Girls… Girls… Girls?: Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’

Billy Wilder’s 1959 ‘Some Like It Hot’ remains a brilliantly written, well-acted satire stuffed into a big broad buddy burlesque.

The standard film fan mantra goes a little something like this: “Some Like It Hot is a work of certified comedic genius and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other great examples of the genre, perhaps even among the best films of all time.” Like championing Citizen Kane or revering Hitchcock (or Godard…or Truffaut…or Kubrick), it’s part of the movie maven’s core make-up. You can’t contradict this truism less you lose your place in the pantheon of advanced art advocates.

With that in mind, don’t expect this review to be contrarian. Billy Wilder’s 1959 farce remains a stellar cinematic experience from top to bottom, a brilliantly written, well-acted satire stuffed into a big broad buddy burlesque. If your only experience with drag belongs to Benny Hill, Monty Python, or the Kids in the Hall, it becomes a necessary lesson in the reconfiguring of routines. If you’ve seen in once and were underwhelmed, a second viewing is almost mandatory.

It’s Prohibition and jokey, down on their luck jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) have just stumbled upon the remnants of gangster Spats Columbo’s (George Raft) latest St. Valentine’s Day ‘present’. In deadly Dutch with the Chicago mob, the pair need to get out of town and get out fast. The solution? Dress in women’s clothing and take up with Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee) and her all-girl band as they head to Florida for a few weeks in the sun.

Adopting the personas ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’ our heroes hop on board the train and instantly befriend the bubble-headed blond singer/ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). Having learned of her proclivity for millionaires – and sax players – Joe decides to don a disguise and woo her. In the meantime, a dorky middle aged tycoon (Joe E. Brown) staying at the resort falls hard for Daphne. Then, to make matters worse, Spats and his gang show up at the same Miami hotel.

In some ways, Some Like It Hot can never fully live up to its hype – at least, not initially. It’s hilarious, but the comedic consistency that many argue over comes later, upon repeated viewings and a certain comfort level with the characters. Sure, Marilyn Monroe sparkles like a beautiful braindead pearl, her delivery and timing matching Curtis and Lemmon’s beat for beat. Yes, Joe E. Brown lecherous over the hill millionaire playboy takes a bit of getting used to, a recognition that his goofball shtick comes from a place of desperation, not some predetermined vaudevillian design. Even the jokes are buried deep within personality and preposterousness, Curtis coming on like a cut rate Cary Grant the only real attempt at ‘obvious’ laughs. Granted, guys dressed as gals presents its own level of self-slapstick, but Some Like It Hot is not out to milk that material. Instead, it centers on people, and so does the wit.

Though she is often minimized for her talent (not “talents”) Monroe is absolutely brilliant here. She is so convincing as a mindless, materialistic airhead that you can practically see the breezes blowing out of ears. During a crucial scene in the train’s ladies room, she confesses her issues to Curtis’ Josephine, and it’s here where the sex icon becomes an actual actress. Even with a lot less to work with and for, you can see the internal gears slowly moving through her various motivations.

Later, when confronted with the truth about her “Shell Oil” stud, the combination of disappointment and delight is palpable. Because of her body, because of the constant criticism over her persona and its place in ’50s culture, Monroe is often unfairly dismissed. Some Like It Hot illustrates why such views are shortsighted and overly simplistic.

As for Curtis and Lemmon, they couldn’t be better. They are wonderful when playing off each other (they’re like Abbot and Costello with 0advanced college degrees) and their interactions with the rest of the cast are equally priceless. When dealing with Brown’s buffoonish paramour, Lemmon returns the leers ogle for ogle. Similarly, Curtis has the difficulty of maintaining three distinct individuals – guy, girl, and fake Fortune 500 figurehead – and he does so magnificently. His is probably the most underrated, and under-praised work in the entire film. As for the supporting players, Brown is boffo, Raft is in rare form, and Wilder’s eye for faces finds a rogue’s gallery filled with a life of crime and/or a career collecting pinches from “music” lovers.

But it’s the man behind the lens who really cements his status as one of the medium’s greats here. Indeed, from 1944 to 1970, no director was more consistent, or daring. Wilder never settled down in one specific genre. He could handle the thriller (Double Indemnity), the drama (The Lost Weekend), the savage industry satire (Sunset Boulevard), or the sophisticate comedy (The Apartment) among his many cinematic accolades, and Some Like It Hot finds him in rare form. The movie is light and breezy when it needs to be, dark and foreboding when it has to be. The decision to film in black and white (necessary to preserve the appearance of Curtis and Lemmon’s heavy make-up) adds a level of classicism that color would readily destroy. With its flawless pacing and visual panache, Wilder’s work is a wonder.

So is the Blu-ray translation of same. While some of the bonus features might underwhelm a bit – the commentary track by Curtis and Lemmon is actually snippets from previous interviews by the men peppered with sometimes saccharine fawning from I.A.L Diamond’s son Paul and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel – the picture quality is excellent. Even a few of the Making-of featurettes find their mark. Unless someone like Criterion comes along and turns the title into one of its pristine preservationist primers, this is perhaps the best version of Some we will ever get. Of course, many would argue that any chance to see this sensational film should be jumped at. Indeed, Some Like It Hot is a certified American movie myth. It just may take you, the contemporary comedy viewer, a few turns to discover its true inherent worth.

RATING 10 / 10