August 5, 2011

#22: Some Like It Hot

After my last blog movie, it's a good thing next one is a fair bit cheerier. Some would argue that there is simply no topping Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. The AFI would actually argue that, as they rated it the greatest American comedy of all time (although there are at least two or three movies above this one on the Top 100 list that I'd categorize as comedies). You'd certainly be hard pressed to find a better constructed comedy with more zingers per minute than this gem.

Company: Stephanie, who had never seen it and chortled throughout

Cuisine: a Diet Coke -- didn't need much else to enjoy such a confection.

I have to note the prologue first, in which policemen chase a hearse through Chicago in 1929 during prohibition. This alone is enough to make us laugh, but the great visual punchline comes when the gangsters in the hearse open the leaking bullet-hole-ridden coffin to expose dozens of bottles of whiskey. What a great heist.

Onto the plot. The premise is ripe for comedy: Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Oscar nominee Jack Lemmon) are down-on-their-luck musicians who disguise themselves as women and join an all-girl band after witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre makes them hunted men. In the eve of the liberal 1960s, cross-dressing was not really being explored in film, and its gay implications were nowhere to be seen. (See the fascinating documentary The Celluloid Closet for more on the subject.)

Josephine and Daphne.

Both men are portrayed as unflinching heterosexual (even though Tony Curtis's purse lips, flawless makeup and made-up confession later about "having this thing about girls" make it harder to believe), which is the only reason the film could have worked at the time. But Wilder takes every joke for its own value, regardless of why we're meant to laugh, either about the men's strong discomfort being women or their equally strong desire not to be discovered. If all the laughs were of the first variety, a contemporary audience might label these portrayals as homophobic, but there's a great balance here, and Curtis and Lemmon are having the time of their lives. I think you can tell that they know they're doing something that had never been done before.

"Get a load of that rhythm section!"
Cue the muted trumpets, here comes Sugar.

Enter Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (the stunning and remarkably at-ease Marilyn Monroe), a knockout ukelele-player/singer who has a thing for saxophone players. Both gents immediately take a liking to her (how could you not!?) but have to keep up appearances as girlfriends. This leads to the hilarious scene in the boxcar when Sugar, hiding from the tyrannical bandleader Sweet Sue (the wonderful Joan Shawlee), gets none too close to Daphne. None of Daphne's responses are funny to Sugar, but they're all funny to the audience, who gets to revel in knowing so much more than the characters on screen do. (Do we get a tiny pleasure from having something that Monroe doesn't?) I've seen this once before but I didn't remember just how funny Monroe is, and how well she keeps up with the screwball pace that Lemmon and Curtis establish.

Plus, there's this (above).

A delicious throwback to A Night at the Opera.

The girls arrive in sunny Florida to play a three-week gig somewhere on the beach, which is what attracted the gentlemen to it in the first place. Little did they know they'd get tangled up in love -- and the "wrong" kind. Daphne strikes the fancy of a many-times-married-and-divorced millionaire Osgood Fielding III (an underappreciated Joe E. Brown), who can't stop thinking about her. Meanwhile, Josephine assumes a "disguise" by dressing once again as a man, a Shell Oil exec named Junior, based on information he extracted from Sugar about her kind of fella. Sugar predictably falls for Junior, which complicates things even further. Zany!

Curtis and Lemmon carry the story equally here but it's Lemmon's Daphne that ends up being the comic foil to Curtis's Josephine, who gets the more traditional storyline. It's one of the great comic performances, in which Lemmon uses his rubbery face and frenetic delivery to full effect. Doesn't he look a little bit like Angela Lansbury?

And no one packs more bang for their buck into each and every delivery than Joe E. Brown as Osgood. Look at that big dumb open mouth! Again, the audience loves to be in on the secret that the characters don't know, and we love Osgood's good nature, naughty mind and total devotion to Daphne, which makes it all the more hilarious when Jerry, blinded by the promise of a sizable dowry, actually accepts Osgood's offer of marriage and can't stop shaking those damn maracas.

The reason they're in drag in the first place comes back to haunt them when the gangsters pursuing them finally trace them to the hotel, effectively knocking them (and us) back to the reality of the situation. The last third of the film then requires them to juggle both personas with ease, and that they do. As pictured above, they run up the stairs away from the gunmen and appear the next moment coming out of an elevator, impossibly changed back into their drag personas. We're ten minutes from the end of the film and Wilder tells us to forget plausibility! Such a bold move, and one that fits the film perfectly.

"Osgood, I'm a man!"
"Well, nobody's perfect."

It's really one of the best endings to any movie -- the final zinger in a movie lousy with zingers. What's more: it spits in the eye of the National Legion of Decency, a Roman Catholic organization dedicated to identifying morally objectionable content in motion pictures which gave the film a "condemned" rating, and homophobes everywhere who, until this moment in the film, hadn't really been presented with specifically homosexual content. No, Osgood isn't gay, but the joke leaves us with the same face that Jerry makes, not of horror or disgust but of delighted confusion. This film, along with Psycho and others, actually helped to bring about the end of the Production Code, Hollywood's moral censorship guidelines that had been in place since 1930, and the beginning of the Motion Picture Association of America's film rating system, spearheaded by Jack Valenti and still in place today. Ratings are a fascinating subject (perhaps one for exploration on this blog), and Some Like It Hot defied so many standards that Hollywood had to change. How many movies can claim that?

It's so much less satisfying to read about this film than to just watch it, so go rent it, y'alls!

Next up: a film I started and never finished. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

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