Some Like It Hot (1959)
Written by Billy Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder, as previously established, authored or at least refined many of the comedic subgenres in mainstream American cinema. Some Like It Hot takes classic tropes from authors like Shakespeare with the protagonist in disguise as another gender who is in love with another character and modernized them. Some Like It Hot is set in the 1920s, but its story is a classical one seen through the 1960s’ eyes while reflecting back across literature. There are definitely some problematic issues when viewed through the context of our modern gender progressive era. Additionally, it is a genuinely entertaining and influential piece of film.
Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) play in a jazz band at a Chicago speakeasy during the Prohibition era. They witness a gangland murder and are spotted. This forces them to leave town by accepting a job intended for an all-women jazz orchestra. Disguising themselves as Josephine and Geraldine respectively, the duo heads to Miami with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters. Things become complicated when Joe falls for the band’s star Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), and Jerry is locked in the sights of a wealthy older man.
Some Like It Hot holds no pretense about being a farce. This is the same vein of comedy found in sitcoms like Laverne & Shirley or Three’s Company, where characters get in a situation and only further complicate it by refusing to be upfront and honest. It’s a very classic structure that, when done competently, is a fun comedic puzzle, the audience trying to figure out how they will get out of this situation.
The background of the film adds context to what was going in 1959, especially in terms of gender and sexuality. Monroe was not in a good place in her life. She’d recently had a miscarriage and was dealing with chemical dependency. Because Monroe was so addicted to pills, she would have trouble remembering her line and might go through 30 plus takes for a single scene because of it. Wilder criticized Monroe at the time, but her handlers, acting coach and husband, both created drama on the set and appear to have been the real cause of the director’s stress. When the film was finished in post-production, Wilder changed his tune and praised Monroe’s performance saying she did a fantastic job.
The intensely sexual nature of the film challenged the notions of the Hays Code, the censorship system in place at the time. Wilder didn’t care and released the movie without their approval, and as a result, this movie was one of the pictures responsible for invalidated the whole censoring system. I was definitely surprised by the outfits Monroe was wearing, which would be considered pretty salacious even by today’s standards. I’m also disappointed yet again at how Monroe has been reduced to a sex symbol since her death. Despite the apparent lack of professionalism on set, her performance as Sugar is both genuinely funny and full of pathos.
Sugar is a sad character who tells a story when we first meet her of being used by men and feeling like she’s at the end of the line. Because this is a studio comedy, we get an ending that didn’t feel real for this character. When Sugar discovers that Joe has been lying the whole time, posing as two different identities, it slides off her back, and she completely accepts him. I suspect someone who had lived Sugar’s life would have sunk further into despondency that yet another jazz musician came into her life and lied to her.
I also enjoyed Jack Lemmon as Jerry, a real showcase for his slightly manic comedic chops. In my lifetime, I’ve always seen Lemmon presented in light comedies or dramas, so this was a real revelation. He’s less manic Jerry Lewis though still in the same vein, somewhere more like a slightly serious Jim Carrey. There’s something very modern about Jerry’s performance, he flips back and forth between being very aware of the gender he’s playing and then melting right into the role, smitten with his suitor. Of course, the movie has Joe snapping him back into reality, but I think it would have been more fun for Jerry to really lean into being a woman, something a little too modern for films of that time.
The problematic nature of the movie is that it traffics in trans tropes that are very negative. The cliche of a man pretending to be a woman to deceive a biological woman for sexual purposes has done a lot of harm to the transgender community. This cultural stereotype informs many Americans when issues of gender & bathroom come before state legislatures. The reality is that trans people simply want to live their lives and want systems in place to help them deal with some of the awkwardness that gender norms have imposed on them. The “man in a dress who wants to rape your daughter” is such an insipid piece of unfounded paranoia. While it’s not played in such a nefarious manner in Some Like It Hot, it’s still there and is something that should be addressed when discussing the movie in a contemporary context.