We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.
AFInity: Some Like It Hot
By Kim Hollis
July 24, 2009
Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.
In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.
#22: Some Like It Hot
"I just always think, 'Do I like it?' And if I like it, maybe other people will come and like it too." --Billy Wilder
If the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list is any indication, people liked Billy Wilder's movies. Four of his films appear on the list - both in its original 1998 form and its tenth anniversary edition. The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard all provide top-notch entertainment even as they cover a variety of genres. I've long counted myself a great fan of The Apartment and the Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy Sabrina, but despite my keen interest in Wilder's work, I'd somehow never gotten around to seeing Some Like It Hot (a particularly egregious omission considering that I always love Jack Lemmon). Since it was airing on HDNet Movies, it seemed the perfect time to knock #22 off the AFInity list. Would I enjoy it as much as Wilder (and Lemmon's) other work? And would it stand up alongside other titles from the 100 Years... 100 Movies list?
Some Like It Hot features Lemmon and Tony Curtis as a pair of musicians named Jerry and Joe who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as they witness a mob massacre in Chicago (on St. Valentine's Day, no less). With the gangster boss threatening to find and eliminate them, the guys decide that it's time to skedaddle. In order to make themselves scarce, they disguise themselves as women so that they can join an all-female band that will be performing in Miami. Complications naturally ensue, particularly when the guys befriend one of their bandmates, the luscious, ditzy Sugar (Marilyn Monroe).
With regard to Some Like It Hot's premise, the iconic producer David O. Selznick told Wilder, "It will be a disaster. You cannot combine comedy with murder!" Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond were not to be deterred, though, and the resulting script can only be described as "sparkling". As I watched, I found myself chuckling frequently, and laughing uproariously at all the right times. Incidents and comments that seem to be simple throw-aways return with greater impact as the film progresses, and it's evident that everything has been meticulously and deliberately plotted.
Expectations are subverted frequently – no easy task in a movie about cross-dressers and the mob. For instance, in the Cameron Crowe book Conversations With Wilder, the director talks about a scene where Joe disguises himself as the heir to the Shell Oil fortune in order to seduce Sugar. "I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking, this is no good, this is expected. But what we will do is that he plays it impotent! And she suggests the sex...It must be better to be subdued, seduced and screwed by Marilyn Monroe – what could be better?"
These types of surprises can be found throughout the movie, and help to elevate Some Like It Hot to a level of sublime comedy that is rare to experience. How refreshing it is to see a film that hasn't been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, that expects its audience to understand nuance and subtlety.
It helps, of course, that Wilder was wise enough to work with such a talented group of performers. Jack Lemmon is the real standout of the group, with his sense of comic timing being a crucial element in the film. A lot of his lines are zingers, but many of them become even funnier because of the way he delivers them. He's deadpan even while seeming to allow for the fact that he knows the audience is in on the joke. He even breaks the fourth wall at a point, helping us to be that much more connected to Jerry/Daphne. There's a reason that Wilder collaborated with Lemmon six more times after their work together in Some Like It Hot. "There was a little bit of genius in everything he did," said Wilder.
As for Tony Curtis, he could have just been the "good-looking guy", but he actually brought a lot to the role of Joe/Josephine. When asked about his favorite characters in his films, Wilder answered, "I would maybe like to have been Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot." It shows, too. Rather than go the easy route of making Jerry/Daphne the smart one and Joe/Josephine the pretty but dumb guy, Wilder writes Joe as clever. He's the one who comes up with the "elegant" solution that allows them to escape the mob, and later comes up with the perfect plan to ignite romance with Sugar. Amusingly, Joe looks and sounds like a certain classic actor when he disguises himself as Shell Jr. This was such a canny impersonation, Wilder noted that "[Cary Grant] called me after Some Like It Hot and congratulated me that Curtis had done a wonderful imitation."
The trifecta is completed with Marilyn Monroe as Sugar. Though she was notoriously difficult to work with at times (she had a bad habit of never showing up on schedule), there's no question that her presence on screen was larger-than-life. She was more than just a buxom babe in a showy dress. Her singing is sultry, even when she's singing something as slight as "I Wanna Be Loved by You". Best of all, Monroe has a true instinct for understanding where the laughs are in the script. Her awareness as she plays off her co-stars is keen, and considering that she's one of the most iconic pin-up stars ever, she comes off as surprisingly down-to-earth. "They've tried to manufacture other Marilyn Monroes and they will undoubtedly keep trying. But it won't work. She was an original," said Wilder.
I really can't find a single thing to complain about with regards to Some Like It Hot. Some might believe that the mobsters are a little too far over-the-top (even Wilder said "There was something slightly ridiculous about the gangsters...I'll grant you that."), I found George Raft's scenery chewing to fit perfectly in place with the character he was playing. I especially giggled every time we were reminded that his character was called Spats Columbo - he even had the footwear to match the name. There's a great bit where the mobsters gather at a hotel for a "Friends of Italian Opera" convention, which is of course a clever front to allow them to plan their more nefarious activities (I do wonder if in today's environment, they would declare "crime.org" to be their Web site).
It's a fine example of all of the pieces coming together to become something nearly perfect. I'm most impressed by how timeless Some Like It Hot is. Its humor is so universal that it still resonates today. This can be attributed to Wilder's constant quest to make his story and characters seem true. We believe that Jerry and Joe would be desperate enough to resort to extreme (though hilarious) measures to escape the mafia, and we believe that Sugar is the kind of girl either of them could fall in love with. All comedies should strive to be so consistently funny. It's a classic of the genre, and clearly deserving of its position on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list. It's the kind of movie I can foresee myself watching again and again, with potential to become a favorite.
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