Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.
A 1959 film about two cross-dressing jazz musicians is one of the most beloved comedies in the history of the medium? And viewed decades after the fact -- in an era that has (generally) embraced transgender stars from Caitlyn Jenner to Laverne Cox and beyond -- it manages to bob and weave around the kind of cheap panic that would play just fine in the ‘50s, but make someone with modern sensibilities cringe, too? Truth really is stranger than fiction.
Some Like It Hot is a brisk, whimsical delight, and, to a first-time viewer in the 21st century, a bit of a relief in being so. Just based on the back-of-the-cover description, you’d be forgiven for worrying.
The 1950s were a different time, after all. With many other seminal works in film history, from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to, well, pretty much any Western with native peoples from before around, say, 1980, appreciation has to come within a narrower lane. You appreciate Griffith’s mastery of the craft -- his innovation -- while despising his overall message.
Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder frees us from our concerns, as well as his contemporary audience from their own, with the setup. Those two jazz musicians, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, are witnesses to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, and as such have little choice but to skip town on the fastest train they can find. The train happens to be carrying an all-female jazz group, which is a nice bit of absolvement allowing most viewers in any decade to really enjoy themselves.
For Wilder’s part, the story choices were intentionally designed to provide that kind of cover. Wilder called the premise “the hammerlock of the story, the ironclad thing in which these two guys trapped in women’s clothing cannot just take off their wigs and say, ‘I’m a guy,’” and as such, “the most important invention that made everything possible.”
It didn’t appease everyone. The comically named National Legion of Decency, which sounds like the most humorless, unwanted superhero team ever assembled, condemned the film with a capital C at the time. The rest of us, well, we’re left to enjoy it.
I’ve passed the point where I can continue to ignore Marilyn Monroe’s outsized presence, because the enjoyment of this film, and its legacy reaching all the way down to the present, is due to her more than anyone else. She is supposed to be the third wheel here, providing a romantic foil for the two ostensible stars in Curtis and Lemmon. In point of fact, she “steals it, as she walked away with every movie she was in,” to borrow a line from the great Roger Ebert.
My exposure to Monroe up to this point had been limited. It’s not so much that -- restricted mostly to clips and montages of her work -- I’ve wondered why she became so iconic. I mean, just look at the woman. It is more that I’ve chalked too much of it up to a mix of her looks, the sexual repression of the ‘50s, and her untimely death.
This is ignorance, plain and simple, and something that, with Some Like It Hot, I’ve begun to correct.
The striking thing about Monroe is an irresistible illusion of sexuality that goes beyond her looks. There is an apparent comfort in her own skin and figure -- I use the word apparent because her sadly real personal troubles off-screen seem to belie actual comfort -- that is intoxicating. It is simultaneously powerful and unassuming, and it is what allows her to both be an object of desire and to crack jokes right alongside her co-stars, Curtis and Lemmon in this case.
“She looks like a real woman” my wife exclaimed during Monroe’s infamous rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” This exclamation is about Monroe’s surprisingly generous, realistic curves, yes, but, I’d also argue it is about her overall presence -- that blend of confidence and fragility that you miss when you only see her on a poster or imagine her singing a seductive version of “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy.
Monroe’s mere presence almost obscures everything else in the film, but not quite. It is just so wonderfully odd given its plain-seeming plot. Curtis’ third persona, that of an almost asexual Shell oil heir named Junior, meant to win over Monroe romantically, is memorably and terrifically bizarre, from his voice to his attire to his behavior. Lemmon’s role, meanwhile, is much more in line with the rest of his career -- nervous, self-deprecating, humorously desperate. But it ends on such a strange, timelessly funny note, with him revealing his gender to an actual millionaire that has been courting him and the millionaire responding, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
It’s a carefree conclusion for a carefree film. Some Like It Hot is the cinematic equivalent of tossing your hat in to the whipping wind. It’s easy and breezy -- the kind of film that goes by so quickly because it's just so darn much fun.