Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot is an American classic, placed at number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the funniest American movies (number two was Tootsie, with which it has some obvious similarities), and voted among the best films ever made in various other polls. I saw the film again recently, after a long absence from it, and felt again that its status is a bit overblown. When I use this space to write about non-current movies, it’s usually to illuminate the under-appreciated, not to throw stones at beloved artifacts. But then, defending our beloved artifacts only deepens our love for them. So take this as my constructive gift to Some Like it Hot fans.
The film follows two jazz musicians who witness the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre and take the only available route out of Chicago: going in drag and joining an all-girl’s band en route to Florida. Joe falls for the singer, Sugar Kane, and makes moves on her at the resort in the guise of a millionaire oil heir, disguised this time behind a thick pair of glasses and a Cary Grant impersonation; Jerry finds himself pursued by a kooky real-life millionaire. Eventually the gangsters turn up in Florida, but the two couples get away, with the classic closing line when the kook discovers Jerry is actually a man: “Nobody’s perfect” (number forty-eight in the AFI’s list of top movie quotes).
The movie is a masterpiece of pace and structure. It starts with some artful misdirection, allowing us to think we might be watching a gangster movie; the top-billed Sugar doesn’t turn up for the first half hour or so. It’s crammed with one-liners and conceptual flourishes, but by modern standards allows its key characters lots of breathing space; when it cranks up the pace for the home stretch, it almost assumes an air of blissful stream of consciousness (how do the guys, under hot pursuit, change back so quickly into their female disguises? Who cares!). It has great black and white photography, as polished as onyx and silver. And above all perhaps, it has Marilyn Monroe, in one of her most iconic roles, a little heavier than the studio wanted (and quite a bit heavier than present-day conventions would allow) but beautiful and tender, and performing some of her best-known musical numbers, in particular “I Wanna be Loved by You.” It’s probably as easy to watch as any film could be.
So why the reservations? Partly because much of its impact depends on simplifications which, although constituting reasonable applications of suspended disbelief at the time of its production, now seem rather grotesque. Most of these involve, inevitably, sex. That famous last line speaks to a libido so over-charged, it’s lost track of the basics, making any rational human interaction implausible (and, it seems, making any meaningful physicality unthinkable). The movie pulls Jerry into a similar vortex: his head initially spins from the intimate access to scantily-clad women, but when the millionaire proposes to him, he succumbs entirely to the notion that he might get married, with Joe having to forcibly remind him he’s a boy. This doesn’t make any psychological sense of course, especially since Joe never exhibits the slightest gender confusion. This might sound like too heavy a hammer to apply, but I can’t help thinking in contrast of how the richest Hollywood films - like many of Howard Hawks’ for instance - remain emotionally plausible and moving, despite their heavy stylization and the limitations of the time.
The film’s portrayal of Jerry is actually quite mean-spirited. Their relationship at the start is one of those inexplicable double-acts where they seem to operate as de facto life partners, making all major decisions collectively, even though Joe basically abuses and manipulates him. Hawks uses structures like this too, in Only Angels Have Wings for instance, but his films always convey a sense of an intricate and inherently balanced social system, responding to each member’s inherent strength and weakness and moral resources. In Some Like it Hot, Jerry just seems like a loser who keeps getting duped, and there’s something rather cruel in how he’s the first of the two to set his sights on Sugar, only to be shoved aside when Joe focuses in the same direction.
Jack Lemmon plays Jerry, and I’ll tell you, I love Jack Lemmon, he’s one of the few actors who influences my movie choices (I recently chose to watch Under the Yum Yum Tree – what more do you need to know?) but this is just about my least favourite of his major performances. I know that’s odd; for a lot of people it’s the opposite. But his “Daphne” is a gargoyle, tittering and screeching; to say the least, it’s an unsophisticated approach to the character. Lemmon’s great strength as an actor, I think, was in embodying the impossible weight of conformity – time and time again he showed how the business suit barely stays on for all the tics and anxieties and excess booze. Some Like it Hot hints at that theme – how could his sexuality be so fluid if his ego wasn’t basically a wreck? – but it’s patently not what the film is about. Tony Curtis as Joe does more with less, but once again the winner is Hawks, for I Was a Male War Bride, coincidentally with Cary Grant.
None of this should suggest I dislike Billy Wilder’s work, although I guess I’m cooler about it than The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius, who calls Wilder the “perfect director” and thanked him three times in his Oscar acceptance speech. I tend to prefer the older Wilder, loosening up the pace a bit and taking advantage of more relaxed standards in films like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and, especially, Avanti! As for peak-period, firing-on-all-cylinders Wilder, I’d go instead for One Two Three with James Cagney, an even faster-paced, higher-functioning machine, built around a Coke executive in West Berlin. An interesting thing though – the plot turns in large part on a Communist rabble-rouser who Cagney through force of will (and lots of shouting) remakes in no time at all into an immaculate pin-striped capitalist, a transformation not so far removed from Jerry’s instant inner metamorphosis into a woman. You could view that as a wisely cynical view of human integrity, or as plausibility sacrificed for narrative contingency, papered over by dazzling speed and facility (his late curio Fedora takes the device to its extreme, revolving around the substitution of one person for another – the difference is that Fedora illustrates greater empathy for the psychic toll on the victim).
But maybe this all only means that some, including me, don’t really like it hot, because they can’t take it hot…