Billy Wilder was fond of a story involving the producer David O. Selznick. “I told him a little bit about ‘Some Like It Hot,’” Wilder recalled. “And he said, ‘The Valentine’s Day Murder?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s in the beginning.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy. You mean real machine guns and blood, in a comedy?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He says, ‘Total failure.’ He was wrong.” We saw how wrong when we watched the film for our latest Viewing Party.
Nobody’s perfect — not even Selznick. “Some Like It Hot” is a classic about two musicians in 1929, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who transform into Josephine and Daphne to join a female jazz band, with gangsters chasing after them. It starts with a massacre and soon turns into a zany cross-dressing caper complete with Marilyn Monroe, millionaires real and fake, musical numbers and nonstop gags. The mix of bloodshed and high jinks no longer raises eyebrows.
The sexual politics might. Our readers had a lot of fun with Curtis and Lemmon dressed in 1920s women’s clothing, but they also had some issues — as did we.
Where the actresses in Wilder’s other films are allowed to show the full range of their talents, Marilyn is reduced to nothing more than her sex appeal in that shocking dress. She really does always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. — Emily, Salt Lake City
A.O. SCOTT It’s a complicated picture, bracingly ahead of its time in some ways, wincingly dated in others. Lemmon and Joe E. Brown (as the millionaire Osgood) seem to make a case for gay marriage more than half a century before the Obergefell decision. At the same time, one of the sources of the movie’s enduring appeal — Monroe’s performance as the lovelorn ukuleleist Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk — is also sometimes a source of discomfort. It can be hard to disentangle sex appeal from exploitation, or to avoid seeing the shadow of Monroe’s profound unhappiness in Sugar’s melancholy moments.
The male fantasies about women seem juvenile and Marilyn Monroe’s sexuality, especially in that amazingly revealing gown she wears in the “seduction” scene with Tony Curtis, is both exploited and sent up. These aspects of the film, plus knowing what we know now about Monroe, make the film seem just straight-up unfunny. exploitative. B.G. Klinger, Chicago
“I think there have been more books on Marilyn Monroe than on World War II,” Wilder once said, “and there’s a great similarity.” Whatever he meant by that, it’s true that she has been posthumously transformed from sex object to object of interpretation. “Some Like It Hot” certainly uses her to generate erotic heat, in that almost invisible Orry-Kelly gown and in that steamy make-out scene with Curtis. But surely Sugar is more than eye candy. Lemmon and Curtis are justly celebrated for their winking, campy, affectionate sendups of femininity, but isn’t Monroe doing something equally sophisticated?
Sugar’s masculine aggression as she seduces a sexually repressed Josephine/Cary Grant/Tony Curtis turns another male/female encounter completely inside out. The sex object playing the role of sex predator works to perfection thanks to Monroe’s performance. We realize again that what we see is seldom what we get. After all, as Sweet Sue tells us, “All my girls are virtuosos.” Conrad Bailey, Prescott, AZ
MANOHLA DARGIS What she’s doing is as knowing as the rest of the film is, which is why it remains such a fascinating object to revisit again and again. Wilder was a virtuoso and seems to have been a bastard or at least played one in life. Ed Sikov opens his biography of him with a quote in which Wilder says, “In real life, most women are stupid,” adding that so are those who write celeb bios. Sikov isn’t alone in seeing, as he puts it, “a streak of misogyny” in Wilder’s career, though I see him as an equal opportunity cynic, one who gave women fantastic roles.
And Sugar is a role and as much a caricature of femininity as Josephine and Daphne are. Monroe is often rightfully remembered as victim, including of the movie industry, but it’s crucial to see that she helped create this iconic blond bombshell called Marilyn Monroe. She conformed, as the theorist Richard Dyer argues, to what defines desirability in women and that desirability is circumscribed: “To be the ideal,” Dyer writes, “Monroe had to be white, and not just white but blonde, the most unambiguously white you can get.”
Along these lines it’s worth pointing out that both this emblem of whiteness and this very white movie were created right in the middle of the civil rights movement.
SCOTT “Some Like It Hot” arrived at a fraught and fascinating moment in the racial history of Hollywood (and America). The previous year, Curtis had been paired with Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones,” an earnest attempt to promote what used to be called brotherhood. A few weeks after the premiere of “Some Like It Hot” came Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life,” a sweeping melodrama of interracial friendship starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.
In that company, “Some Like It Hot” looks like a bit of a throwback — in other ways too. There’s a pre-Code energy to its naughtiness, and the whiz-bang dialogue (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) sounds like a salute to classic screwball. If this movie had been made in the ’30s or ’40s, though, the cast would most likely have included a handful of black actors, playing Pullman porters, hotel workers and jazz musicians. Their absence can be taken as a sign of sensitivity, a move away from stereotypical, servile roles. I’m not saying those roles should have been there, only that Hollywood, not for the first or last time, found erasure to be the easiest solution to a problem of representation.
I don’t think pointing this out spoils the fun. This is still a movie that makes me laugh out loud as few others do — a feeling shared by most of our readers.
I saw it at the drive-in in the summer of 1959. I remember my mother saying to my father, not too far in, something like, “Caroline said this was funny, but if I had known it was like this, we wouldn’t have brought the kids.”—Marty Baldessari
DARGIS It’s never simple loving movies, from whatever era. I enjoy “Some Like It Hot,” its laughs and contradictions. Sugar is especially fascinating because she’s hypersexualized and babyish, knowing and innocent, and her innocence is also sincere and a deception. The film plays appearances, with drag, lies, falsity (and falsies), including in that hilarious bit when Sugar tells Joe, who’s now pretending to be Junior, the Shell Oil scion with the Cary Grant voice, that “I’ve never been completely alone with a man before — in the middle of the night — in the middle of the ocean.” The first clause is a winking lie; the rest of the sentence a delicious joke.
The whole movie feels like it was directed inside gigantic quotation marks. It’s a live-action cartoon with rat-a-tat guns and laughs, and gargoyle villains right out of Dick Tracy. Even Osgood’s signature “Zowie!” sounds like it should be in a comic-strip speech bubble. Some of the jokes are near-throwaways — like the “24 Hour Service” sign stuck in the window of a funeral parlor — but much of the humor is about who we are and who we’re supposed to be. The most brilliant stroke, of course, is Jerry-Daphne, who embraces his role as a “woman” so thoroughly that she becomes engaged to Osgood and who, after prodding from Joe (who gasses on about laws and conventions) needs to keep repeating “I’m a boy, I’m a boy” — oh, boy!
In the scene where Lemmon announces his engagement to Joe E. Brown, Curtis asks, “Why would a guy want to marry a guy?” Lemmon’s response “Security!” I have never heard a huger howl of laughter than when seeing this at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in the mid eighties. — Neil, Boston