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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.

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18 Responses

  1. Has there ever been a screenwriter who’s written half as many perfect last lines as Billy Wilder? I remember approaching this film cautiously because comedy doesn’t age well and the basic premise — two guys dress as girls — is not inherently funny anymore (of course, it’s as because this film spawned so many imitators that this is no longer funny as it is shifting social paradigms). But rarely have I laughed so hard at a film as I did with this. I think only Dr. Strangelove and This is Spinal Tap have made me laugh harder.

    • SHAMEFUL ADMISSION ALERT: I have never seen “Dr. Strangelove.” It’s going in the queue as we speak.

      “Some Like It Hot” belongs in the same category as “This Is Spinal Tap” in that it has aged perfectly thanks to Wilder’s script and some really terrific acting by Curtis, Monroe, Lemon and Joe E. Brown, who I LOVED as Osgood Fieldling.

      • *jaw drops* OK, if there are any other Kubrick films you haven’t seen, just go down the list and add them all. He’s like the one director I liked before I even got into movies who actually became better once I started really watching and analyzing film. 2001 A Space Odyssey is the only film that never shifts out of my top 10 when I constantly add or remove things.

      • Aside from “Full Metal Jacket” and “A Clockwork Orange,” I haven’t seen many Kubrick films. But I’m working on it…

      • All Stanley Kubrick films are worth seeing (having said that I haven’t seen Fear and Desire). Go back to the start and Killer’s Kiss and The Killing as well as the more famous ones. They are both great Noir thrillers.

      • I think Killer’s Kiss is too conventional, which isn’t a strong criticism but it particularly stands out when you get to The Killing and suddenly his meticulous genius presents itself. Though, he didn’t really hit his stride until Dr. Strangelove (The Killing and Paths of Glory especially are superb, but I think both Spartacus and Lolita have some big flaws). After Strangelove, he was unstoppable.

      • Bill and Jake, how do you two feel about “Eyes Wide Shut”? How does it stack up to the other big films in Kubrick’s career?

      • I think it’s been unfairly maligned since it’s release. Once you get past the “oooh, sex” factor it’s another great Kubrick film where he creates a surreal netherworld to explore humanity through the idea of sexuality. It’s really a movie about ppower when all is said and done.

        That being said, I don’t much care for Nicole Kidman’s performance and I think I’d put it near the bottom of Kubrick’s post-Killer’s Kiss filmography. It’s still great, but I don’t find itto have the same staying power as his other films.

      • OK, I meant to post my thoughts on EWS right under Bill, but for some reason it placed my post in the middle of existing comments. Weird.

      • I discussed Eyes Wide Shut with The Mad Hatter from The Dark of The Matinee last month. I think he feared he was the only person who liked it. When I suggested it as one of the best films of 1999 (a really good year for films) he said:

        “@ Fandango… I think you might be the first other person I’ve known who liked EYES WIDE SHUT too! I left it off the list since I usually get heckled when I bring it up.”

        My response:

        “Don’t worry about the hecklers, they probably don’t like movies. If you present a casual cinema goer with a two and a half hour film with no action and long slow scenes they are going to hate it. I always view the film as a darker version of After Hours (a really underrated film).

        A little story on the subject of the film: Back in 1997 (two years before it came out) while I was a student I was seeing a Norwegian girl who was over here working as an Au Pair. One night we were watching Interview With the Vampire on video, she mentioned she had met Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman a couple of months before (a few weeks before I had met her). She had been working on set a Luton Hoo (used for lots of other films including Four Weddings and a funeral) looking after the kids of the cast and crew. I had read in a Empire magazine that they were filming over here and knew it must be Eyes Wide Shut, (Luton Hoo is only ten minutes from where Stanley Kubrick lived at the time). I tried to explain that it was Stanley Kubrick’s first film for ten years. She looked blank not having a clue who he was. She described sets and costumes in intricate detail and even saw some of the party scene being shot and was completely oblivious to what she was seeing. The experience was as wasted on her as it was on lots of people who went to see the film expecting porn.”

        Link to hatters original post: http://mcneilmatinee.blogspot.com/2009/10/back-in-day-love-letter-to-1999.html

  2. I must apologise. For some reason I don’t comment on your blog, even though I read it. Any how, as far as Lemmon and Wilder go: The Apartment is it for me. Though this movie is still wonderful. And strangely, other than her beauty Monroe’s appeal still doesn’t reach me. Her favourite performance of her’s ironically is her very small but funny part in All About Eve,

    • I could see that Marilyn Monroe’s “charm” might be grating after awhile, but I’ll have to watch her other movies to make sure. “All About Eve” is definitely on my list.

  3. Great review. I’m not sure if this is my all time favourite film, it is certainly in my top three. This is what I had to say about it a few months back:

    http://fandangogroovers.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/a-truly-%e2%80%98must-see%e2%80%99-movie/

  4. I liked SLIH the first time I watched it, more than anything it’s a movie that should show people that even though her image may have been that of a bumbling idiot, Marilyn Monroe is one heck of an actress. She couldn’t remember her lines for anything, but once that camera started rolling and she finally hit the line right she was amazing.

    As an aside, this is Monroe’s second most famous movie for two reasons, 1) Wilder grew so frustrated that Monroe couldn’t get her line down in one scene that he taped the line inside of a dresser, only for Monroe to open up the wrong drawer, Wilder’s solution was to tape the line in every dresser drawer and 2) she was pregnant while filming.

  5. Oh yeah, and you do need to see more Kubrick then. He’s up there as one of my favorite directors, I have yet to see a movie form him that I didn’t like in some way, and I’ve seen all but a few of his films.

  6. Eyes Wide Shut, like every Kubrick film, requires a great deal of attention and at least a second viewing. Yet I find it to be one of his finest films, insofar as you can rank a man who made nothing but classics starting with Dr. Strangelove and even made two before that. The way his later career tended to work is that he’d make a film, it would be lambasted by a vocal minority, then by the time the next one rolled around 5, 7, 12 years later the old one would have sunk in with fans in time for them to rag on the new one. As EWS was his last, it received a drubbing that carried on longer than the rest, and really only recently have the tables turned from modest appreciation to a commanding majority of support.

    There are two kinds of acting in Kubrick’s films: explosive mania (the madcap comedy of Strangelove, the psychotic terror of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining), and emotionally muted borderline zombies upon which the audience foists their own emotional responses to the actions (e.g. Barry Lyndon). EWS definitely fits into the latter category, but Cruise and Kidman’s deceptively flat performances allow for a myriad of interpretations. Is the movie an exploration of sexual politics; a commentary on what can and cannot be shared with people, even partners; a blacker-than-black comedy about a naive, isolated, rich boy who nearly slips into madness when his stuffy little rulebook of life is torn up in front of him; or is it simply a surreal erotic thriller, a Lynchian version of Dangerous Liaisons? I think it’s all of these and more. It’s one of those films like Barton Fink where I’m afraid to write about it because what I see of the film changes with each viewing.

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