#332. Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like it Hot is delightful as a comedy and surprisingly gripping as a thriller (surprisingly violent for its era) and but I’ve had a weird reaction to it because somehow, despite having heard the title a million times and having seen clips of the last big joke, where Jack Benny reveals to his fiancé that he’s been a man in drag this whole time, I still never learned–prior to sitting down and watching it–what the movie was about, or if it was even a comedy; all I knew, going in, is that it stars Marilyn Monroe (whose performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is I think one of my favorite comedic roles on the List so far) and its directed by Billy Wilder, who rattled my saber pretty hard last year with two great movies back-to-back: Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole.

            So I was psyched to see the pair at play! Thought for sure it’d be moody and broody and great.

            And it is great, and it is kinda broody (the gritty urban opening with its mobster subplot), but you can’t say it’s moody. It isn’t glum at the ending isn’t hopeless. In fact it’s weirdly bright compared to those other Wilder movies. It’s a genuinely funny comedy that made me think (speaking of Blondes) about Howard Hawks, whose action movies (To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, Scarface) are as iconic as his comedies (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby), and who’s obviously in a class of his own, almost nobody’s that versatile, but, since he and Billy Wilder are of roughly the same generation, I started thinking, “Maybe filmmakers were just naturally more versatile back in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” when really it’s just that they belonged to the studio system, which kept them working constantly, so they were much more inclined to diversify, take a shot at different genres so that they weren’t hopping from dark broody picture to dark broody picture.

They got to add a little levity here and there (conversely, it seems comic film stars have a universal itch to try something dark, Jim Carey and Robin Williams being the quickest examples that come to mind–but the same goes for Chris Rock with his new horror movie Spiral).

            My point is that, having watched and loved two brilliant and morbid Billy Wilder movies before this one, I was expecting more of the same; then, when I saw that it’s as brilliantly funny and light as those other movies were morbid and moving, I had the strange feeling of appreciating a movie, recognizing that it was very good, but also being kinda disappointed cuz it deviated so sharply from what I’d hoped for.

            But I was also dazzled by the talent on display and started wondering, Who knew Billy Wilder was so good with comedy?

Director Billy Wilder

            Everyone, apparently. Apart from being universally celebrated as a great American comedy, Some Like it Hot is almost as widely revered as the great American comedy.

            I hate confronting my own petulant contrarian reflex but, once I realized how fanatically beloved this movie is, I started reeling back my own enthusiasm, double-guessing it.

            But no: a couple months have passed and I’m re-watching clips on YouTube and browsing some of the commentary (which, along with Mon Oncle, is making me realize that writing about comedy is a big challenge for brainy movie reviewers; after all, saying “it made me laugh” doesn’t make your piece seem all that important) and I’m settling into the fact that, when I strip away my expectations, I probably find the movie as delightful as most people. I don’t think it’s the greatest comedy ever made in America. But it’s certainly up there with Hawks’s great comedies of the ‘30s–especially in the way that, rather than being hysterical, it just feels like a really good story, well-told, that happens to be funny throughout.

            The premise has Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis as broke musicians who end up running from the mob after they witness what’s essentially the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: a group of mobsters lined up against a wall and then machine-gunned by another group.

            On the lam, our heroes dress in drag and join a woman’s band, where Lemmon buddies up to Marilyn Monroe, and Curtis falls in lust with her.

Tony Curtis on the left, Jack Lemmon on the right.

            Also: can’t say exactly why I don’t like Tony Curtis, but I don’t—though I’ll be quick to point out that I might just dislike him because, as with James Mason, he keeps getting anti-hero roles: in The Defiant Ones he’s an arrogant racist, in Sweet Smell of Success he’s a smarmy exploitative celebrity agent, and here, in Some Like it Hot, he’s a bossy, deceitful, lecherous straight man to Jack Lemmon’s aloof, affable, buoyant con artist (they’re both smarmy and dishonest, but one’s at least likeable).

            That being said: Curtis does a Cary Grant impersonation, while trying to convince Monroe that he’s an oil millionaire, that is so hysterically on-point I’ve had to watch it five or six times.

            Monroe’s performance is great but also complicated, in retrospect, because her turbulent personal history, her depression, are made all the more haunting when I see her playing here the breathy, pouty, what-me-worry sex fantasy for two imbeciles—a character who repeatedly and shruggingly derides her own stupidity just as casually as she ‘fesses up to (and indulges) a drinking problem.

Marilyn Monroe

Meanwhile the heroes and audience are meant to just focus on her beauty. I’d guess she’s enjoying playing the ditz here, and she’s iconic in the role, but it really is a fantasy for men and not nearly so vivid as her character in Blondes.

            Plus, to know how closely this role might have mapped to how the actor felt in her private life, and how she suffered, is a bit harrowing.

            Morbid note to end on, I know—but I don’t intend to rain on her performance!, the performance is great!, it’s just…the gloss of history, y’know?

            And then Jack Lemmon is…great. Just wonderful. Like all the other great early- and mid-20th century comedians, I knew of his name and face but not his work, and this was more revelatory and refreshing than my discovery of Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models or Bob Hope in The Paleface.

            Something about Lemmon’s schtick, it’s got some vague quality of heart beneath the jokes.


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