Marilyn Monroe, Some Like It Hot

Marilyn Monroe Really Knew How to Act

Marilyn Monroe’s performative femininity as Sugar in Some Like It Hot is just as artificial as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s drag characters’, only better.

Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder
United Artists
29 March 1959

“Where’s that bourbon?” Three words. Reciting a line before a film camera with just three words should have been simple. Marilyn Monroe reportedly needed 80 takes to get those three lines right. The final product is perfection, of course. Monroe staggers into the room, rifles through a chest of drawers, and utters those words, “Where’s that bourbon?” with a desperate anguish in her voice. This scene is one in a series of legendary moments of chaos in Monroe’s career.

By 1959, Marilyn Monroe was the biggest movie star in Hollywood, yet she remained intent on proving herself a serious actress. Billy Wilder‘s Some Like It Hot was the third in a trio of films Monroe starred in after her self-imposed exile to New York City. She had previously escaped Hollywood, feeling stymied by a movie studio satisfied with slotting the performer into pleasant – if artistically unfulfilling projects – which tapped into her natural reserves of comedy, charm, and charisma. She wanted more, and under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, Monroe emerged as a far more resourceful and commanding actress. Indeed, Marilyn Monroe’s work in Some Like It Hot is deep and powerful, a masterclass in comedy acting.

What Billy Wilder has done – more so than any other director who worked with Marilyn Monroe – is apply Monroe’s screen persona in a way that engaged with her as a human instead of an overwhelming spectacle. Though Wilder wasn’t necessarily sympathetic or especially patient with his star, he understood her value as a thespian in a way few have before or since. Because Wilder was a master at comedy directing, more than most, he understood the importance of maintaining a tight lightness, even if the comedy has darker, satirical elements like the deceptively complex Some Like It Hot.

To pull off comedy, all elements must work like an intricate machine. With his longtime collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder wrote a script that is airtight in its farcical elements: whether it’s the physical comedy of the actors, the fast-paced violence of the shooting scenes, or the high-energy musical numbers, these harmonious elements blend seamlessly to make what he considered a perfect film.

Some Like It Hot is the second collaboration of Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe, their first being the 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch. That film – an adaptation of the George Axelrod play – which Wilder co-wrote with the playwright, was the epitome of “Monroe as Goddess”. The Seven Year Itch didn’t merely engage with Monroe’s image; the film worked with the actress to develop that image. But Monroe’s character is written as barely three-dimensional in The Seven Year Itch; instead, she’s an ideal (her character is unnamed, referred to as “The Girl”).

Still, despite the script’s wispiness, Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe do good work together in The Seven Year Itch, with Monroe filling in any gaps in the writing. On paper, The Girl could be seen as a good-natured joke or a kind-hearted punchline. Instead, with Wilder’s direction, Monroe creates a natural person from a comedic phantom. On the film set, Monroe relied on the assistance of acting coach Natasha Lytess, working on sculpting a real-seeming person in a role that might have been another funny, dumb, shallow blonde.

On Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe’s character has a name. In fact, she has two. The three main characters of Some Like It Hot deal with double personalities. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who don drag and join an all-girl band for their safety after witnessing the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. To add to the kaleidoscope of identities, Tony Curtis’ Joe is not only the feminine Josephine but also the Cary Grant-like Shell Oil heir, Junior. Amid these varying identities, Monroe’s Sugar Kane is actually Sugar Kowalczyk, one of many Polish-Americans who shed their ethnic names when trying to make it big in showbiz.

In Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis’ Josephine and Jack Lemmon’s Daphne become close friends and confidantes with the jazz band’s lead singer. Presenting themselves as women, they create a sisterhood with Sugar, advising her and carrying her despite her messiness and alcoholism. The friendship is slightly fraught for Joe because he has a torch for her, and in another act of subterfuge, he fools Sugar by pretending to be an oil baron.

Billy Wilder constructs several scenarios for the trio of comic performers to work at their collective best. He indulges in hilarious visual slapstick when we’re introduced to the trio. When Josephine and Daphne first appear, we see their muscular, very male-shaped calves jutting beneath their dark skirts as they mince about on high heels across a train platform. It’s a funny sleight of hand, as we’re not entirely sure what we’re looking at: there’s no indication that there’s anything “strange” about these pairs of legs, though these calves are suspiciously cut.

In a quick cut, we get a medium shot with Josephine and Daphne making their way to their train. In a stroke of subversive genius, Billy Wilder doesn’t do much to hide that Josephine and Daphne are men in drag. Though Tony Curtis’ matinee beauty reads somewhat feminine, both ladies are bricks. However, Wilder enforces a suspension of disbelief, and Josephine and Daphne pass. (One way that Wilder ensured that the ruse wouldn’t read too ridiculous was to shoot the film in black and white, despite Monroe’s initial reticence.)

As a hot jazz trumpet sputters, we get our first glimpse of Marilyn Monroe as Sugar, dressed remarkably like Josephine and Daphne. Billy Wilder frames Monroe’s incandescent face in a sea of black, a high fur collar, and a cloak, making Sugar’s face appear like a cameo brooch. Her saucy, exaggerated gait is akin to Josephine’s and Daphne’s awkward staggers, and we get a similar shot of her calves (far smoother and more feminine) when Wilder suggestively has a stream of steam “pat” her rear. Jerry-as-Daphne marvels at Monroe, calling her Mae West-like moves “Jell-O on springs.” It’s a smart scene because Wilder can nimbly encapsulate the central conflict between the three characters: the two men’s attempt to pass off as women and the added complication of their sexual attraction to women like Sugar.

Some Like It Hot reads very queer to many viewers. However, there is still seemingly reassurance from Billy Wilder that there’s nothing “queer” about Joe or Jerry, despite their appearances as women. Even with the arrival of Joe E. Brown’s millionaire suitor Osgood Fielding III, who has his eyes on Daphne and is ignorant of her real identity, much of the drag and queerness is mitigated or erased by the film’s premise. Joe and Jerry aren’t drag queens, nor are they transvestites; their drag is a necessary act to stay alive in a time of danger. It’s situational, or circumstantial, drag. Therefore, it’s a “safe” representation of gender play.

Besides the more obvious Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne elements, Some Like It Hot‘s other drag element is Sugar herself. Marilyn Monroe’s appearance is a kind of drag, too, and Billy Wilder understands that her performative femininity as Sugar is just as artificial and staged as Josephine’s and Daphne’s. We see some of this presentation in Wilder’s use of Monroe’s stylized beauty in The Seven Year Itch. In Wilder’s hand, Monroe is always a three-dimensional human being. Still, she’s also a diva and a spectacle. Monroe herself was a canny architect of this screen persona – meticulously building and erecting a cartoonish parody of Hollywood femininity. Every director who has worked with Monroe has had to contend with that image, but only Wilder figured out how to make that image relatable.  

The” Where’s the bourbon?” fiasco has become Hollywood lore, but it also highlights a particular contradiction in Marilyn Monroe’s working style. Despite the simplicity and ease of the line, Monroe needed help with it. However, it was reported that Monroe did fine in longer, more complex scenes that featured heavy blocks of dialogue. Though Curtis and Lemmon reported that they had to be on point for all their takes so that Wilder could use Monroe’s best ones (a burden her How to Marry a Millionaire costar Lauren Bacall remembered), the result looks fresh and spontaneous.

Among the best acting Billy Wilder captures from Marilyn Monroe is when Sugar interacts with Josephine and Daphne. Wilder never forgets that he’s working with a screen siren. Still, he also allows the character’s vulnerability to shine, especially when she’s in the company of other women (or those she believes to be women). Because Monroe is “othered” in her films as a monument to female sexuality, she’s rarely cast as a pally girlfriend. Even the sisterhood in Jean Negulesco’s 1953 comedy How to Marry a Millionaire is diluted by the rather appalling premise of three gorgeous models setting up false pretensions to snag themselves some men.

It’s easy to see why Marilyn Monroe’s first film and leading role of note, Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), holds up so well despite it being a candy-coated trifle of creaky sexual politics: the central relationship is the friendship between Monroe and Jane Russell’s characters. In Some Like It Hot, Sugar develops a genuine affection for her two friends – and though the guys are written somewhat broadly as benign cads – as Josephine and Daphne, the two are good allies for Sugar, a vaguely self-destructive flake.

Although Some Like It Hot can be cynical – Billy Wilder’s humour can be pitch black at times – the fictional universe is rather good-natured. After learning that his beloved Daphne is actually Jerry, Osgood Fielding accepts this news with equanimity, saying, “Nobody’s perfect.” But given the difficulties that Marilyn Monroe experienced, its production was quite fraught, with Wilder, Curtis, and even a more patient Lemmon all sharing frustration at the erratic work of their star. Tony Curtis famously compared kissing Monroe to “kissing Hitler”. Wilder’s impatience and anger with his lead saw him being exceptionally cruel to Monroe, disregarding her personal and health troubles. He derided her intelligence, saying she has a “brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes”. Jack Lemmon, the most sympathetic to Monroe’s struggles, commented that though she was “divine,” he conceded to her being “difficult. But not on purpose,” noting that her tardiness and unreliability were due to her process of preparing for the day’s work.

Given the well-known troubles behind the making of Some Like It Hot, one wonders if it was worth it. After Marilyn Monroe’s death, the resentment from her colleagues – particularly Billy Wilder – had shifted to a weary admiration, as if they had survived a war together. The men’s admiration for Monroe’s particular talents grew, encouraged by the knowledge of her personal and professional demons. Though Wilder maintained that the filming was rough, he later said, “I miss her. It was like going to the dentist, making a picture with her. It was hell at the time, but after it was over, it was wonderful.”

Jack Lemmon pointed out that Tony Curtis was especially frustrated with Marilyn Monroe, having to film long blocks of dialogue together. Still, in his later years, Curtis responded to the stories with old-fashioned gallantry, highlighting her much-publicized troubles and affirming her afterlife image as a victim. Lemmon, always more receptive to Monroe as an artist, found her a “brilliant comedienne” and suggested that the difficulty she imposed upon her colleagues was merely the result of how she did her work.

Indeed, Jack Lemmon’s judgment of Marilyn Monroe’s comedic brilliance is validated on the silver screen. A superficial glance at Sugar Kane would assume that this was another in a line of ditzy blondes Monroe played. Unlike her other leading roles, Monroe’s depiction of Sugar Kane isn’t a case of the actress imbuing the role with more depth, warmth, and colour than the script calls for. In films like Gentlemen Prefer BlondesHow to Marry a Millionaire, and The Seven Year Itch, Monroe transcends the scripts’ limitations and elevates the material with her comedic prowess and endearing charisma. With Some Like It Hot, however, Marilyn Monroe was gifted with an intelligent script. She was also free from some of the shtick that marked her earlier pre-Method era, particularly the affected whispered “coo” delivered with that wide-eyed look.

Sugar Kane has a beautiful scene with Josephine and Daphne as they get to know each other. Billy Wilder allowed for exposition here, and we get some of Sugar’s background through a hilariously breezy speech in which she introduces her small-town humble beginnings, much to her new friends’ amusement. As Sugar describes her family as “musical”, she mentions her mother being a piano teacher and her dad a conductor. When Josephine asks where Mr. Kowalczyk conducted, she blithely answers, “On the Baltimore and Ohio,” with perfect timing. As she opens up to Josephine and Daphne, she’s “running away”, unknowingly setting up a parallel with the other two. As she starts to drink (from a flask secreted in her garter belt), she allows her feelings to show, especially her sense of self-loathing.

Indeed, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script has some great moments, with Sugar perfectly delivering punchlines, like vowing that she’s not an alcoholic, “I can stop anytime I want to,” she says. “Only, I don’t want to.” As she wraps up her sad story, Monroe’s radiant expression dims as she portrays Sugar’s resignation and tinge of disappointment. Whe ends the scene with a wistful, “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop,” before she slips her flask back into her garter. This is rightly praised for how Wilder and his actors can create an intimate scene full of pathos combined with it.

While chatting with Josephine, Sugar unveils more sordid details about her past. Each ignominious detail or memory is punctuated by the savage stab of an ice pick as she works on a chunk of ice in a sink. Her white hair is a mess, falling into her eyes as she turns to describe her attraction to male musicians (“I come to them,” she says). It could be the lighting and the black-and-white filming, but Monroe never looked more beautiful or genuine than she does as Sugar in Some Like It Hot. Though not a rubber-faced comedienne like Imogene Coca or Martha Raye, Monroe’s acting is rarely as expressive as her Sugar castigates herself over her history of failed relationships. “Not very bright,” she spits, tapping her temple.

As Some Like It Hot‘s twisted story continues, Joe sets his sights on wooing Sugar, and we see more duplicity, split personalities, and drag. This time, it’s with Tony Curtis doing a hilarious take on Cary Grant as the fictional Shell Oil heir, Junior. By now, Sugar has sworn off musicians, so adopting the persona of a fake millionaire might be the quickest way to her heart. So much of this film is about lying, costumes, and disguises. In the middle of the action is Marilyn Monroe, a performer who is at once artifice and reality. Very little about Marilyn Monroe is organic. In Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder baths her in a halo of light as if she’s incandescent. Like Charlie Chaplin’s classic Tramp, Monroe’s Sugar is simultaneously a heart-warming, relatable character that is funny and sad but also a deliberate and calculated construction by a woman who really knew how to act.