d. Billy Wilder / USA / 120 mins.
Note: Correction Appended
By 1960, the U.S. Motion Picture Production Code had received two firm and successive kicks to the groin. Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho – different films if there ever were any – hit theaters in 1959 and 1960 with two things in common: they were both strongly condemned for their content*, but both had the ability to pull in massive crowds. Hugely successful among audiences, both directors received Oscar nominations and today each film is considered a crowning achievement in its genre. The Production Code, already weakened by films in the 1950s the 1960s motoring out into undisturbed waters, seemed less in touch with audiences than ever before. It would not live to see the end of the decade.
This is not the say Some Like It Hot and Psycho are exploitive or vulgar; on the contrary, although they both lingered on the edge long enough to be deemed too risqué for the censors' approval, both films are prime examples of teetering restraint, deriving their ingenious entertainment value from what is not actually on the screen. It's the camera and editing tricks of Psycho and the sheer innuendo of Some Like It Hot that are most penetrating and admirable to the modern viewer. Imagine if Wilder's film – which turns a very youthful fifty-years-old in 2009 – was released today, maybe by a director like Judd Apatow. Would the comedy still be so subtle, so sly, so brilliantly between the lines? Would the gender politics still be so creative and funny fifty years on? How much nudity or swearing or homophobic jokes would there be? Would the joy be unrepentant, or would the characters become hurt and betrayed? The assumable answers are not encouraging.
As it is, Some Like It Hot is an ideal comedy. It is funny – truly funny – for the sake of being funny. There is no heart-warming lesson; the only thing warmed is your face, cranberry-red from laughing so loudly. (And maybe your general demeanor is warmed, depending how you feel about Marilyn Monroe.) It is silly, yes, but also sophisticated. For every joke about how ridiculous it is for the male characters to dress as women, there's a double entendre or body language expertly filmed as to insinuate what you already know but what the film won't come out and tell you.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, two struggling musicians in 1929 Chicago who witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Fearing for their lives (and rightly so), they skip town in drag as two new members of all-girl band. But, as is always the case in the movies for men who dress in drag, inevitably they find their new proximity to women to be sexually frustrating, and Some Like It Hot puts Joe and Jerry's libidos into overdrive when they meet the band's lead singer, Sugar (Monroe).
I've never found crossdressing and drag humor particularly funny, and part of me wishes I could say Some Like It Hot transcends its drag premise and becomes something grander and more intellectual. The reality is that it doesn't really, but the screenplay – by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, adapted from the German film Fanfares of Love – does something arguably even better: it takes the premise and runs with it in two wildly different but structurally parallel directions. Curtis as Joe escapes his dress for another costume, a blue blazer and ascot, posing as the heir to an oil baron's fortune (and acting as a wicked parody of Cary Grant) to woo Sugar, who has always ended up in relationships with saxophonists and longs to find a millionaire. Lemmon as Jerry can't seem to escape his dress when he becomes the romantic quest of an actual, eccentric millionaire (Joe E. Brown), who eventually proposes and allows Lemmon to deliver one of the best lines of the movie:
Curtis: You're not a girl! You're a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?Some Like It Hot has many such hilarious lines and gags, too many to recite here and too many that depend upon the perfect delivery of the actors. Curtis and Lemmon are topnotch, although I would disagree with those who would say it is the best film for either. Lemmon's best work is probably in The Apartment, but his comic timing with Curtis and Brown is impeccable. Curtis is a scant better overall, particularly in his Cary Grant impression and his consistence through the multiple takes needed with the fickle Monroe, who reportedly required 47 takes to say "It's me, Sugar" and 59 takes to say, "Where's the bourbon?" And yet Monroe is the film's real sight to behold – both in the way her physicality holds your sight and in the way her performance is bubbly perfection. Some Like It Hot is the best performance of her career, and no doubt it required someone like Wilder to do what was necessary for her to reach the level she does. The grand presence she has in the film is best illuminated in the box cover to the collector's edition DVD: while Lemmon and Curtis are half-sized, yellow-screened and in drag, Monroe dominates the cover, air-brushed and in radiating full color.
Wilder was one of three directors to have multiple selections inducted into the National Film Registry during the first year of balloting. (The other two: Victor Fleming and John Ford.) Each of those two films – Sunset Boulevard, his most incisive satire; and Some Like It Hot, his funniest comedy – are at different ends of a spectrum he played like a maestro from end to end. This film came toward the end of an incredible streak of filmmaking for Wilder, beginning in 1944 with Double Indemnity and going through to The Apartment, which earned him Oscars for picture, director, and screenplay. Many films have tried to imitate the brilliance of Wilder's simultaneous zaniness and subtlety in Some Like It Hot; the imitators always seem to ignore the perfect structure, with Curtis and Lemmon on the opposite sides of being incognito, and try for the one-trick-pony of men in drag. Yet the real laughs come through the sharp way that the jokes push far enough to make an impression before they recoil.
Some Like It Hot has been called the funniest movie of all time. I don't know if that's the case, but it might have a fighting shot for that title if you exclude all silent films and don't count Dr. Strangelove. At least as far as its particular brand of humor is concerned, I can't think of another comedy that has come close to achieving the laughs produced under Wilder's direction. Oh well, what else should we expect? Nobody else is this perfect.
* An earlier version of this review stated both Some Like It Hot and Psycho lacked certificates of approval from the Production Code. Reader Mark A. Vieira, author of Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, challenged this claim. While I have read before that the films did not receive certificates of approval, I was unable to authenticate it with multiple references. As such, I've changed the sentence slightly to continue to express how the Code was becoming impotent with more daring and risqué films.