The three main members of the cast in character, left to right: Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon
There’s no denying that Some Like It Hot, a Billy Wilder comedy classic from 1959, is dated. In post-#Metoo 2018 its blasé treatment of sexual harassment and unabashed objectification of female characters like Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Sugar Cane’ is a bit hard to swallow. But, the film’s appeal stubbornly endures. It’s regularly voted the greatest comedy of all time and for good reason. All the right elements are there, from a script that throws jokes and innuendo at you quicker than you can say ‘not now, Josephine’; to an absurd final chase scene which manages to combine bell-boy uniforms, the Mafia, and high-heels. What makes audiences flock back to the film after nearly sixty years, though, is its universal themes of identity and transformation.
The story follows two struggling musicians in 1920s Chicago, played by the charismatic duo of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who accidentally witness a mob killing that emulates the real Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and have to skip town. The solution: to disguise themselves as women and join an all-female band bound for sunny Florida. Inevitably, not all goes to plan, and hilarity ensues. Curtis’s Joe – and also Josephine, and also Junior – is reckless, raunchy, and reprehensible. A kid playing dress-up. With the quick addition of fish-bowl glasses (stolen from the band’s manager) and a delightfully hammy Carey Grant impression, he goes from female saxophone player to sensitive millionaire. The object of his affections, though, is no less duplicitous. Monroe’s performance is wonderfully layered beneath her trademark saccharine voice and skimpy costumes. Norma Jane Mortenson (Monroe’s birth name) plays the icon ‘Marilyn’, who plays Sugar Kowalczyk, who hilariously restyles herself ‘Sugar Cane’, who plays a sophisticated debutante to impress the (fake) millionaire Junior. There’s more deception and mistaken identity than The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night combined. Nobody’s identity in Some Like It Hot is fixed and the film revels in this impermanence. Wilder is known for a bitter edge to his comedies, and that is certainly there in the form of the Mafia threat which follows our leads throughout, but the overwhelming feeling elicited is hope. The very American hope that, with a few accessories, you can make yourself into whoever you want to be. Perhaps this is an unrealistic fantasy, but what’s Hollywood without aspirational illusion?
This optimism permeates the other main romance of the film, that of Daphne (Jerry’s female counterpart) and the aging tycoon Osgood. The famous final line of the film – which I don’t want to spoil because it’s so good – leaves the narrative not with a restoration of order, as is the norm in comedy stretching back to Shakespeare and beyond, but on an amiable acceptance that difference, and even a little subversion, will be accepted. It’s no wonder that this cross-dressing romp defied censorship standards of the day. The gender ambiguity depicted is completely at odds with an America that is obsessed with dividing and categorizing its population. Due to its radicalism – for the 50s that is – it may be surprising that it received such commercial and critical success upon release. This is a testament to how the irresistible buoyancy and charm of a movie can overcome anxieties about gender and, as is evident today, can transcend time.
All of this being said, Some Like It Hot is first and foremost a riotous comedy. The deeper themes wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if we didn’t get a wisecrack from Joe or an infectious cackle from Jerry every minute or two. Indeed, the film is arguably most successful as a comedy in its more traditional screwball moments, incorporating slapstick and sparky dialogue to create a narrative of unyielding humor. Despite this, what makes Some Like It Hot a great film, as well as a great comedy, is its exploration of identity as fluid and its celebration of the chaos that this can sometimes cause.
Some Like It Hot is playing at the BFI Southbank until the 18th of November as part of their Comedy Genius season. Tickets are £12.50, or £3.00 if you’re a student and you get there half an hour before the screening time. For the homebodies, the film is also available to stream on Netflix – though I strongly recommend seeing it in a theatre with an audience.