Criterion Project #39: SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

Author’s note: I happen to be on vacation visiting family this week so this likely will be short and sweet.

Some Like it Hot

Spine #950

Year: 1959

Director: Billy Wilder

My first thought after finishing this film is how tangentially connected Some Like it Hot and The Apartment are. The two Billy Wilder films are very clearly different types of comedies, with the former relying on more physical humor and hijinks while the latter mixes the comedy with some darker, more dramatic themes. There’s at least a modicum of a thread tying these two together, aside from Jack Lemmon, of course, who essentially plays the stooge who finds himself in precarious situations often and regularly in both films. But the real tie-in for me is the disingenuous men pulling one over on a woman who is categorized as, more or less, easy.

The plot of Some Like it Hot involves two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), on the run from Chicago mobsters after the two knuckleheads witness the Valentine’s Day massacre. They take up a position with an all-female jazz orchestra on their way to sunny south Florida by posing as women. Along the way, they meet Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s “not too bright” singer whose sole purpose is to find a rich man to take her away from her life and, to a certain extent, herself.

In a day and age when we’ve evolved far past characters like Sugar, I find this representation a bit too one-note. She’s utters lines such as, “Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!” amongst a cavalcade of less than intelligent quips. Are they funny? Of course. But, she’s portrayed as a woman who has nothing going for her and as a result has major self-esteem issues. How does a woman like this find redemption? Why, a man of course! Her downfall, as she puts it, is getting involved with no-good men, chiefly saxophone players (which Joe happens to play). She laments her ineptitude at avoiding these men, and then proceeds to be conned by yet another louse. The bottom line is – the film lampoons this character and relishes stomping on her. **SPOILERS** If this film didn’t think so lowly of her, why would she run off with Joe at the end of the movie after he reveals himself to be another low-life saxophone player? Seemingly, even a conniving man is worth running away with when you have that sort of low opinion of yourself. Couple that with her high-pitched delivery and ditzy personality and you get a pretty decent archetype for the air-headed bimbo that was prevalent in cinema for decades. Don’t get me wrong, Monroe plays the part exceptionally well and gets a lot of laughs from her performance and delivery of some truly wonderful lines, but it’s a little tough to swallow this regressive character who’s so easily manipulated.

The battered woman in The Apartment, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClain), has a predilection to getting involved with married men, and as a result tries to kill herself. Sadly, both films tether the self-worth of their female characters to men, sending them into downward spirals when the men have had their fill of them. The difference between the two films is how the women are redeemed. In Some Like it Hot, it seems Sugar running off with Joe is as much of a crowning moment for Joe (who doesn’t deserve any kind of absolution) as it is for Sugar. Sugar didn’t learn a damn thing and Joe finally came to terms with his irresponsible and lecherous behavior. Meanwhile, in The Apartment, Fran is given the agency to leave Mr. Sheldrake alone on New Year’s to go see Mr. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) – who most definitely deserves this moment of vindication. She realizes her worth – that she deserves a man like Baxter. It would seem the latter film has a touch more respect for its central characters.

Sugar (even the name makes me bristle) is really portrayed as an object to be tossed around like a chew toy. Jerry pines for her affection at the outset, with his disguised persona, “Daphne”, trying to saddle up to her via booze and girl-talk. His scheme doesn’t go as planned and before long Joe sees an opening and concocts a plan to pose as a millionaire oil tycoon to woo her. The comedy is extracted from this set-up as the boys routinely run around swapping costumes and fumbling around with all manner of attire and accessories to keep their ruse intact. Hats, wigs, earrings, bracelets, and high heels come and go at opportune (and inopportune) times. A more modern example of the slapstick humor is Mrs. Doubtfire, and Joe’s “Junior” schtick was certainly the template for Matt Dillon’s plotting “Pat Healy” in There’s Something About Mary.

The gender swapping makes for an interesting watch in a contemporary world where the gender lines are far more fluid than in 1959. There’s an awfully cringe-y moment when Jerry, as “Daphne”, gets engaged to a wealthy man while keeping him company, namely so Joe can use his faux Cary Grant accent to deceive Sugar. Jerry comes back to their hotel room and tells Joe he’s getting married to the wealthy man, to which hollers that two men can’t be married to each other. But there’s a tone to Joe’s voice that imbues the words with a moral judgment, and not just a statement of legality.

I understand the place and time this film was made and that these were commonly held beliefs. It sounds much worse in 2022 than it did in 1959. All of my gripes can be summed up by one phrase – it was a sign of the times.

It may sound like I don’t like the movie, but that’s not entirely true. It’s fun enough and has some seriously cracking dialogue, led entirely by the talented leads and Billy Wilder’s craft. There is a complementary nature to his camera work in this film, which acts as a visual rhyme to the physical aspects and the rhythm of the script. As a whole, I’d be hard-pressed to find a film more in sync and together than this one. All the elements just click into place.

I just can’t ignore some of the lesser generalizations, even if their entire purpose is to entertain and give you a few laughs. That almost makes it a little worse in my book. I don’t think time has been to kind to the portrayals in this film, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. It hasn’t aged gracefully. That said, I can still enjoy the film for the farce that it is – I just might cringe a little more than I did the first time I watched it. If you love this film, as most people do, don’t let me ruin your enjoyment of a lauded Hollywood classic. The film’s stature seems to grow as it get older, so perhaps I’m the one not aging gracefully. I can live with that.

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