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No. 13: “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

“I don’t care how rich he is as long as he has a yacht, his own private railroad car and his own toothpaste.” ~~Sugar Kane

Wiseguys, lust, boozers, a massacre, elevator gropings, love, transvestitism — calling Billy Wilder’s nutty “Some Like It Hot” a movie with “something for everyone” is tantamount to describing Marilyn Monroe as “good-looking.” There’s nary a taboo topic left untackled in this darkly comic free-for-all. But what’s crazier than the script is the fact that Wilder pulls off everything he tries — and how. There’s not a single misstep here. “Some Like It Hot” is a real diamond, alright, and the kind Sugar Kane’s just panting to put on her finger.

And much like any glittery bauble, Wilder’s film is easy to appreciate, hard to describe. What seems simple becomes complex upon inspection. There are so many nuances hidden beneath the slapstick and the knee-slappers in “Some Like It Hot” that a magnifying glass couldn’t catch them. These complications begin with Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay, which thrusts us into 1929 Chicago and the lives of Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two musicians scraping by on meager gigs. Then the two become the only living witnesses to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and escape, but not before mafioso Spats Colombo (George Raft) gets a gander at their faces. What to do, what to do? Why, dress in drag — Joe becomes “Josephine,” Jerry, “Daphne” — and join an all-girl jazz band headed to Florida!

Hilarity ensues. Wait, that’s another understatement. The cross-dressing signals the film’s turn into hard-core comedy, a winning combination of pratfalls and one-liners rendered perfect by crack timing. Enter Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s lead singer, and all unholy hell busts loose. Joe falls for her but he’s dressed in drag. Step careful, Josephine — or should I say “Junior”? Jerry catches the eye of millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), a revolving door of wives who has no idea his pearl’s hiding more than bloomers under that dress. Osgood’s a persistent little sucker, too, despite Daphne’s rebukes: “Pull in your reel, Mr. Fielding, you’re barking up the wrong fish!” And of course Spats and his minions are nipping at Joe and Jerry’s heels.

All these balls whipping through the air, all landing right where they should — this is the true wizardry of “Some Like It Hot,” a masterpiece masquerading as a haphazard mess. Perhaps the film is an exercise in madness, but it’s chaos on purpose. Out of control and random as things sometimes seem, Wilder’s behind the curtain grinning away, knowing his script will reveal all to us if we keep our ears perked and our eyes peeled. His eye for design, too, serves him well; he creates a vivid black-and-white portrait of 1929 America, where not even sexy jazz clubs and gin joints can obscure the harsh realities of life.

Wilder’s characters, however, have learned to turn their lemons into martinis. Curtis lights up the screen as Josephine/Junior, a man willing to be anyone but himself to get what he wants. Joe’s an escapist at heart, someone willing to “hock the paddle” when he’s up the creek financially, and Curtis lends him a debonair air of adventure and romance. Lemmon is the opposite; Jerry’s all manic exuberance. Lemmon’s timing is spot-on, and every movement feels juiced with total enthusiasm. (Note his hysterical reaction to Osgood’s proposal.) Together, these two are nothing less than sheer comedic perfection.

As for Monroe, well, before “Some Like It Hot” her much-lauded allure escaped me. Now all the hype makes perfect sense. Monroe projects a captivating mix of boldness and vulnerability. There’s something dented about Monroe that suggests she’s more than a pin-up queen who can carry a tune. Wilder captures this essence — Jerry’s bang-on when he calls Sugar “Jell-O on springs” — flawlessly; he trusts Monroe to find the character, and sure enough she makes Sugar Kane the kind of bruised bombshell who’s twice as intriguing as she is beautiful.

Yes, that’s the real kicker of Wilder’s creation, those layers of intrigue begging to be picked through. “Spills, thrills, laughs and games. This may even turn out to be a surprise party,” Jerry tells Sugar. That’s “Some Like It Hot” to the letter.