Joe E. Brown
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
Some Like It Hot May 18, 2020
ome Like It Hot (1959), co-written (with I.A.L. Diamond) and directed by Billy Wilder, is built on a gimmick so harebrained that it shouldn’t work. And yet it does, because Wilder and Diamond treat the movie’s batty hijinks as opportunities for comedic innovation and because its ensemble is so game. The film, set in pre-Depression 1929, circles around Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), a pair of
flat-broke musicians/best friends/roommates who, after serendipitously witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, go full drag and answer a casting call for an all-female music troupe bound for Florida. The choice, though objectively insane, seems to solve all their problems when pretending that the chances of getting caught don’t exist. Not only will their financial woes, typically caused by the perpetually gambling Joe, be solved — they’ll also have a decent cover-up as mobster Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his crew work to hunt them down. (It’s best not to think too hard about the numerous ethical problems this plan, which will be pretty successfully pulled off, entails, and the numerous other ethical problems that come to the fore later in the film.)
Much of the comedy of Some Like It Hot derives simply from how Joe and Jerry carry themselves as women. Joe, now Josephine, speaks in a lower register that makes him sound like Lauren Bacall plugging her noise while singing. He
habitually makes his lips poutier when he isn’t speaking — he looks like a damselfish. Joe's doing his best imitation of what he thinks of when he thinks of a screen siren.
In the case of Jerry, now Daphne, the masquerade, as noted by the critic Angelica Jade Bastien recently, seems freeing. Even though he struggles to walk in high heels (“How do they walk into these things, huh?,” he wonders aloud, totally flummoxed. “How do they keep their balance?”) and learns that skirts are not as consistently practical as he’s always assumed, there’s a sense that this unlocking of new mannerisms and inflections reveals a part of himself that he’s having fun exploring. (With his transformation comes a new tick: an overexcited, girlish giggle, which, paired with his over-lipsticked mouth, makes him look funnily clownish.)
In movies in which a protagonist inhabits an “other,” from Tootsie (1983) to even Mulan (1998), stressed above all is how the temporary transformation might make a person more compassionate, understanding, of another’s experience. In Some Like It Hot, that isn’t as much emphasized, though there are plenty of womanly frustrations Joe and Jack get acquainted with, like being hit on constantly. What the movie is most intrigued with is the exciting reality that we all contain way more multitudes than we realize; years after we think we’ve gotten to know ourselves pretty well, we may learn that there is a component of ourselves that just hasn’t seen the light of day. Curtis’ and Lemmon’s performances are so great in part because they seem to understand this, too.
More conflicts bubble up in Some Like It Hot that for a time eclipse the fact that its leads are being chased by the mob. We, like them, are having too much fun to think about that. One distraction comes from Joe and Jerry's being immediately smitten with the troupe’s de facto frontwoman and ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe); much of the film is spent watching them try to win her over without explicitly flirting. Once the group gets to the Floridian shores, though, Joe takes the “lead” through more deception. When not rehearsing and performing, he dresses up as the yacht-having heir to Shell Oil; he quickly wins Sugar over by doing a sort of dispassionate Cary Grant imitation. Jerry, meanwhile, becomes the object of affection of an aging, seven-times-married tycoon named Osgood (a scene-stealing Joe E. Brown) in the guise of Daphne, with whom Osgood is automatically and uncynically in love. (Brown also gets the last word in Some Like It Hot — the punchline to what might be its most unforgettable joke.)
Monroe is at her apex in Some Like It Hot. She, like Curtis and Lemmon, is on the surface playing a type; the first time we see her, Jerry analogizes her to Jell-O on springs. But Sugar's characterization is infused with tender-feeling humanity; Wilder and Diamond write her with nuance and oftentimes sympathy while concurrently turning her into an effective, larger-than-life figure encompassing the desires of its male leads. Sugar calls herself a dumb blonde in Some Like It Hot — the pejorative label that continues to be hurled at the actress playing her. But because she says it with a dash of self-deprecation, and gives it more context by continuing to talk about the frustrations she’s continually faced in her career and love life (a big issue she’s had is being romantically deceived by the men in bands she played with in the past), Sugar seems like someone with a sharp double vision — a perception of herself and how men perceive her. Movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, both released in 1953, had Monroe doing the full dumb blonde routine with different shades of directorial condescension. Some Like It Hot refrains from this. She wields a similar power, but jokes are not made at her expense to the same degree.
The movie, aside from 1953’s Niagara, is also the one, I think, which best showcases Monroe’s preternatural relationship with the camera. Few have had this sort of presence — this way of almost transcending the photographic image. Monroe was famously mercurial on the set of Some Like It Hot — so difficult to work with, with her perpetual lateness and demand for retakes, that Curtis notoriously once compared kissing her to kissing Hitler. Yet she feels so effortless, in control — seamlessly funny and seeming in full command of her image. “It is an act of the will to watch anyone else while she is on the screen,” Roger Ebert aptly remarked in a retrospective review published in 2000. Some Like It Hot does many things well, but perhaps its most remarkable feat is that it hosts a triptych of some of movie history's great comedic performances.
It all could come crashing down by the end. The ubiquitous deception in Some Like It Hot is primed to cause a lot of hurt when and if revealed. But Wilder and Diamond, masters of comedy, keep the movie agreeably operating at the fever
pitch of a farce, too giddy and frankly crazy to even come close to crashing down — at least onscreen. (It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the film ends before the stock market’s 1929 implosion.) When the seismic truths are finally revealed to Sugar and Osgood, it’s basically no big deal — and are accompanied by a last line that I think best summarizes the deft combination of wit, absurdity, and likable frivolity Some Like It Hot captures. A+