That Old Feeling: Hot and Heavy

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Some of the most acute movie depictions of Americana came from emigrees who had watched the U.S. carefully from afar and, when they arrived, saw it fresh with mature eyes. "Some Like It Hot" is in part a wise-cracking love letter to Wilder's adopted country. In an early scene an exasperated Joe asks the ever-fretful Jerry, "Why do you have to paint everything so black? Suppose you get hit by a truck. Suppose the stock market crashes. Suppose Mary Pickford divorces Douglas Fairbanks. Suppose the Dodgers leave Brooklyn." It happens that these last two cracks tell a lot about Billy Wilder. When he was a teenager in Vienna, his silent screen idol was the wittily heroic Fairbanks. As an adoptive American and baseball fanatic, he had attended the first-ever Los Angeles Dodgers game earlier in 1958 and would listen to their broadcasts while at dinner parties, his ear soldered to a transistor radio.

"Some Like It Hot" was loosely based on a script written by Richard Thoeren and Michael Logan for director Richard Pottier's 1935 French film "Fanfare d'amour," which was remade as "Fanfaren der liebe," a popular German comedy of the early '50s. (The Taschen book would have been a more valuable reference if it had included script extracts and photos from these films.) The three-act structure of "Fanfaren" has two desperate musicians dressing us as gypsies, in black-face for a jazz band and as girls — all to get a job. I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's longtime writing partner, recalled the film as "heavy-handed and Germanic. There was a lot of shaving of chests and trying on of wigs." Wilder thought American men would need an impetus stronger than unemployment to get them into wigs and girdles; his inspiration of their witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre made it all work.

The Mirisch brothers, his bankrollers, wanted Bob Hope and Danny Kaye for the men's roles. Wilder thought of Frank Sinatra, but when the singer didn't show up for a meeting, he moved on to Curtis. For Sugar, which he considered the least important of the major roles, Wilder had comedienne-dancer Mitzi Gaynor in mind. Then Monroe expressed interest, and that cinched Lemmon, then just below star level, for the Jerry role.

It all turned out wonderfully, with Wilder and Diamond producing a lean, rich script and Wilder setting a brisk but not dizzy pace that never lets up; even in the romantic scenes, the actors don't stop to ponder or mope over their dialogue. The script is full of repeated grace notes ("Big joke"; "Type O"; "caught dead"; "I'm a girl/I'm a boy") and lovely filigree work that's there for no other reason than giving pleasure — like the thug who helps Robinson, Jr. step inside a huge cake (so he can pop out to gun down Spats and his gang). then warns: "And don't mess up the cake. I promised to bring back a piece for my kids." The piece seems to have come together as snappily as Joe turns himself into Sugar's dream man after hearing her describe him, and as amusingly as Jerry tumbles into his role as a dirty old man's girl-toy.


The movie is a camp, masquerade, travesty. Nearly everyone's pretending to be someone or something else. Joe, is at first a heartless womanizer, then a man dressed up as one of the creatures he enjoyed exploiting, then a poor guy in millionaire sportsman's garb. (It was Curtis' idea to play the millionaire as a cut-rate Cary Grant — a lovely idea, since Grant's screen persona was a suave blend of the regally masculine and the flirtatiously effeminate.) Sugar, whose real surname is Kowalczyk, and whose baptismal name probably wasn't Sugar, puts on a debutante act when she meets "rich" Joe. She may not even be a genuine blond, though we can see that her curves, in those gowns and swimsuits, are for real.

Jerry, in his flirtation with opposite sexuality, finds he can get closer to girls as a girl than he could as a guy; in bed with Sugar, he says, "This may even turn out to be a surprise party." (Hey, Sugar, let's play the Crying Game.) Certainly Jerry gets closer to a sexual relationship with Osgood than with any woman. The old plutogoat takes every rebuff as a come-on. "How do you play the bass?" he asks. And "Daphne," threatening or promising rough sex, said, "Mostly I just slap it." Well, at least Osgood appears unencumbered by artifice. He's a playboy, impure and simple: seven- or eight-times married, and ready to tango till dawn with a muscular blond who insists on leading. Then he speaks the film's famous last line, "Well, nobody's perfect," and seems to lift another mask. He is revealed, maybe, as a man who — whether because he's addled or impish or deaf or gay — says he doesn't mind marrying another man. That Osgood: zow-ie!

Curtis and Lemmon were schooled in effeminism by the legendary drag artiste Barbette (Vander Clyde), who in his prime, around 1929, had been the subject of Man Ray photographs and a Jean Cocteau essay and had appeared in Cocteau's film "Blood of the Poet." Curtis, who said that in a dress he "looked like a combination of my mother, Dolores Costello and Eve Arden," took to the tutelage splendidly: the hauteur, the pursed mouth — he looks like the Charles Busch of the 50s. (Curtis also created a contraption that allowed him to pee without either removing his complicated clothing or getting a urostomy.) Lemmon, though, quickly tired of his graduate course in mincing. "The goof I was playing wouldn't be very proficient at walking in heels," he said. "I needed to be barely good enough to look like a clumsy woman."

Jerry is a clumsy woman, even as a man. His relationship to Joe is one of the exasperated but loving wife. He is ready to be dragged, to to speak, into any of Joe's schemes of getting rich or getting a girl. In one early scene, as Curtis pours on the high-calorie honey to a suspicious ex-flame, Lemmon turns to the camera and murmurs in admiration, "Isn't he a bit o' terrific?" Joe has a high seduction quotient, as a man or a woman. Jerry is a whiny guy, then just one of the girls: chatty, catty. It's a perfect comedy match — man's woman, girls' girl — that is spelled out in the one long scene that was cut after previews. On the train, Jerry gets into bed with Joe, thinking he's Sugar, and confesses his true sexual identity, whatever that is. Wilder was right to excise the scene; it would have made the subtly suggested sadomasochism of the Joe-and-Jerry friendship too explicit.

When the notion of playing in an all-girl band is broached, Jerry jumps at it, to Joe's disgust. Five minutes later we see the two dolled up for the first time. Joe is instantly as sexy and secure a woman as he had been a man, while Jerry, ever the hysteric (Lemmon reads most of his lines as if he's just run out of breath but can't stop speaking), struggles to keep steady on his stilts. Lemmon plays it brilliantly, especially in the scene when Joe, fresh from his shipboard conquest of Sugar, finds Jerry in bed shaking his maracas and announcing, "I'm engaged." Joe asks who's the lucky girl, and Jerry says, blissfully, "I am." Now Joe must force him to intone the mantra, "I'm a boy, I'm a boy-oh-boy I'm a boy." It comes back to him at the very end of the film, when he says he can't wear Osgood's mother's wedding dress, because "We are not built the same way." When Osgood replies, "We can have it altered," Jerry spits out, "Yaw, no ya don't!"


At a Christie's auction of Marilynabilia in 1999, her "Some Like It Hot" prompt book, which the house valued at $15,000, sold for $51,750. Perhaps the surcharge was for irony; prompt Marilyn never was. On the Wilder film she was late a cumulative 35 hours, costing the production a full week of shooting. She'd show up at 11 a.m. instead of seven, hide in her dressing room until the muse moved her, seek solace (as Sugar does) in alcohol, then, when an assistant director rapped on her door, cuss him out rather than confront her director in public. Even her private abuse to Wilder was second hand. In a 1985 memoir of the shoot, Diamond described a call Monroe made to the Wilder home; she got Audrey, his wife. Told that he wasn't in, Marilyn said, "Well, when you see him, will you give him a message for me? Tell him to go fuck himself. And my warmest personal regards to you."

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