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celluloid relapse : some like it hot

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Marilyn Monroe in a dress is a sight to behold – but Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis look better. These two gents, when dressed in the garb normally reserved for women, manage to completely outfox Hollywood’s supposed epitome of sex appeal.

Such a comparison comes to us, of course, from the shenanigans that occur during Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) in which all three of these aforementioned actors are given ample opportunity to flounce around as women. Whilst such a premise may sound gaudy and highly pre-disposed to callous entertainment in the same vein as White Chicks (2004) and Big Momma’s House (2000), Some Like it Hot is nothing like its unfortunate relations. This is a highly intelligent, witty and entertaining film from a very talented director.

Jerry (Lemmon) and Joe (Curtis) are two down-and-out musicians desperate for money and warm clothes amid what appears to be a positively apocalyptic Chicago winter. Despite their efforts to find work, their prospects worsen as the two, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, witness a particularly gruesome gang murder. Naturally frightened by the likelihood that their young selves may prematurely kick the metaphorical bucket, they flee but being short of money their options for escape are, admittedly, limited. Thus the desperate duo, disguising themselves as women, join Sweet Sue’s girls only band bound for sunny Florida where they encounter Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Monroe) and her surprisingly blasé attitude.

This variety of ridiculousness continues: Jerry and Joe (now Geraldine and Josephine respectively) quickly fall for the wily ways of the beautiful Sugar, Joe acquires a second alter ego of oil millionaire, Jerry attracts unwanted amorous advances from a wealthy retiree and the Chicago gang unexpected turn up for some sort of perverted mafia get together. Chaos ensues but so talented is Wilder that the film never loses its composure, even for a second. Consistently cool as a refrigerated cucumber throughout a frantic chase scene, a speedboat getaway and general pandemonium, Some Like it Hot remains admirably comical up until its closing moments.

Initially it seems that this is little more than merely story of men in dresses. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Some Like it Hot is so, so much more than that. It dissects human behaviour and attitudes through a carefully measured parody of gender identity. Jerry and Joe, so desperately trying to be female, barely contain their surprise when confronted not with a troupe of what they thought would be innocent girls, but Sweet Sue’s collective of crass, independent and outgoing individuals. These women drink like fish, cuss, and stay out until all hours of the morning: positively masculine behaviour in comparison to the constructed personas of the classically educated and very proper Geraldine and Josephine.

Despite this uneasy beginning, Geraldine and Josephine cease to be façades and gradually take on lives of their own. Geraldine goes so far as to discuss marriage with her beau – and later fiancé – and forlornly muses the impossibility of their married life. The pair are forced to constantly remind themselves of the limits of their current situation and of its temporary nature. It eventually dawns on the two that men and women aren’t as antithetical as they had previously supposed and until the mafia arrive unannounced, everything is at peace.

At this equilibrium, it must be said that the Monroe’s standing position of ‘lead seductress’ is unexpectedly snatched from her grasp by the fantastic performances of Lemmon and Curtis. Monroe, obviously too accustomed to playing herself, plays a breathless, doe-eyed Sugar: a depthless and uninteresting character. For an actor in her situation it would be very hard to compete with the novelty and easy comedy of Lemmon and Curtis’ transvestitism, but she does not pull it off. Her performance quickly irritates and she fails to become much more than a device for plot complication.

And there you have it: a film that is yet another reinforcement for the numerous, tired aphorisms that insist on true beauty’s interiority. Beauty most certainly resides within and this is why (and how) Geraldine and Josephine unwittingly outfox a certain saccharine individual. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis look better in a dress than Marilyn Monroe.

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