Comedy, safely sandboxed, gives us permission to think the unthinkable, say the unsayable. Another in a series about my favorite classic movies.
“SOME LIKE IT HOT”
Release date: Mar. 29, 1959 (United States)
Director: Billy Wilder
Gross revenue: 194,900 USD
Screenwriters: Billy Wilder · I.A.L. Diamond
Awards: Academy Awards (1) · Golden Globe Awards (3) · British Academy Film Awards (1) · Other awards (2)
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
I REMEMBER THROWING ON A DVD OF Some Like It Hot for a group of twelve-step buddies who’d joined me at home after a meeting. This would have been sometime around 2008 or 2009. We were guzzling coffee and chain-smoking (apparently there is no hope for caffeine or nicotine fiends) and as the opening
credits ran I eagerly anticipated their chortles, grunts and snorts of laughter. Oh, what a treat they were in for! How lucky they were not to have seen it yet, so they could see it now! With me!
Thus began two more hours of my life spent in an agony of embarrassment; for the record, possibly the first such agony achieved on my own, for I had normally relied on my mother to provide expert humiliation and reduce me to a backward five-year-old who’d just wet his pants in church. But she had recently kicked the harvest-gold bucket, moved on to bigger and better victims, and was no doubt now engaged in creating awkward moments of toe-curling shame for God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and his tarted up brunch party of pretentious seraphim.
My sober friends sat like moss-covered stones in appalled, almost complete silence for the entire two hours’ duration, with just the occasional tongue-cluck, watch glance or impatient sigh to telegraph, in case I’d missed my complete social disgrace, their disgust at the clunky, old-fashioned humor and the corny set-up, not to mention the black and white aesthetic (Wilder decided on black and white after deciding that the two male stars looked too grotesque in color).
“There’s a LOT OF TALKING in this movie!” marveled one of the gang, as though critiquing a sincere but mediocre effort by a newbie screenwriter instead of one of the top one hundred film comedies of all time, performed by human actors, no less.
Meh. You’d think I would have been used to it by now, because I was not then, am not now, and never will be, cool. I’m stuck somewhere in a bland beige sunken living room memorizing back issues of the Readers’ Digest, while in the basement the hot nerds with microscopes and pet tarantulas practice back flips on their sexual jungle gyms, and up in the penthouse, gym-rat beach boys drop out of the womb already down to edit the year book, scrape by at U of T Engineering, and turn down offers of porn-stardom from GorgeousBabes dot com, eventually building a world-class party planning business or inventing a new sex toy while wearing next season’s clothing.
It should be understood that both of these groups wear eyeglasses with black, David-shaped inserts on the lenses, like the shades once rumored to have been created for squeamish bullfight attendees.
The plot of Some Like it Hot, if you’re not familiar, is as follows: It’s 1929 Chicago. Two speakeasy musicians, Jerry and Joe, (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) escape from a Prohibition raid only to end up witnessing the St Valentine’s Day massacre or some fictional derivative. Barely escaping from being murdered on the spot, they disguise themselves as females and join an all-girl band heading to Florida, where they’ll be far away from the gangsters who are on their case.
But also in the all-girl band is their lead singer and ukulele virtuoso, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe). She’s a little bit of a drunk and a sucker for saxophone players, and she’s definitely all girl. The girls-who-are-boys are instantly smitten, but Joe in particular. He undertakes the project of playing the persona of a rich young oil baron who speaks like Cary Grant (making this a man-as-girl-as-man disguise) in order to woo the ditzy Sugar and to conceal that he’s one of those dastardly saxophone players who’s always letting her down.
Meanwhile, one of the filthy rich older gentlemen, Osgood Fielding III, who winters at the hotel, is instantly smitten with Jerry in his guise as “Daphne.” This leads to the brilliant subterfuge that Jerry will keep Osgood occupied on land that night while Joe uses Osgood’s yacht to impress Sugar.
We seem to be focused firmly on love and romance in its farcical and unrequited varieties. Then, when we ‘ve almost forgotten the organized crime element, the mobsters turn up. From this point all is murder and mayhem, and the story reaches its climax and dénouement.
Like all of Billy Wilder’s efforts, there is high and low comedy, but also a tinge of the deadly serious. This undermines the expected tropes and, farcical as the events are, the stakes are high. We’ve seen a mass murder of gangsters by gangsters before we’re even fifteen minutes into the movie, and will witness another at about fifteen minutes before the end. The murders are grisly and shocking and not played for laughs. It’s like the inverse of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which surfaces comical gallows humor within a tragedy. Some Like It Hot underpins frothy farce with horror, romcom with melodrama.
Some decry Some Like it Hot as a Jurassic-era example of blatant misogyny and stereotyped sex roles. I disagree. But even if I did agree, first of all, we can’t chuck all of the movie canon prior to 2021 because the attitudes in a 1950’s movie are, well, those of the 1950’s. We do need to examine if these elements are so egregious that they make the work unwatchable with our current understanding.
These arguments are never convincing to me except in the worst cases: I can accept that it’s hard to stomach “Gone With the Wind,” for example, but it’s still a masterpiece of epic filmmaking, a gripping story and a piece of movie history. I would never deny anyone the pleasure of viewing it, “mammy” and benevolent slaveholders notwithstanding, any more than I would ban Wagner.
The art canon, possibly the most important evidence of our progress through history, tells us truths about ourselves, sometimes in ways that were not intended. Surely we’re not so fragile that we can’t admit an uncomfortable reality, or so naive that we’d throw out every achievement because its basis was human suffering.
Much achievement has come on the backs of human suffering. The irony is that, unless we stop making progress, a good deal of art from the past will involve moments of toe-curling shame.
At any rate, Some Like It Hot is no Gone With the Wind: it’s great in its own way, but it just doesn’t take itself that seriously. The usual romantic stereotypes are cleverly refurbished: for example, instead of being a rapacious sex dog, Curtis, as the oil heir, feigns impotence when it comes time for his yacht tryst with Marilyn. It becomes Sugar’s challenge to raise the standard, so to speak. Luckily, she sold kisses for the milk fund!
Curtis’s appalling, insulting comments regarding acting with Monroe (“like kissing Hitler,” whatever the heck that was supposed to mean) come across as way more misogynist that anything actually on screen.
Lemmon’s female alter ego, Daphne, surprises us by actually enjoying the status of kept plaything, as her and Osgood’s hilarious extended tango scene proves. In fact, when the boys compare notes the next morning, Jerry confesses that he’s accepted an offer of marriage.
“Why would a guy want to marry another guy?” Joe exclaims, shocked. Jerry’s answer is delightful: “Security!”
Marilyn is at her best in this role, even singing charmingly, and if the charm wears off, we can marvel at her almost transparent gown as a spotlight raises the stakes and turns one of her numbers into a strip tease worthy of Gypsy Rose Lee. (Marilyn had a 1960’s woman’s body, gloriously zaftig (“like Jell-o on springs,” as Jerry puts it at first seeing her), all va-va-voom with hips and breasts and booty; and though no one would have called her “fat”, she sure as hell wasn’t skinny).
With this taut, wise-cracking script, Marilyn finally found the right container for her vapid Barbie Doll pouting and revealed herself as a natural comedienne, which makes it even more startling to learn that she was a brain-wreck on set because of her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, among other things.
This is the movie where Marilyn broke the record for number of takes in a single scene: thirty-seven, for the shot where she says, “It’s me, Sugar.” Only a statistician could calculate the possible combinations of those three words: “Sugar it’s me, it’s Sugar me…” They pasted the lines inside a drawer for access if she needed. Cut, print!
Wilder concluded that, yes, she was a pain in the ass, tiresomely hyper-sensitive, always monumentally late, often foggy from chemicals. And you could get an actress, any number of them, who were not these things.
But then you wouldn’t have Marilyn.
Art is most emphatically NOT life. And thank god for that. Art tells us the secrets about life that we all know but pretend we don’t; it cuts out the mundane, presenting idealized versions of life, minus all the sandwich-making, bodily functions, waiting for the bus, getting root canal; all the banal daily routines. And to do this, it sets up sacred spaces. Galleries, studios, pictures within frames, stages: spaces that are, to use a developers’ term, sandboxes.
A sandbox is somewhere you play, making castles out of pails full of sand; it’s also a place with walls, to prevent your creations spilling over into the real world, and to say to the real world, “creator at work, no judgments.”
Stand-up comedy is a sandboxed genre. We seem to recognize, collectively, that humor involves breaking boundaries, if we’re not going to spend a boring evening retelling knock-knock jokes, but seeking to cast light on life as she really is.
Some of this naturally toes a very, very fine line. Louis CK’s show “Chewed Up” riffs on the words “faggot,” “cunt,” and “nigger.” Each of these words has the wind taken out of its sails by his declaring that, when he uses them, they lose their taboo character and become harmless signifiers of—whatever he chooses. Right.
In the same show he talks about the unholy condition of his daughter’s soiled diapers, and, most dangerously, the horned-up state of nine-year-old boys. What gives him authority to speak of these things relatively without condemnation is his status as a parent and, excuse me clearing my throat, a responsible adult.
Dave Chappelle speaks with utter candor about whatever comes into his head about race in America, or at least is masterful enough to give that impression. In one joke he compares a scantily-clad woman at a sleazy bar to someone masquerading as a police officer, so that it’s a public nuisance. The woman in the bar is dressed like a whore, he reasons, and that’s as much an act of false advertising as a civilian pretending to be a cop. If it were an emergency… oh, wait. Is needing a “whore” an urgent, life or death situation, an emergency needing an authoritative response? Seems awfully big boots for a small root of flesh. Still.
The point of both examples is the leeway we give performers, implicitly. Also, and let the record show I have absolutely no proof of this, I note that the audiences for both performers is primarily heterosexual. Hets are not so sensitized from years of verbal abuse and second-class citizenship as are gay men, who can sometimes be hyper-vigilant in our desire to stamp out injustice and resist being put back into obnoxious categories; and in fact Louis C.K.’s riff on the word “faggot” (“stop being a faggot and suck that dick!” is his ultimate proof that a “faggot” for him is not the same as a gay man, just someone who is, for whatever reason, annoying beyond all hope) is the least convincing of his three word riffs, for he lacks what in legal parlance is called “standing”—direct involvement in or experiencing negative outcomes from the issue being tried.
Sarah Silverman is arguably even edgier than the two men quoted above. She takes on 9/11 (“nine eleven widows give great handjobs”), obscure and hyperspecific situations (“if you throw up on a guy’s penis while giving him a blowjob, you can rescue the situation if you can muster a ‘ta-da!’ ” The word “muster” is weirdly, hilariously appropriate, though I can’t really put my finger on why.), and, most tellingly, rape. “Rape jokes: comedy’s hidden gem!”
It’s enough to singe your eyebrows off with its slap in the face tastelessness, but somehow the audience at her HBO Special respond with raucous laughter.
The “offensive vs. cutting-edge” dichotomy obviously depends on the context, particularly who is speaking. Dave Chappelle saying “nigger” is a whole different world from me saying it.
A woman making a rape joke benefits, if that’s the word, from the fact that a woman does have standing: women are victimized by rape, therefore they have the right to take the idea and put it through the blender of their intimate, if that’s the word, relationship to the act.
A man making a rape joke would be a nasty business; a woman making a rape joke can be empowering for women, the way a gay man saying “faggot” is empowering.
No, I’m not equating the seriousness of rape with uttering a word. Calm down.
Enjoy your first or your hundredth viewing of Some Like It Hot, surprisingly, a smash hit when it opened. I attribute this to the absurd premise (men dressed as women! Men getting married, to each other! how could that ever happen!) and two such comfortingly familiar stars that any anxiety about gender roles and sexuality was nipped in the bud. It’s just a buddy film, with dresses and make-up.
And as for poor Marilyn, who struggled with not being taken seriously while proving with her tongue in cheek persona that seriousness never stood a chance: I have no doubt that Marilyn (first-name basis) was as exploited as any other female in Hollywood, but I think not more so: her character of the dumb blonde was a brilliant creation, not just laugh-with-able, but sweet, strong, tender and tenacious of life.
At least on the silver screen, there’s nothing to be pitied about Sugar Kane, though her plight may awaken memories of our own thwarted attempts to be happy in love.
None of us can deny that the world is filled with feckless saxophone players, or that we’ve all licked the fuzzy end of that lollipop from time to time.