Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is an enduring cinematic treasure. Mixing cheer and cynicism, snappy, sophisticated dialogue and slapstick, the movie veers between low and high comedy, incorporating elements of other genres as well, with quite a few winks in the direction of the gangster film. Exuberant, explosive, and exhilarating, it is decidedly ahead of its time in playing with images of male and female sexuality, conventions, and stereotypes. The film is a study in deception, disguise, and Darwinian drives, as the two male characters take on a number of different identities of both genders and everything in between, blurring the boundaries between the sexes. Marilyn Monroe, as Sugar Kane, is both virgin and vamp, blending, like she has throughout her career, the threatening sexuality of the femme fatale with the innocence, naïveté, and sweetness of a child. She infuses every corner of the film, turning an improbable farce into a vehicle for hope and tenderness, making the film rise above its existence as a Hollywood comedy into a buoyant look at the larger human comedy.
***Spoiler Alert! This is an analysis of the film, not a review, and it contains spoilers. That being said, enjoy...
As the spotlight toys with her body and with us, it becomes a surrogate neckline, dipping and clinging, covering and uncovering her as she bobs up and down. Calling her “perky” would be a gross understatement of her endowments, and the sheer, sequined, form-fitting gown underlines her buxom body. It is her utmost achievement that she invests sex with sweetness. Because when she is not commenting on the action by performing “Runnin’ Wild,” “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” or “I’m Through With Love,” she is allowed to stop being Marilyn for a second and becomes Norma Jeane, the innocent little girl who plays on the beach and always gets “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” On the boat, she kisses Junior tenderly, not sexually, as if she is only a friend doing the best she can to help him.
Some Like It Hot starts in the shadowy atmosphere of the gangster film, filled with cars, guns, city sounds, and a deep darkness, both literal and moral. The mournful soundtrack announces a different movie altogether than the one we will see, and, at first, the humor seems jarring. However, what we expect is rarely what we get when it comes to Wilder, and this is no exception. How fitting that a crime film can turn into a comedy just as easily as men can turn into women. Joe and Jerry are masters of escape; in two days they flee two crime scenes, first running from the cops, then the mobsters. They are intelligent and intuitive, but have not learned to take responsibility for their actions. This extends to all aspects of their lives. Joe is a manipulative womanizer who uses people for his own gain, exactly the kind of man Sugar is running away from. Jerry ogles the women in the station, and Sugar in particular, even if he is supposed to be a girl: “It’s like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built in motor. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex.”
What neither of them understands is that their transformation will add up to a lot more than shaving their legs and putting on mascara; it is not a physical transformation the director is interested in—we get not a glimpse of the “feminizing” process—but the emotional one. The costume changes do provide a delicious amount of physical gags, as the characters go up the stairs as men and descend in the elevator as women, or go in through a window one sex only to emerge another through the door. Wilder also offers us hybrids: male attire under female coats, wigs, and makeup, or a hilarious Jerry as a bellhop in high heels.
Joe and Jerry, or, more accurately, Josephine and Daphne, learn “how the other half lives,” and perhaps, by being women, become better men. They don’t like being objectified, stared at, pinched; they hate being the flag and want to “go back to being the bull.” The camera objectifies them as well, the first glimpse of them as women capturing only their legs, much as it will focus on Monroe’s behind in just a few minutes.
Joe, who would have hawked everything he owned in the beginning of the movie to bet on races, gives Sugar the diamond bracelet, while she, who seemed interested only in Shell Oil Junior, accepts him as yet another saxophone player. Joe insists he wants only sex; Sugar insists she wants only money. In the end they realize they want only each other. Although a brilliantly lit scene of the boat suggests she is just another trophy to him—when the light turns off the only thing visible onscreen is the sparkle of her sequined dress and the shine coming off the sport trophies in the background—he comes to care about her, to see the effects and consequences of his actions for the first time and accepts responsibility: “no tricks, no mirrors, nothing up my sleeve.” For the first time, perhaps, he’s “on the level.” His storyline provides the high comedy, filled with dazzling dialogue and one-liners traded with Sugar.
Daphne, then, provides the physical gags, tangoing his/her way into Osgood’s good graces—although he can’t help but lead and occasionally dip the millionaire. The parallel editing between the two dates offers a comic counterpoint—both are acts of deception, but both evolve into something more.
Jerry’s relationship to Osgood finally leads to a marriage proposal, which Daphne happily accepts, telling Joe he’s engaged. When asked who the lucky girl is, he happily retorts, “I am,” and goes on to tell him they’re planning a June wedding, and, for their honeymoon, “He wants to go to the Riviera, but I kinda lean toward Niagara Falls.” Joe is befuddled: “Why would a guy want to marry a guy,” he asks. “Security,” of course, Jerry says with an energetic shake of his maracas. “There are laws, conventions,” Joe reminds him, to which Jerry replies, “You think he’s too old for me? (…) I’m not stupid; I know there’s a problem—his mother.” And while the scene is undeniably funny, it holds a poignant truth; “I will never find another man that’s so good to me,” Jerry says.
Blurring the boundaries and scoffing at conventions is a not entirely undesirable outcome. It might not be an ideal situation, but it is all he has. “Nobody’s perfect,” the iconic final line goes, least of all the characters of Some Like It Hot. They are flawed, complex individuals with a multitude of different, sometimes contradictory facets, positive and negative, male and female.
You can read more about Marilyn here.
You can read more about Marilyn here.