SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Writers: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the film Fanfare d’Amour written by Max Bronnet, Michael Logan, Pierre Prevert, Rene Pujol, and Robert Theoren
  • Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, and Joan Shawlee
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#22), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#42), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 list (#52), 1 Oscar (Best Costumes), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Billy Wilder, Best Actor – Jack Lemmon, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Rent or buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

This is one of those movies that could get me in trouble, and I don’t mean with the Catholic Legion of Decency. Some Like It Hot has gained a reputation over the years as an all-time comedy classic. Not only is it #22 on the AFI Top 100 List, when they did a separate list of the best comedies in 2000, it came in at #1. And yet… I don’t think it’s for me. This is subjective, of course, and maybe also a product of the best line in the movie being super famous to even people who haven’t watched the movie, but I don’t think I laughed once all the way through. I laughed several times during one of our recent featured, much older movies, Safety Last!, but not here. 

The biggest reason for this is probably that I just don’t find dudes dressing as ladies to be inherently funny whatsoever. It’s not a value judgment, it just doesn’t work for me. And I do think this movie has aged badly, and think the critics holding it up as a paragon maybe haven’t actually seen it in a long time. I don’t say that because you can’t do a comedy today with guys dressing as girls (god knows Hollywood’s gonna keep trying). It’s actually for similar reasons to The Apartment, another Wilder/Lemmon collaboration from the following year that I’ve also written about, where there were elements of the plot that felt entirely foreign to a modern viewer. Except here those elements feel much more integral to actually finding this funny. 

For example, there’s a scene where Marilyn Monroe climbs into bed with Jack Lemmon (thinking he’s a girl) and then twelve more beautiful women pile in after her for a “party,” and he spends the next several minutes trying to get them out of his bed. Let me just say that no man in the world would react this way to that situation. On a more fundamental level, despite the film eventually being denied approval under the Production Code for, among other reasons, exploring “homosexual themes,” this does not seem to be a movie that even knows non-heterosexual people exist, much less one that is willing to actually deal with the implications of having two guys dressed as women for most of the movie while desperately lusting after other women. One of the big laugh lines when the movie originally came out came in a conversation between Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, where Curtis is horrified by the idea that Lemmon wants to marry a womanizing millionaire played by comedy veteran Joe E. Brown. “You’re a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?!” Lemmon’s cheerful response: “Security!”

A few things here, before I go too far off the rails. First of all, is this maybe the best version of this that could have been made in 1959? Maybe? Is this the Marilyn Monroe movie seen by the greatest number of people today? Probably. It was also the first big movie for Jack Lemmon, who gives a manic performance that makes me think that in the 1990s they would have cast Jim Carrey in this role. Jerry Lewis reportedly turned the role down, and Lemmon sent Lewis a box of chocolates every year to thank him for doing so.

One thing I did not know going in about Some Like It Hot was that it is a period piece… black and white makes a lot of time periods look sort of the same. The story is set in 1929, with Tony Curtis (playing his character as sort of a weirdo, unsuccessful Frank Sinatra) and Jack Lemmon as two down-on-their-luck jazz musicians who play in a speakeasy. After the speakeasy is shut down by a raid, they accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Left penniless and on the run, they decide to pretend to be women in order to join an all-female jazz band going on a tour of Florida, the only work their agent had when they went to him. The band’s lead singer is Sugar, played by none other than Marilyn Monroe. Both men immediately fall for her, but can’t act on their feelings because they’d blow their cover. They pretty much do it anyway. When they get to Florida, Lemmon is pursued by Brown’s millionaire, while Curtis creates a third weirdo character by pretending to be “a member of the Shell Oil family.” This involves doing a bizarre accent possessed by no human on Earth, sneaking onto Brown’s yacht, and offering Monroe a snack of “cold pheasant.” 

Marilyn Monroe is among the greatest icons of Hollywood, but I must confess that I hadn’t actually watched a full length movie with her in it (with the exception of All About Eve, in which she is in one scene). Her story is well known by know. She had an absolutely terrible childhood, which included getting married at 15 in an effort to get out of the foster care system. She played a series of “dumb blondes,” but it seems from all the accounts that she was both very intelligent and very troubled. I think I was expecting her to be something of a caricature. I was surprised to find how much nuance was up on screen. That’s it’s there on screen is something of a miracle, given the stories behind the scenes of what went on during filming of this movie.

For whatever reason, Monroe could not manage even to remember the simplest of lines. The story goes that she took fifty takes to deliver the line, “Hi, I’m Sugar,” correctly. The traditional story is that she was so hopped up on pills, she couldn’t think straight. Some have since suggested that she wasn’t happy with how her character was being portrayed and messed up on purpose until they’d use any take where she got her lines right, regardless of how she played it. In any case, everyone hated her, and when crew members jokingly asked Tony Curtis what it was like to kiss her, the famous story goes that he replied that, “it was like kissing Hitler.” This is particularly strange given that Monroe and Curtis were actually having an affair at the time, according to Curtis’ autobiography, despite her being married to Arthur Miller and him to Janet Leigh (their daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, had only been born recently). According to Curtis, this ended when he got Monroe pregnant. She had a miscarriage and her marriage to Miller ended soon afterward. Three years later, in 1962, she committed suicide via drug overdose.

Though there are several more shaggy bits sticking out of Some Like It Hot than I think there need to be, it is something a miracle that it’s, you know, a classic, and not the 1959 version of White Chicks. All of the performers are really giving their all, a fact made more impressive by the fact that they had already done it fifty times. It all works because Curtis and Lemmon aren’t completely ridiculous dressed up as women. The movie was supposed to be in color, Monroe’s contract specified it, but she agreed that the two men’s costumes only worked in black and white.

The most famous moment in Some Like It Hot is the final line. Unable to get through to Joe E. Brown with subtle hints, Lemmon rips off his wig and announces, “I’m a man!” To which Brown replies, completely deadpan, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” This may be why the Production Code refused to give the film its seal of approval. A few years earlier, that would have been a death blow. But with Monroe’s stardom, and general critical success, the movie was still a hit, and even got a bunch of Oscar nominations. It has since become a touchstone of American comedy. But it’s definitely not for me. 

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