Some Like It Hot

Summer Under the Sun Blogathon

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

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

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The Searchers

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

We are inside a darkened room before a closed door. A female figure approaches and opens it wide, revealing a glorious Technicolor landscape framed by the shadows of the door. The camera tracks forward, following the woman outside into the full cinematic splendour of the American West. As the viewer absorbs the VistaVision colours, the camera pans to the right to find Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into focus.

The opening shot of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is spectacular. The contrast between the shadows of the interior and bright exterior allows the landscape to burst onto the screen. Similar shots (dark interiors framing bright exteriors) are repeated throughout the film. They emphasise the vastness of the landscape and the futility and insignificance of human settlement in such an immense, rugged, unforgiving landscape. Indeed landscape and nature feature large in this film: the wide frame is used to its full effect in showing vast, empty spaces. The people that survive in this environment are as wild and unforgiving as their surroundings.

In the opening shot, Edwards has just returned home from a long absence. A former soldier, it is implied that following the war, he may have been involved in illicit activities. When the subject is broached, he refuses to discuss it. Edwards is a man of action, not words. When Comanches massacre his family and his nieces are kidnapped, Edwards cannot rest until he has avenged these deaths and retrieved his nieces. His obsessive hunt for revenge lasts for years.

While John Wayne dominates this film and does so with his prerequisite heightened masculinity and hard-man persona, he gives an undeniably subtle and complex performance. Things left unsaid, actions that occur off screen, are often the most interesting. What did Edwards do in the years after the war but before he came home? How did he get those bags of money? How did he acquire his knowledge of Comanche customs, beliefs and language? Is the story of what happened to him in the canyon the truth? Is the love between him and his sister-in-law imagined or real? Is it unrequited? Is his brother aware of it?

Ethan Edwards is a man whose rage barely conceals a crushing pain – he is grief sticken, an emotional wreck whose grief occasionally surfaces only to be suppressed by his anger. Grief fuels his anger, powers his obsession. Ethan Edwards is a man driven by his obsessions, by his prejudices and, above all, by his thirst for revenge. It is these prejudices, however, that prove the film’s major difficulty. There’s no denying that the film has a fiercely racist bite that is more than a little uncomfortable to watch. The most blatant instance of this occurs when Edwards is presented with a group of women recently rescued from the Comanches. They are portrayed as wide-eyed, grinning psychotics – live among the natives for long enough and you lose your mind being the clear implication. As Edwards puts it, they are no longer white. This attitude is, probably, accurate to the period in which the film is set. Arguably, and more worryingly, it could even be accurate for the time in which it was made. As uncomfortable as this is, the temptation to place modern standards of racism on a classic film should be avoided.

Jeffrey Hunter, as Martin, joins Edwards on his journey. The adoptive son of the slain family, he shares the need to rescue his sister. Wayne initially shows resentment towards him and is openly rude to him at a family meal but gradually comes to accept him. They spend years together, travelling from place to place in search of clues. It could be argued that a level of surrogate father-son relationship develops between them, although it is not always clear which man fits into which role. Edwards frequently protects Martin from the more horrible realities of the film – the sight of body of his aunt for example. He also withholds stories of the fates of other characters close to him. On the other hand Martin tries to be a calming influence on Edwards and to tame him when his temper or prejudice clouds his judgement.

The main thrust of the plot is heavy stuff. Necessary comedic value is found in the supporting cast, particularly Hank Worden as Mose whose life revolves around the hospitality of a rocking chair. Martin has a girlfriend (Vera Miles) waiting at home and a sub plot is devoted to her and her parents waiting for Martin’s return and her being wooed by another suitor. I particularly like the father’s habit of putting on his reading glasses every time a letter is read – whether he is reading it himself or not. The comedy highlight of the film, however, is found in an absurdly slapstick fight between Martin and his rival.

Traditionally the pursuit of vengeance would be portrayed positively in this genre. Interestingly, in this film, Wayne’s character is clearly not heroic: he shoots people in the back, has to be prevented from killing his niece, ignores pleas not to lead Martin into a life of the endless pursuit of revenge and even cuts short the funeral service. The resolution of the search lacks satisfaction for Edwards. He accepts his niece into the family again but is apparently unable to rejoin the family himself. Additionally, and again going against genre norms, it is Martin, rather than Edwards, who finally kills Scar, the Comanche chief that destroyed his family.

The last shot of the film shows that, without war, without his search, Edwards is lost. He has brought back his niece and she is taken inside the house, followed by the welcoming party. As they enter, they become silhouettes, enveloped by the shadow of the interior. The camera tracks back with them until the doorway frames the bright exterior. Wayne comes as far as the door but does not enter. For the first time, he seems unsure of what to do with himself and wanders around aimlessly. On the soundtrack a song repeats the lyric ‘ride away’ and we fade to black. This is not a comfortable ending – it lacks resolution. It is, however, fitting. Edwards entered the film from nowhere, crossing an empty landscape and the viewer was not told anything substantial about what happened to the character prior to the start of the film. In some ways it is fitting that it should end this way – Edwards cannot enter because he doesn’t belong. Like the opening shot, the contrast between light and dark emphasises the contrast between wildness and domesticity. The implication is clear, Edwards belongs outside in the wild, he cannot be domesticated.

The Searchers is a western that attempts to subvert some of the ideals of heroism in typical westerns. It does this on a screen that is dominated by some of the most expressive uses of the iconic western landscape ever put on the screen. It is a film that is dominated by a savage anger and fierce obsession; a film of contradictions and prejudices. It is a film that asks many more questions than it answers and, for those questions it does answer, doesn’t always provide comfortable answers. It isn’t the best American Western but it does come close. Ford’s spectacular depiction of landscape would influence David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and its style and influence would be heavily felt a few years later when Spaghetti Westerns began to emerge.

© Calum Campbell 2012

Representing Humanity

Sam Fragoso at Duke & the Movies hosted a blogathon on Sunday. The premise:

Extraterrestrial forces land on Earth. Unknowing of our planet and society, you can pick five films from the history of cinema that represent humanity. What titles would you choose and why?

This is an intriguing idea. Movies represent the best and worst of humanity – our hopes, dreams and aspirations, our capacity for hatred and evil. They show reality and fantasy and reflect their times. But how to choose only five films?

The selection process was difficult and I changed my mind numerous times. Initially I considered films that would reflect five great emotions representative of humanity. Plenty of scope there for war films, great romances, sweeping epics and science fiction fantasies. However I reconsidered this approach. Most people don’t experience the world, or humanity for that matter, as great, sweeping, operatic movements. For most, the world is shaped through individual experience. Taking this as my perspective, my choices are films that represent five typical experiences in the lives of modern-day people. My first three choices represent childhood, the transition to adulthood and love, respectively. The fourth is a helplessly positive celluloid dream that charms despite the fact we know that people like this don’t exist and the world is not nearly as innocent as the film would have us believe. The final choice represents a depressingly realistic snapshot of the world of work, the nature of business and possibly even relationships today.

The films I chose are surprisingly recent but I make no apologies for that. For me they represent my feelings on the modern human experience. So far, so grand. Here are the films:

1. The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Childhood is a traumatic experience for both parent and child. Chaplin channels his own childhood traumas to spectacular effect in The Kid. The young Jackie Coogan plays his part perfectly, eliciting laughter, concern and even the odd tear or two. The endearing kid character and Chaplin’s tramp are an unlikely pairing but they charm us. Traumatic as childhood is it is also about simple pleasures, about love and the pleasure and pain that a parent can feel in their love for their child. Coogan isn’t the tramp’s son but Chaplin becomes a father to him and the scenes in which the authorities attempt to separate them are masterful juxtapositions of moments of comedy and genuinely affecting emotional turmoil. It is all hopelessly sentimental but, in this film, that’s fitting.

Alternatives: Les 400 coups, My Neighbor Totoro, The Fall

2. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

The transition from child to adult is a frightening, exhilarating and confusing time for anyone. However, no one ever had it as bad a Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) the hopelessly shy, friendless, bullied, loner, victim of a fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie). Spacek gives a wonderfully understated performance that allows the audience to both sympathise with Carrie the victim and, to an extent, with the bullies that target her. In addition to being rife with metaphorical meanings, Carrie’s telekinesis further alienates her but also provides her with the means for her gloriously cathartic revenge. Carrie’s brief moment of triumphant acceptance is perfectly captured and makes her inevitable humiliation all the more painful. As exaggerated as it is, Carrie perfectly captures the pain, heartbreak and triumph of being a teenager.

Alternatives: Deep End, The Breakfast Club, Super 8

3. Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, 2005)

Cameron Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown is, for me, a near-perfect romance. Its premise is unpromising – Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) a suicidally depressed young man travels to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to collect his father’s body. Through becoming acquainted with his large, estranged family and with the guidance of the angelic Claire (Kirsten Dunst) Drew begins to come to terms with both his father’s death and his own failings. The film is full of eccentric, larger than life southerners and has a quirky charm all of its own. That said it also finds time for quietly moving scenes. The central sequence in which Drew and Claire conduct the beginnings of their courtship in one epic phone call which lays both characters bare is marvellous. Elizabethtown is a film about love, loss, hope and forgiveness; about remembering the past while looking to the future and not letting past mistakes, regrets and grudges hold you back. In short it is about being human.

Alternatives: Punch Drunk Love, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Before Sunrise

4. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

In Amélie one woman (Audrey Tautou) vows to bring happiness to others in her own unique style. This is the premise of the film, so simple it could be a children’s book. What unfolds, however, is a quirky masterpiece – a romantic fantasy that shows the relentlessly hopeful side of human nature. None of this is true, of course. People are really not like Amélie and the world is not the gold-green tinted paradise of the film but that is irrelevant. We like to dream like this and that is what makes us human. Cinema, at its best, never lets reality get in the way of a good story.

Alternatives: Edward Scissorhands, Pan’s Labyrinth, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

5. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

Modern business, perhaps even modern life is a grey world of anonymous hotel rooms, faceless disloyal colleagues and superficial relationships. It is a world where everyone lies, where people avoid commitment, family ties and emotional attachment. It is a world where a stranger might be hired for the unpleasant but necessary task of making you redundant. A world where innocence and youth are sneered at and seen as a threat. This is the world of Up in the Air and while it is not my world I see aspects of it all around me. The film may be designed to show a stylised version of corporate America but it does, I fear, step rather close to the truth.

Alternatives: American Beauty, Little Children, Fight Club

© Calum Campbell 2012