the ticket-buying public — in a vocal performance she gives that essentially amounts to a topless striptease. But her scenes work because of her comic timing and playfully affected naivete, which are the expert work of an actress far better than she ever had the time to demonstrate; because the film’s two lusty leading men are forced by circumstance to be among “the girls,” she approaches most of her scenes as a friend rather than an object of desire, hence much of the sophistication and adorable tenderness she’s able to wring out of the role. Speaking as someone who never really had the “thing” for Monroe that a lot of folks did, well, every time I see it, this movie comes close to changing that.
But Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are, inevitably, the chief attractions here — and the best word to describe their work here is “amazing,” in drag and out of it, as they each come to embody what amount to multiple characters and variations and ideas and illustrations of who they truly are. Without being too explicit and Blake Edwards-y about it, their unusual state of being forced to conceal their maleness for a spell while hiding out offers up the opportunity for some sharply critical attacks on male entitlement and sexual harrassment, a trend Wilder slightly picked up on in Sabrina and would bring to fruition on The Apartment. Curtis’ big moment is that which finds him in a sailor outfit impersonating Cary Grant to try and get the girl, affecting a priceless accent and playing the charmer, the stodgy old man, and the wily playboy with equally adept persuasion. Lemmon, meanwhile, loses himself in his drag character to such an extent that he, the audience, and the other characters all seem to be plenty confused; it’s not even that he actually resembles a woman visually as his “otherness” is so complete and so separate from the man he typically plays that it’s an honest thrill and a revolutionary-feeling thing to witness. The performances of both men enrich the picture immeasurably and are magnificently teeming with life. And the perfection of the casting reaches all the way down to minor but unforgettable faces like that of Joe E. Brown as the well-to-do, sexually charged gentleman chasing after Lemmon, who delivers the immortal and shockingly liberal (for the period) final line, “Nobody’s perfect.”
This was a return to straight comedy for Wilder after three projects that considerably stretched his interests as a director: the courtroom mystery Witness for the Prosecution, true-life adventure The Spirit of St. Louis, and the slick Lubitschian valentine Love in the Afternoon. Wilder had never been so identified with a single genre as he permanently would be after United Artists let Some Like It Hot loose upon the world, and his prior stylistic hopping around and what he’d later imply was a dissatisfaction with sticking to a single “kind” of movie results in a few confusing caveats in this film. Few people ever mention the Prohibition-era gangster bust at the start of the film or the brutal killings that occur a few minutes in, largely because — except to provide an antagonist later on — those sequences serve little purpose. But Wilder certainly goes all the way with them, giving us unpleasant sound effects and blood and broken bodies and all the rest, something that worsens at the climax when the heroes accidentally bust up a murderous gathering that turns into a shootout. All the convoluted backstory leading the characters to this point results inevitably in a feeling of overlength; 120 minutes seems a bit excessive for a movie that at its best says so much in so little time.
It’s hard to say how that could have been fixed, of course, since the later parts of the film hinge wholly on Lemmon and Curtis having something to run away from — but perhaps their hiding out in all-girl band to make a buck could have been enough conflict for the film. The St. Valentine’s stuff doesn’t serve to truly complement or flesh out any important part of the story, and the element of physical danger is simply not necessary; every time the camera lingers over to Spats and his gang — whose presence, incidentally, at the hotel in the last act is far too much of a coincidence to make much sense — it’s the beginning of a series of yawns as we wait eagerly for Marilyn and the others to reappear.
Even that criticism is leveled, of course, by how expertly Wilder handles the action sequences; we wouldn’t mind seeing more of that movie he’s trying to make, just not while it’s interrupting this one. Honestly, there’s little human expression here that isn’t filled in by the audience; the dreams Monroe expresses, those sad and yearning bits about “the fuzzy end of the lollipop,” express as much a despair and hope that we’re left with as they foreshadow the early end of her young life. The splendid flamboyance of life as led in this scrappy train-to-concert-hall world might have been captured more humanely by other directors, but never so hilariously. The flick finds time for everything from class status to romanticism to gender identity to mobsters — it’s the kind of movie that packs it all in and feels ultimately as satisfying and fulfilling as entertainment can be. And when it’s all over, we still have that image of Lemmon crowing about how old Mr. Fielding’s asked for his hand in marriage and jumping up and down with nothing but pure joy in his eyes. That is, well, perfect.
[Some portions of this were lifted from a review originally posted in 2004.]