Revisiting Some Like It Hot
Is there anything one can say about Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) that hasn’t been said before? Probably not, so I won’t try to. It’s one of the great comedies of all time, a quintessential American classic that somehow continues to feel sharp and spry with each decade. I recently returned to the picture, and I once again found its dialogue endlessly witty, its gender dynamics generously bending, and its commitment to tried-and-true entertainment predictably pleasurable. Some Like It Hot is about two broke musicians who witness a mob murder, put on high heels and wigs, and go into hiding in an all-girls band. It’s not a masquerade with ill-intent behind it. Unlike Brad in Pillow Talk, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) do not create personas for predatory reasons. It’s a last-minute, split-second, life-saving decision, and they hop a train to Florida with a group of girls not in an attempt to manipulatively get close to them but to leave Chicago as quickly as possible. Yet, the gravity of their situation soon sets in, and so does the comedy. Joe and Jerry are in full drag, surrounded by beautiful women in various states of undress, and unable to act on any masculine fantasies that might be darting through their minds. Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar arrives on the scene like a force of nature, and neither the characters nor the audience stands a chance at resisting her charms. They are immediately attracted to her, but all they can do about it is be “one of the girls.” When the band gets to Florida, things heat up even more. Joe goes from one disguise to another, inventing the persona of a rich oil tycoon to win (deceive?) Sugar’s heart. It’s interesting that he does not simply approach her as Joe, but it’s not surprising: Joe doesn’t have a nickel to his name, let alone a yacht. Sugar is far likelier to fall in love with “Junior” than Joe, and it turns out that she does. When the mob guys unexpectedly arrive in Florida, however, Joe and Jerry have to go on the run once more, and their respective disguises are revealed to be such. Who is Sugar leaving with at the end of the film? Joe? She’s never even spoken to him. She’s had girl-talk with “Josephine.” She’s had a romantic evening with “Junior.” This Joe fellow, on the other hand, is a stranger. And yet, she inexplicably leaves everything behind, jumps on a speedboat, and begins kissing a man she’s only met through not one, but two, false identities. Does she even know that Joe and Junior are the same person?
This is the state we’re meant to be in: confusion. In fact, it’s the entire point of the film (besides laughter, of course). If you think things are complicated with Joe and Sugar, it only gets messier with Jerry and Osgood. At first, Jerry loathes his very costume for the fact that it prevents him from acting on his masculine desires. He has to repeat “I’m a girl” to remind himself that behaving like a man is out of the question. Later, however, Jerry sinks comfortably into feminine roles. He has to repeat “I’m a boy” because without the reminder, he might easily end up married to a man. The whole thing’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s supposed to be. Jerry’s dilemma is not about sexual preference, or sexual orientation, so much as it’s about gender stratification. We don’t get the sense that Jerry desires Osgood or that he wants to sleep with him. He just likes bracelets with real diamonds. He likes being fawned over. He likes being financially taken care of. One of the film’s best exchanges: Joe: “You’re a guy, and why would a guy wanna marry a guy?” Jerry: “Security!” This is a comedy about displacement, about category confusion. When Jerry finally confesses the reason that he and Osgood can’t get married (notice that he doesn’t say he doesn’t want to get married), we get one of the greatest last lines in cinema history. But what does it mean? Does Osgood want to marry a man? Does Jerry want to? We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. The reversal is obviously for comedic effect, but it also highlights the absurdity of the whole situation.
Some Like It Hot is such a marvelous movie. The dialogue is an absolute joy: Jerry: “I’m engaged.” Joe: “Congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?” Jerry: “I am!” The theme of gender/sex confusion is wrapped into a ludicrous premise, and it’s all the more illuminating for it. The performances are stunning, particularly from Jack Lemmon, who seems as giddy playing a girl as Jerry does. It’s a major accomplishment to be funny, entertaining, and lovable. Wilder’s seminal sex-comedy is certainly all of those things. But the foremost accomplishment here is the conflation of charm and intelligence, the sense that the films means because all of the categories in the film mean nothing. In other words, something is being said amid the foolishness, and the very foolishness amplifies what is being said. The more the film appears to say nothing, the more it says. And that’s what makes a classic a classic: the ability to bury thematic treasures so far beneath plot that they’re continuing to be unearthed decades later. Some Like It Hot, somehow, is always ahead of its time, even though…no, because…it is so profoundly, monumentally, unimpeachably silly.