Some Like It Hot (1958) – Billy Wilder

“Well, nobody’s perfect.”

In all of Bergman, Ozu, or Renoir are there any words more true than those three? Any more true in all of Shakespeare? There’s certainly nobody perfect in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. In fact, none of the characters are even very good. At the end of the film we have two couples, both as doomed as a Good Friday, but we like both and we applaud the movie for ending before reality sets in and it gets sticky.

Endless discussions have been had about whether or not the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross stay together after the end of The Graduate (1967), but there can be no such discussion about Some Like It Hot. One couple is a homosexual pair in which neither party is gay, and the other relationship is built on so much deception that neither one really knows the other. Maybe once they do, they’ll find they’re perfect together. But, as we all know, nobody’s perfect.


The film stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as Chicago musicians, Jerry and Joe, in 1929 who, because of Prohibition, can find work only in mob-run speakeasies, which is difficult to come by. Desperate for cash and on the run from mobsters who want to rub them out after they witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the pair impersonates women (Daphne and Josephine) to join an all-girl band en route to Florida. But the plot is secondary to what the movie is really about: sex. And that becomes abundantly clear with the entrance of the movie’s female lead, Marilyn Monroe, playing Sugar Kowalcyzk, a hard-drinking, unlucky, ukulele-playing singer, who falls in love with the wrong men (saxophonists, naturally), wants only money and moves around, as Lemmon’s character so flawlessly puts it, “like Jell-O on springs.”

When the band reaches Florida, Sugar is on the lookout for millionaires but one doesn’t find her. The super-rich Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), is so eager to add a seventh or eighth wife to his record (he’s not really sure, but his mother keeps score) that he could hardly care that Daphne/Jerry, for obvious reasons, is initially unresponsive and, for that matter, a rather ugly girl. Curtis, as Josephine, learns all of Sugar’s tragic past loves (“Story of my life—I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop”) and her male ideals (“I don’t care how rich he is, as long as he has a yacht, his own private railroad car, and his own toothpaste.”).

Then, pretending to be a rich millionaire (while affecting a wickedly funny Cary Grant impression), Curtis uses this information to charm and seduce Sugar, and finally brilliantly connives her into thinking that his heartbroken millionaire is so emotionally dead from a previous relationship that maybe some intense necking from the sexiest actress of all time might snap him out of it. And while Curtis pulls all the strings and makes all the moves, poor Lemmon, as Daphne, is stuck wooing an ever more forward Osgood. The fuzzy end of the lollipop indeed.

In the end, all is revealed and exposed, and the foursome take off in Osgood’s boat. Sugar, who already announced that she’s not too bright, accepts the liar Curtis despite the fact that he’s exactly the thing she complained to him about earlier, a cad who loves and leaves ’em. And he’ll probably leave Sugar too. Osgood, after finding out that his precious Daphne is actually Jack Lemmon in lipstick, shrugs it off because after seven or eight turns on the matrimony wheel, why not try something new? They all have as much chance of making it last as a bucket of candy on Halloween. The romance in Some Like It Hot is of the sprint variety not the marathon.

And that’s precisely why Some Like It Hot endures. Whereas the couples in it won’t go on, the film does because its cynicism makes us forget its borderline idiotic plot. This is the film whose grandchildren are Sorority Boys and White Chicks, but those films were very badly trying to convince us something that no one could believe. Wilder tries to simply convince us that people like sex and that the line between it and love can get blurred sometimes. Now that’s an easier argument. And also note that the most ridiculous plots can hold water behind great writing and fine performances. Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay launches up so many terrific one-liners that we spend the time we would normally use to pick apart the ludicrousness of the story trying to listen to the next zinger. Genuine emotion is never dealt with because no one in the film is familiar with it, and when it threatens to come up, they wisely change the subject to stick with what they know.

Curtis is terrific as the smooth operator who will never say what he’s up to because it’s so painfully obvious to everyone except for the person he’s working on. Lemmon is exuberant as the long-suffering clown who doesn’t actually spend that much time suffering because he truly believes that if he only toes the line a little longer, his luck will turn around. Plus, he revels in the fuzzy end.

And then, of course, there’s Monroe. Descriptions of Monroe are so inadequate, as she was a creature that can only be appreciated when seen and, in the case of Some Like It Hot, heard. Monroe gives three great singing performances in the film, none greater than the centerpiece, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” Monroe, under Wilder’s direction, creates one of the sexiest moments in the movies. With a spotlight on Monroe, who is wearing an impossible dress that seductively widens and narrows the light at her upper chest, lifting it and swaying, while the audience cranes their necks to get a better look at the dress’s neckline (if it can be called that—the dress is designed in such a way that it almost looks as if Monroe isn’t wearing anything at all). All the while, Monroe, who was the greatest at being a purely sexual being while being completely unaware of this, moves and sings in that innocently erotic way only she could do. Without even touching her clothes, Wilder and Monroe perform a striptease.
Despite the different genres and styles that Wilder so successfully disappeared in, the common theme is cynicism. Wilder was born in Eastern Europe, that most cynical of regions, and that dark pessimism is noticeable, and often essential in his work. All of Wilder’s movies exude the idea that nobody’s perfect and we are wasting time thinking some are; Some Like It Hot was the only one to state that explicitly. Nobody’s perfect, but that line and this movie are.

 

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