Most great movies are great, as their admirers show us, because they contain hidden multitudes. These great movies, they are palimpsests, rich in layered meaning and subtle complexity. “Look again,” we’re told (and tell each other). “There’s even more in there the second time around.” We revisit these great movies over and over, and each time we do, we are amazed to discover in them something new and marvelous, and just when we’re certain the great movie’s many marvels have all been discovered, we find ourselves older, our perspectives another year matured, and the great movie looks, incredibly, even wiser than before; it has actually gotten better. Criticism is to these movies what light is to a prism.
Some Like It Hot is not one of these movies.
Assuming the picture is clear, the volume is turned on, and you don’t hate film, the greatness of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) will be obvious to you, completely and immediately. That’s it. Love at first sight. Because Some Like It Hot is manifestly wonderful, you will not love it more on a second viewing, and you will not love it more as you get older and wiser. It is the exact opposite of an acquired taste.
What’s to acquire? Cross-dressing gags need no explanation. The wit, the luscious jargon of Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond’s dialogue need no explanation. Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression, Jack Lemmon’s girlish enthusiasm, Joe E. Brown’s Hula-Hoop mouth, and Marilyn Monroe at her peak need no explanation.
This forthrightness of merit is almost the entirety of the secret to Some Like It Hot’s evergreen success. But in contrast to other nonacquired tastes, like the Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, whose deepest pleasures are also readily apparent on a first viewing, Some Like It Hot is built—by Wilder and Diamond—on an unassailable foundation of structural and thematic integrity, making it, I think, one of the best-written manifestly wonderful comedies ever made.
Some Like It Hot is so entrenched in its theme, the theme of reversal, that the movie itself keeps changing its costume, beginning—or so it seems—as a gangster picture before changing into a musical, then a comedy, then a romance. Reversals, small and large, run the length of the picture; they are its comic oxygen, taking the form of sight gags (a hearse—that runs booze), sound gags (Curtis speaking in a high voice), character twists (Lemmon’s character gets hornier when dressed as a woman), and innuendo. The sheer density of reversals—the number of ironies per cinematic square inch—not only keeps the laughs coming, and coming on thematic point, it pumps Some Like It Hot full of momentum, continually refreshing the drama, like a palate cleanser for our attention spans.
“Some Like It Hot has ants in its pants from the word go.”
It’s a chase: two jazz musicians, Joe and Jerry (Curtis and Lemmon), are witness to a mob hit and, disguising themselves as women in an all-girl band, hide out in sunny Florida to save their lives. This movie really moves. With the notable exception of the Monroe-Curtis kiss, which is presented with romantic tendresse and virtually without movement, Some Like It Hot has ants in its pants from the word go. It’s randy and rambunctious in a vigorous American way, like a movie Tom Sawyer might have loved, and just like Tom, it seems to want only to have a good time.
Now, about that good time. Over the years, some very smart people have praised the film for its enlightened gender and sexual politics—“What Some Like It Hot affirms is neither heterosexual nor homosexual, nor even female,” Brandon French wrote in 1978, “but rather the abolition of those absolute poles in favor of an androgynous continuum”—and while I do see what they mean, I don’t really think Wilder was out to make important points about that continuum. He thought cross-dressing was funny. He thought Americans, dizzy in the rat race, were funny: “You’re a guy, and why would a guy want to marry a guy?” “Security.” That’s Wilder capitalism speaking, not love or lust or even man or woman. Some Like It Hot isn’t Tootsie; it’s not interested in how the experience of being a woman can make men better men. This is a Billy Wilder movie; it’s about the Machiavellian lengths to which people will go to get what they want, which is never much nobler than money, sex, or self-preservation. Wilder was America’s id (Frank Capra was its superego). That’s why I don’t think he’d be seriously impressed with anyone who goes in for Some Like It Hot and queer (or any other) theory; Some Like It Hot means no more than great sex. Isn’t that deep enough?
Again, Wilder just wanted to have a good time. Look at how he used his camera: not to manage our thinking (like Alfred Hitchcock), not to get us to feel what the characters are feeling (like Nicholas Ray), and not to editorialize on the drama (like Capra). His stance is simply amoral, which is the stance you want to have when you want to have maximum fun. Many of Wilder’s detractors dismiss this amorality as misanthropic, and in his later comedies, which aren’t fun but mean, the comedy does curdle, but when properly and justifiably channeled, as in Ace in the Hole (1951), Wilder’s cynicism excavated—and not gleefully—the intestinal lining of the American digestive tract. Who can argue? There’s a lot in capitalism to feel misanthropic about.
For Monroe, Wilder breaks his stance. He comes a little closer. He says, “I hope you enjoy this woman. I sure do.” More than any other director ever had or ever would, Wilder got Monroe inside and out, what she could do well and what she couldn’t. “The charm of her is two left feet,” he said. “Otherwise she may become a slightly inferior Eva Marie Saint.” Others had made the mistake of taking Monroe for an actress of real range; she wasn’t. Some took her only at face value, but she was, as we all know, something deeper than merely beautiful. Wilder split the difference. He understood that for all her sadness—which Some Like It Hot calls for—Marilyn the performer was a light comedian. Marilyn the woman was a girl. Here’s her skeleton key: “When I was a little girl, on cold nights like this,” her character, Sugar Kane, whispers giddishly to Jerry-as-Daphne in the sleeper-car bunk they are sharing as a train takes the band down south, “I used to crawl into bed with my sister. We’d cuddle up under the covers and pretend we were lost in a dark cave and were trying to find our way out.” This wholesome innocence, coupled with that figure that suggests not-so-innocent things, let her have her cake and eat it too; it was the paradox that made her a star. “How do I know about a man’s needs for a sex symbol?” she once asked. “I’m a girl.”
We know Marilyn is hot, but Wilder saw that she was warm too, and in Some Like It Hot, he permits her coziness to cuddle some clemency into his ruthless good time. She is the heart of the comedy, the only one not playing for laughs (though she gets them), and if you, like me, think she walks away with the picture, it’s because Wilder handed it to her. Rarely does Lemmon or Curtis have the screen to himself; Monroe often does. Her close-ups—a rare occurrence in Wilder country—reveal a girl twinkling with chaste enthusiasms. “Good niiiiiight, Sugaarrrr,” Jerry stage-whispers to her across the train car. She pops her head out of her bunk, and after a vulnerable split second wondering who called to her, she opens into the most playful, the most self-nourished, the most sincere smile I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s not sexy. It’s genuinely happy. “Good night, honey!”
And here we are again, back
to having a good time. “A good time”: not a phrase we readily associate with
the famously heartsick Marilyn Monroe. Seeing her so happy must have been fun
for Some Like It Hot’s 1959 audiences, but for us, knowing
what we know about her depression and self-loathing and death, watching Marilyn
truly enjoy herself is, today, the movie’s most painful pleasure. When she
calls back, “Good night, honey!” I’m probably not alone in feeling, in addition
to delighted, very sad, and not because we lost in Monroe a great artist (she
wasn’t), or a great beauty (she was), but because, in Some
Like It Hot, it’s clear she was, at times, abundantly capable of
I think it is way past time
we celebrated Wilder for his women: Sabrina, Phyllis Dietrichson, Norma Desmond, Fran Kubelik . . .
of terrific male protagonists nearly obscures the dames, the
floozies, the killers, the broken adorables, and
the upstanding, virtuous Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) in the
lamentably underrated A Foreign Affair (1948). The
greatest line Wilder ever wrote, he wrote for a woman: “I don’t go to church.
Kneeling bags my nylons”—Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), Ace
in the Hole. And let’s not forget Ninotchka and Ball
of Fire’s Sugarpuss O’Shea, characters he cowrote for Ernst Lubitsch and
Howard Hawks to direct. With the exception of Sabrina, these characters all
have Wilder’s trademark tough candy shell and cream-filled center (Garbo laughs
in Ninotchka, remember?)—even the duplicitous Mrs.
Dietrichson, who, in the final second before her death, looks at Walter Neff,
after he shoots her, with a desperate, silent, “Why, Walter, why? I really
loved you.” Those who leave Wilder at “misanthropic” forget that you have to
have a heart to have it broken. Look at the women. They’re Wilder’s heart.
“Wilder’s famous last lines are legion, but what makes them so revelatory is what they imply about the characters’ unseen pasts and futures.”
This bitter romantic, Billy Wilder, was a master of endings. His famous last lines are legion, but what makes them so revelatory is what they imply about the characters’ unseen pasts and futures. Suddenly offering a fresh lens of retrospection or projection, they revitalize the movie we’ve just seen. The last line of Double Indemnity (1944)—“Closer than that, Walter”—tells us we’ve actually been watching a tragedy, an American tragedy, about the end of a friendship, just as, in the last moments of The Apartment (1960)—“Shut up and deal”—the dramedy becomes a comedy, and in the last moment of Sunset Boulevard (1950)—“All right, Mr. DeMille . . .”—we realize we’ve been watching a movie about insanity, and in the last moment of Some Like It Hot—“Nobody’s perfect”—Wilder writes for our imaginations an unfilmed fourth act that could be as hilarious as the previous three.
Now, about that famous last line. As recorded in Ed Sikov’s definitive biography of Wilder, the following anecdote about its inception tells us who the filmmaker really was: “Diamond and I were in our room working together,” Wilder explained, “waiting for the next line—Joe E. Brown’s response, the final line, the curtain line of the film—to come to us. Then I heard Diamond say, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ I thought about it, and I said, ‘Well, let’s put in “Nobody’s perfect” for now. But only for the time being. We have a whole week to think about it.’” Without a better idea, they shot the line, and it went into the movie. Both remained unsatisfied until they screened the movie for an audience, and, Wilder said, “that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater.” That’s what mattered to Billy Wilder: the laugh. A man with a message to deliver his audience would have had his ending in mind from the beginning; Wilder just wanted us to have fun, and as the line makes clear, any kind of fun, any way we can—or, when life gives you lemons, make a martini.