20 January 2006

100 films: Some Like It Hot

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starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown
written by: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, from the story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan
directed by: Billy Wilder
NR, 120 min, 1959, USA

Two broke musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), accidentally witness the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre and in a desperate attempt to hide from the mob go undercover in an all-girl band en route to Florida. One of the band members is Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a dim-witted blonde looking to marry a millionaire. Being an unsavory type, Joe uses information given in confidence to cast himself as Sugar's ideal man. Meanwhile, Jerry's drag act is going well enough that he's drawn the affection of an actual millionaire (Joe E. Brown). The flawless plan hits a rough patch when the mobsters arrive for a Friends of Italian Opera convention and discover the ruse.

There's a theory in Hollywood that the productions where everyone is ready to kill each other often make the best movies, that having a good time doesn't equal success. Or as Matt Damon once put it on Letterman, if having fun made a good movie, Canonball Run would be the greatest film of all-time. It isn't, though, which is a bit of a shame. The theory, oddly enough, holds true for comedies as well as dramas, even though you'd think that comedic timing would be enhanced by camaraderie. Not always. It is enhanced by talent, and while Some Like It Hot didn't have the most pleasant set to visit, it did have talent in spades[1].

As the stories go, Marilyn Monroe brought a lot of difficulty to the set with her. She was constantly forgetting lines, showing up late, and Tony Curtis compared kissing her to "kissing Hitler"[2]. Yet she had that rare ability to seduce anyone and anything, and that translated so well on screen you can forgive her many quirks and headaches. I imagine that Monroe could have made a gay man straight and had she been a lesbian, a straight woman gay. There aren't many actors alive with that sort of inherent sexuality and the ability to make everything seem so fresh an innocent, from the dialogue to the scenario to the performance itself. A great number of actors become bored or repetitive after so many takes, but Monroe makes it all feel as if she's making it up on the spot, even if you can clearly see her reading the cue cards.

But that's nothing compared to the turns by her male counterparts. Tony Curtis, often shorted in Some Like It Hot discussions because part of his Josephine dialogue was dubbed[3], gives a tricky performance as he has to essentially play three different characters: Joe, the conniving musician willing to bet two overcoats on a dog named Greased Lightning, Josephine, the girl saxophone player who went to conservatory, and Junior, the imaginary heir to Shell Oil who is unable to ever love again. There are even sequences where he has to play all three[4]. The best (or at least my favorite) is Junior, the oil magnate who's done what any red-blooded male who'd been in drag on the run from the mob and befriended Marilyn Monroe would do: namely, use the information given him by Monroe as to the type of man she's looking for as a shortcut to seduce her. And he uses a Cary Grant impression to disguise his voice, which is a very clever touch.

In a career full of classic performances, this is one of Jack Lemmon's best. As Daphne he's forced to hide his horn-dog tendencies when he's trust into a sleeping car full of beautiful women. He keeps repeating to himself, "I'm a girl, I'm a girl, I'm a girl" as a means of staving of his latent desires. When he attracts a real millionaire, he can't seem to shake him no matter what, then is forced to go on a date with him when Joe needs to borrow the man's yacht. The millionaire proposes and when asked by Joe why a guy would want to marry a guy, Jerry replies, "Security." It's difficult to put into words exactly what's so great about his performance. Suffice to say that in a film often mentioned as the funniest of all-time, he's easily the funniest one.

Of course, this comedic crown jewel would not be possible without the unique genius of Billy Wilder. Wilder, who's work includes such classics as Irma la Douce (1963), The Apartment (1960), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Double Idemnity (1944), did comedy better than anyone and drama better than most. He very nearly directed Schindler's List (1993) and at one point held a record for Oscar nominations[5]. What is very often overlooked in Some Like It Hot is just how well it is directed. This is a film that borders on the absurd and could very easily veer into utter insanity, but Wilder is able to keep the entire thing grounded, and somehow realistic. And when you consider the premise of the film, that's quite the accomplishment.

In a lot of ways, Some Like It Hot serves as a template for what has become known as the Charlie Kaufman comedy. There are about a thousand things happening in this film, and few of them make any sense whatsoever when viewed apart from the film, yet they all work within the film's context. And they work beautifully at that. This is a rare commodity in film: a landmark, influential film that feels just as fresh today as it did forty years ago. It hasn't aged a bit. In fact, were this to have been released in 2005 rather than 1959, it probably wouldn't suffer a bit in popularity. And it probably would have still gotten six Oscar nominations, although something tells me it may have ended up with more. There's no question this is a classic, but it's also a cinematic delight for the ages. There are few films in history that I can recommend with confidence to nearly everyone. This is one of them.

[1] And dresses.

[2] Which gives us Roger Ebert's great tag line: "You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser."

[3] He had trouble maintaining that voice for long periods.

[4] Plus he had to be seduced by Monroe, that lucky bastard.

[5] He may still be tied with Woody Allen in nominations for writing and directing, but I suspect even if he is, he may not be for long.