Billy Wilder is one of the great American writer/directors of the 20th century. He made films like The Apartment (1960), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Sabrina (1954), all considered to be classics. So, I found it strange that the comedy Some Like it Hot is his most revered and remembered film.
I have only seen a couple of Wilder’s films, and Some Like it Hot is not one of them, but it’s the first film on the Sight & Sound top 50 that I recognized. It’s also probably one of the more well-known films on the list. I know a bunch of people who have seen and love the film. So, I was excited to give it a view for the first time.
I think the reason this film has such a legacy is that it is both a light gender-bending comedy and a deeper study of identity. You can love the surface or dig deeper and enjoy the film for other reasons. It’s got a lot going on thematically, and balances it all so well, that people of all types and interests can enjoy it.
The premise is two Chicago musicians who witness a brutal mob killing go on the run with an all-girl band to Florida. In order to go with this band, they (men) have to pretend to be women. Of course one of the band members is Marilyn Monroe, so the men fall instantly in love with her and hijinks ensue.
First off, I need to note that this is the first Marilyn Monroe film I have ever seen, and she is a surprisingly natural actress. She kills it in this film. She gets laughs, but can play a bit dramatic. She plays a dumb blonde, but somehow she does it with intelligence that never has you feeling sorry for her. She has made her choices and owns them. And she isn’t some innocent girl being lied to by the men in her life. The film makes a point to show she is also wearing masks, so to speak, to impress or entrap the men she is interested in. Monroe does a great job at all of these things, while showing real vulnerability and comedic chops.
The two musicians, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, are also well-drawn characters for a comedy film. Curtis’ Joe (or Josephine) is a risk taker who wants to throw convention to the wind. He falls head over heels for Monroe’s Sugar, and goes through all kinds of hijinks in order to win her affection, including pretending to be her best friend as a women, and a rich, sensitive oil man as her suitor.
Lemmon’s Jerry (or Daphne) is a bit more complex, and his ending a bit more ambiguous. He starts the film trying to seduce Sugar, but as the film continues, he goes on a date with an older man as Daphne in order to help Joe get a date with Sugar (As I said, there is a lot going on). The older man and Daphne end up getting engaged, and Jerry seems to be excited about it. Is Jerry a homosexual or just practical? Is he playing this moment for laughs or is her seriously confused? The film kinda leaves that up to the audience to decide, which is pretty revolutionary for a film in 1959.
And the film doesn’t dwell or sit on the conflict. The characters do feel like they owe the truth to the people they are lying to, but it isn’t this huge moral quandary for them. And when characters learn the truth, we aren’t treated to a montage of them feeling bad, betrayed, and eventually learning to forgive. It’s as if understanding is their first mode of response, not offence. Of course they were being lied to, everyone lies to impress or get what they want. All the characters are guilty so none can judge.
Some might find this problematic, in the era of #MeToo. The man lies to the woman, to get her into bed. Turns out what he said was to get her there wasn’t true, but she just accepts it because she isn’t too smart (her words, not mine). Not really a romance for the modern era. If this movie were made today, it may be double the run time, because we’d have to have the film explain to us all the ways in which what happened was wrong and hurtful.
All of this makes Some Like it Hot a mixed bag to me. There is a lot going on that I think critics are over-reading from the film in order to elevate it. And there is a lot going on that critics are ignoring about it that definitely hurt the film now and in the future. As a piece of pure entertainment, this movie hits all the right boxes and deserves its classic status. As anything more, I think it fails.