Marilyn Monroe was never a favourite star of mine. I preferred the icy beauty and elegance of Grace Kelly or the innocent charm of Audrey Hepburn. For pure sex appeal, Clara Bow was the girl for me, or maybe Louise Brooks. For delicate perfection there was Elizabeth Taylor and for gutsy disdain, Katharine Hepburn was the star I turned to. This left little room for poor old Norma Jeane. I disliked her petted-lip pronunciation, her posing, her apparent vacuousness. I was wrong, of course. What I came to realise was that in the right role, under the right direction, she could be a remarkable actress. She had star power, alright, but she also had class.
I think that part of the trouble for me was that while I could imagine having an argument with Katharine Hepburn, or pursuing Audrey Hepburn across Rome or down an rain-soaked New York alley, Marilyn Monroe often seemed untouchable. She was a fragile doll, an idol to be gazed upon but never a real person, never attainable, not someone that could be interacted with.
In Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot she is as beautiful, artificial and delicate as ever, but she is also real. This is the film that made me stand up and take notice. This is the film that opened my eyes to her undeniable charm.
Monroe plays Sugar Kane, singer and Ukelele player in an all-girl travelling orchestra. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two musicians living hand-to-mouth. When they accidentally witness a mob hit instigated by Spats Colombo (George Raft) they go on the run. Needing to leave town fast and avoid detection they doll themselves up in drag and join Kane’s orchestra as ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’. The orchestra is leaving for Florida and will, they hope, be their means of escape.
Monroe dominates the screen in every scene she appears in. Her introduction in the train station stops Jack Lemmon in his tracks and stops us too. The camera lingers on her as she walks along the platform, encouraging us to ogle her. I don’t consider this misogynistic but the film, despite being a light comedy, does make certain observations on the treatment of women. Jack Lemmon, for instance, stumbles as he boards the train only to have his behind patted by Dave Barry. Later he is the indignant victim of a pass in an elevator. For his part, as Tony Curtis chats to Sugar on the train, she tells him her own sad history with men – a long series of mistreatment and disappointments. Of course this is exactly how Curtis has used and abused women himself. It takes him figuratively becoming a woman to understand his own bad behaviour from their point of view. He begins to empathise with a woman for the first time. By becoming a woman he finds himself becoming a better man.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon give outstanding performances. Lemmon excels as the giggling and feminine Daphne. Early in the film he is hilarious as he tries to stop then joins in with an impromptu party in his berth. Tony Curtis, on the other hand, is at his best when he loses the dress and dons his millionaire persona. In a more than passable impression of Cary Grant he is comedic dynamite. The scenes between Curtis and Monroe on board the yacht are perfect – he is manipulative, charming and very funny; she is seductive, vulnerable and more than holds her own in eliciting laughter.
Playing opposite two actors in career-defining roles, Monroe could be forgiven for being something of an also-ran in the film. In fact she is never less than mesmerising. As Kane she is sweetly sexy and genuinely alluring. As viewers we more than understand the attraction that Curtis feels for her. When she performs her numbers as part of the orchestra’s shows she steals whole sequences and anyone else on screen becomes invisible.
While the three stars are possibly at their best, the supporting cast are no less impressive. One of the highlights of the film is Raft’s performance. He sends himself up spectacularly, playing off his own gangster typecasting. His best moment is a scene where he mocks a low level mob enforcer for tossing a coin – a reference to his own character in Scarface. While Raft and his gang are definitely amusing and often the source of comic relief, they are still permitted to play with enough menace to prove a credible threat to Lemmon and Curtis. Pat O’Brien, as the detective constantly trying to bring down Colombo, is also perfectly cast.
The supporting cast is, without doubt, dominated by Joe E. Brown. Playing a millionaire multiple-divorcee he falls for Daphne on sight. As the smitten lover he is outstanding and his subplot allows for Lemmon’s best lines and most absurd situations.
Billy Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator I. A. L. Diamond. They let the absurdities of the story play to their comedic extent and, through deceptively careful plotting, are able to throw in some surprising plot turns. Notably they avoid cliche and do not go down the route of having Lemmon and Curtis compete for Monroe. One liners come thick and fast and some of their dialogue, particularly the closing ‘nobody’s perfect’ have become legendary.
Having started out as a screenwriter who moved into direction, Wilder is an excellent actors’ director. As a technician, however, he is conservative. His direction never makes itself felt in terms of virtuoso style and he favours straightforward shooting to extravagant camera movements. This doesn’t limit the impact of the film and there are several impressive sight gags throughout, my favourite being the backwards boat rides.
Some Like it Hot has come to be among the most acclaimed and beloved comedies of all time and deservedly so. It isn’t my all time favourite and, for me, it isn’t Wilder’s best work. It is, however, my favourite performance of almost everyone involved and, possibly most importantly, the film that made me reconsider my opinion on Marilyn Monroe.
© Calum Campbell 2012