by Daniel Suddes
Some Like it Hot (1948) Director: Billy Wilder Screenplay: Billy Wilder and L.A.L. Diamond Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe OSCAR COUNT (1) – Best Costume Design
It is impossible to measure the film’s initial impact. The film and Marilyn Monroe have become such an accepted part of culture that seeing them is almost like seeing a famous painting. It is recognized as important, people will feel pleased that they saw it, but I am sure many will wonder what the point is.
Yet this remains one of the best films ever made. Many films today barely understand what it means to be a comedy or a drama. This film creates a situation that could never exist outside of a comedy. The whole idea cross dressing is barely believable – Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are both very ugly women, but no one ever seems to notice. I doubt that this would get past the pitch meeting today. The whole idea is hard to take seriously.
But it all is executed so well that it is easy to see why it was tried. Each of the leads (Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe as well as Joe E. Brown) give the best performances of their careers. They invite audiences to laugh and share in their situation.
Unlike most comedies, this film is not really a satire. It is not aimed at any sort of part of a culture (unless cross dressing was some sort of 50s fad that I am unaware of) and does not seek to score points against any particular figure. Its aim is simpler – it only seeks to make audiences laugh. That is a rarity today. Most comedies think they need to take aim at something in order to be funny. Not Some Like It Hot. It does not need such invitations to make people laugh.
There is some subtle references in the film. On the surface, the film is about organized crime. However, it is nothing but a deep sex comedy – about marriage and attraction. Monroe is described as a “Jello mold on springs” and the whole idea is that men are going crazy over Jack Lemmon (in drag). One old tycoon even proposes to him (leading to one of the all-time great scenes, in which Lemmon describes the proposal, pausing to shake his maracas). What, exactly, does he see in her? No one knows – they merely see his sincerity. It helps define one of the maxims of comedy –acting dumb in a serious situation is never funny. Acting serious in a dumb situation – now that will always be funny.
In it is impossible to talk about the film without describing the myth of Monroe. She remains one of Hollywood’s biggest treasures – but some people are still hard pressed as to why that is. She could really only play one role. However, she sold that role in a way that has never been emulated. I don’t know how many actresses have subsequently tried to play the role of the ditzy seductress. I know how many of those performances are as memorable – zero. Monroe managed to sell herself in a way that was exactly what audiences wanted and worked with a director who was able to utilize her skills better than any other.
What of the rest? It’s mostly Marx Brothers territory. It’s not so much about the plot, the performances, or the direction as it is just trying to create a jumble of screen anarchy. This is actually quite revolutionary – everyone from Monty Python to South Park has poked fun at gender bending and cross dressing in the same manner as this film. John Waters pretty much built his own career on the territory initially staked out by Billy Wilder. This film has actually been copied multiple times. Yet it never seems to register with people, because this film is very hard to copy.
The strength of the film can be seen throughout, but the final scene is the best at exemplifying the film’s strength. Brown and Lemmon are riding in a speed boat together, while Lemmon argues about their upcoming marriage. Specifically, he tries to call it off, listing various flaws, only to have Brown dismiss them (ie. “I can’t have children.” “We can adopt some.”) The payoff of this sequence is one of the finest punch lines ever. The line is famous, but the set-up is so meticulously done that it can be seen again and again and will always be funny. Just as the film will always be funny.
Did You Know? Marilyn Monroe required almost forty takes to complete some of her more basic scenes. At one point, the script called for Monroe to say a line while opening a drawer. She kept forgetting it, so Wilder had the line pasted in every drawer in case Monroe opened the wrong one.