For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
As I started to work on today’s column for #22 “Some Like It Hot,” I encountered two difficulties. The first, how do I choose only a handful of scenes from a film that is overflowing with classic, iconic, hilarious moments. I usually try to choose between five and seven scenes to reference, but my list of clips kept creeping into the double digits. I have refined it down to seven clips, but know that I could have easily shown that many more and still not given you the full depth of the comedic brilliance that this film offers.
My second difficulty is a headier, theoretical one. In “Some Like It Hot,” director Billy Wilder employs the classic comedic device of cross-dressing men in his farcical romp.
Men have been dressing as women for humorous effect as long as theater has existed, but in a world that includes 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s incarnations of feminist discourse, it becomes impossible to look at “Some Like It Hot” without at least touching on gender issues and sexuality.
I sifted through theory that discussed whether “Some Like It Hot” simply reinforces heterosexual gender roles and the patriarchal system in which they are learned. I found some critics who claimed the Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) dressed as Josephine and Daphne actually critique of heteronormativity within a dystopian male dominated world. Oh my goodness.
Is “Some Like It Hot” a feminist piece or a non-feminist piece? I found articles that came down on both sides of the issue, and I really don’t think that it’s either, which is one of the reasons that the film still holds up. Unlike “Tootsie,” a film, which tries to make a point about gender, “Some Like It Hot” uses gender and cross-dressing as a way to move the story and develop character, because Wilder draws no gendered lines in the sand, the discussion of gender roles stays ambiguous and compelling.
So to heck with the theory (at least for now), let’s get on to the film.
“Some Like It Hot” is the story of Joe and Jerry, two out of work musicians struggling to scrape by in Chicago during prohibition. The speakeasy they were working at was broken up in a raid. They find out about a job in Florida, but it turns out that it’s an all female band. So instead they take a gig for one night outside of town, but when they go to pick up their friend’s car at the Southside garage, things get even worse.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
This type of dialogue play runs throughout the movie. Almost every line is as quotable as the next.
With Spats (George Raft) and his lackeys on their tails, Joe and Jerry come up with a plan to get out of town. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
This is the only time that Wilder lets dialogue fall into an overt discussion about the differences between men and women, which is pretty remarkable since there is at least one person, and more often two people, in drag for over half the film.
The rest of the time the fact that Josephine and Daphne are really men is like a funny secret between Jerry and Joe and the movie viewers. Jack Lemmon is brilliant at this sort of understated “wink and a nod” type of humor.
Just take this scene, which shows Jerry as Daphne and Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) throwing a little afterhours party in Jerry’s sleeper bunk. (Sound starts at 6 seconds.)
From Jerry’s mention of the “surprise party” to the woman’s offer of salami, this scene is packed with giggle inducing innuendo. This is perfect comedic suspense. A viewer is tense the entire time about the possibility of Jerry or Joe being found out, but instead of inducing panic or worry, it creates laughter.
This scene also illustrates why “Some Like It Hot” passes the Bechdel Test. For those who are unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple way of determining the presence of female characters in a movie. To pass the test the movie must have two named characters that are women, who talk to each other about something other than a man. Passing the test doesn’t mean the film has a feminist slant. It only shows whether or not there is a female presence in the film.
I find it fascinating that a film released in the 50s, about cross-dressing male musicians, has enough named female characters who tell dirty jokes, talk about drinking and food and are well developed enough to pass the Bechdel test.
Jerry and Joe make it to Florida undetected, but once at the resort, the precariousness of their situation becomes even clearer. The wealthy Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), struck by Daphne’s alluring qualities, pursues Jerry/Daphne with a smarmy relentlessness. The sexual ambiguity is wonderful.
Jack Lemmon is one of only a very few actors that has eight Academy Award nominations in one of the two actor categories. One may not always place Lemmon in the same company as Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Jack Nicholson, or Paul Newman, but watch his performance in “Some Like It Hot” or “The Apartment,” another Wilder/Lemmon collaboration which made the list, and you’ll see why he’s one of a very few with so many Oscar nods.
Much is made of her figure and her sex appeal. Monroe’s image has grown and evolved in the years since her death, transforming her into an odd mythic figure. Few people who have her pictures pasted on their dorm room walls will have ever seen one of her films, but Monroe is a whole lot more than an attractive and curvy woman. She is a really smart and really funny actress.
Just watch this scene, which has Joe out of his dress and impersonating a millionaire to attract the attention of Sugar, who happens to be looking for gold to dig. All the while Jerry plays on the beach with the other women. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
“Do you play the market?”
“No the Ukulele.”
Her timing is impeccable. It wouldn’t take much to make an even slightly shaky performance look like a train wreck in between Curtis and Lemmon. Monroe doesn’t just hold her own, she gives us a well-rounded, thoughtful, intelligent, flawed character, who also happens to be really sexy. Though she was never nominated for an Academy Award, Monroe did take home the Golden Globe for her performance as Sugar.
Joe, disguised as the heir of Shell Oil, secures a date with Sugar, and Osgood, with some pushing from Joe, gets Daphne/Jerry to go dancing with him. These two dates allow for one of the most memorable comedic montages in American cinema. (Sound starts at 7 seconds.)
Joe and Jerry return to their hotel room, each thoroughly excited about their date. Joe sees potential with Sugar, but frets over how to reveal that he’s also Josephine and not a millionaire. Jerry tells Joe that Osgood proposed to him, to Daphne, last night and he, Daphne, happily accepted. Jerry seems sincerely happy about the offer of marriage, which makes the situation all the more humorous.
Joe shakes Jerry out of his love stupor, and the two find out that Spats and his cronies are in town for a national mob family meeting and are staying at the same hotel.
The unlucky duo witness another mob hit, and are pursued yet again by a group of gangsters. Joe and Jerry have planned an escape with the help of Osgood, which leads to the final moments of the film and it’s most referenced moment.
The double entendre about altering the wedding gown or Jerry’s man parts and Jerry’s reaction makes me burst out laughing every time. Osgood’s goofy grin couldn’t be more perfect and wonderfully ambiguous.
It is hard to watch this scene and not see some playful critique of heterosexuality as the only normal. The willingness to complicate these characters make this moment engaging and really really funny.
Whether you watch it to bring down the patriarchy that prizes heteronormativity, or you watch it to see two funny musicians, who get themselves into loads of trouble, because they dress like women, just watch “Some Like It Hot.”
You’ll laugh your balls off, which is entirely appropriate.
Up next #21 “Chinatown” (1974)
For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)