Almost 60 years after its release, Some Like It Hot has topped a BBC Culture poll of the 100 Greatest Comedy Films. (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes also made the list, at No. 87.) Nicholas Barber has an insightful take on the enduring appeal of Billy Wilder’s classic farce…
“It is structured so meticulously that it glides from moment to moment with the elegance of an Olympic figure skater, and the consummate screwball dialogue, by Wilder and IAL Diamond, is so polished that every line includes either a joke, a double meaning, or an allusion to a line elsewhere in the film. To quote one character, it’s a riot of ‘spills, thrills, laughs and games’. To quote another, it deserves to be ‘the biggest thing since the Graf Zeppelin’. So why was it chosen as the best comedy ever made? Simple. What else were we going to choose?
There’s more to Some Like It Hot than its sparkling surface, though. As well as being a romantic comedy, a buddy movie, a crime caper, and a musical, the film is an anthem in praise of tolerance, acceptance, and the possibility of transformation. It’s an anthem that we need to hear now more than ever.
One of the film’s many twists is that when Sugar meets Junior on the beach, he doesn’t throw himself at her. He plays hard to get. Sugar tells him that her band specialises in hot jazz, but he sniffs, ‘Well, I guess some like it hot. But personally, I prefer classical music.’ Sugar doesn’t miss a beat. She claims to have ‘spent three years at the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music’ – a claim she overheard Joe/Josephine making the previous night. ‘Good school,’ murmurs Joe/Junior. Sugar, he realises, is just as adept at lying as he is.
In summary, Some Like It Hot is the story of people who lie and cheat in order to con other people into bed or out of their cash. Wilder has a reputation for dark, cynical films (see also Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity), and Some Like It Hot could be categorised as one of them. But it has so much warmth that it carries the viewer upwards like a hot-air balloon. Rather than condemning its unscrupulous anti-heroes, it respects them and sympathises with them in a way which must have seemed radical in 1959, and which seems more radical nearly six decades later.
Just imagine how the film’s scenario would be treated in a Hollywood comedy today. Joe and Jerry would be punished for their deceit. Sugar would have to catch Joe out, and he would have to apologise, and the viewer would have to sit through a montage of their shared misery before she forgave him …
Some Like It Hot is too buoyant to be brought down to earth by such prissiness. When Sugar learns that Joe has been tricking her, she runs straight into his arms. When Osgood learns that Jerry has been tricking him, he doesn’t bat an eyelid. The message is that there is nothing wrong with faking it until you make it. Experimenting with a new identity can help you become a better, happier person. It can help you survive. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find someone who accepts you for whomever you want to be – perfect or otherwise.
It’s a boldly inclusive message, but it’s one that must have been close to the film-makers’ hearts. After all, several of them had reinvented themselves, just as the characters do: emigrating from Germany (in Wilder’s case) and Romania (in Diamond’s), distancing themselves from their hardscrabble pasts in Californian foster homes (in Monroe’s case) and on the streets of the Bronx (in Curtis’s). For a frantic farce about two cross-dressers on the run from prohibition-era mobsters, Some Like It Hot is a strikingly personal, even semi-autobiographical film.”
One of the most popular American comedians of the last century, Jerry Lewis has died of heart disease aged 91.
He was born Joseph (or Jerome) Levitch to Russian Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. His father was a vaudeville performer, and his mother played piano. He joined them onstage at an early age, and dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. A heart murmur rendered him ineligible for military service in World War II. Already a prankster at 15, he developed a ‘Record Act’, exaggeratedly miming the lyrics to popular songs. He married singer Patti Palmer in 1944, and they would raise six sons together.
In 1946, he formed a comedy partnership with crooner Dean Martin. Over the next ten years, they graduated from nightclub act to the internationally celebrated stars of radio, television and movies.
On February 9, 1953, Marilyn Monroe met Lewis and Martin for the first time, at the annual Photoplay Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was wearing the revealing gold lame dress fleetingly glimpsed in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Actress Joan Crawford would later speak witheringly of Marilyn’s ‘vulgar display’ as she collected the award for Fastest Rising Star. “The audience yelled and shouted, and Jerry Lewis shouted,” Crawford told reporter Bob Thomas. “But those of us in the industry just shuddered. It reminded me of a burlesque show.” At twenty-six, Marilyn was the same age as Jerry Lewis, and part of Hollywood’s new vanguard. Crawford, a star from a prior generation, later apologised for her remarks amid widespread criticism.
On February 24, Marilyn appeared on the Martin and Lewis Radio Show, accepting an award from Redbook magazine, and sparring with the comedy duo in an eight-minute sketch, ‘So Who Needs Friends.’ Columnist Sidney Skolsky, who accompanied her that day, wrote about it in his 1954 book, Marilyn.
“Jerry Lewis visited her dressing room and said, ‘I know you’re scared. Don’t be. I was awfully nervous when I went on the radio for the first time, with Bob Hope.’ He pressed her hand. ‘You’ll be great,’ he said, and left the room. This brief talk and vote of confidence from Lewis helped Marilyn considerably. Marilyn was great on the program. After it, Jerry said to me, ‘She’s got nothing to worry about. She knows more about sex than I do about comedy.’ Which is the highest compliment a comedian could bestow on an actress who is selling glamour.”
Marilyn became good friends with both Jerry and Dean Martin. Sensing her loneliness, they often invited her to dinner alongside fellow pal Sammy Davis Jr. A lifelong insomniac, Marilyn would sometimes call them in the small hours and ask to meet up at all-night diners.
On October 18th, columnist Sheilah Graham published an interview with Marilyn in which she named the ten most fascinating men in the world, including future husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her River of No Return co-star Robert Mitchum, Asphalt Jungle director John Huston, close friends Marlon Brando and Sidney Skolsky, acting coach Michael Chekhov, photographer Milton Greene, and India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (the only one she hadn’t met.) And the last man on her list was Jerry Lewis…
“I think that Jerry has a lot of sex appeal. It might have something to do with his vitality. I can’t figure out what it is. He makes funny faces because he thinks people want him to make funny faces. But behind it all there’s something serious and very sexy. I just think he’s sexy.”
On December 6, Hedda Hopper reported that Jerry and Dean had called upon friends to donate items for a charity auction for muscular dystrophy. “They asked Marilyn Monroe for something personal – anything close to her. What they got was a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace autographed by Marilyn.”
After Marilyn moved to New York in early 1955, the men-only Friars’ Club broke code and invited her to their annual roast, compered by Milton Berle in Martin and Lewis’s honour. When Berle called her to the podium, Marilyn blew a kiss and whispered, “I love you, Jerry.”
Lewis remembered Marilyn with great affection in his 2005 memoir, Dean & Me: A Love Story…
“To my vast regret, the one actress we never performed with was Marilyn Monroe – and how great she would have been in a Martin and Lewis picture. She had a delicious sense of humour, an ability not only to appreciate what was funny but to see the absurdity of things in general. God, she was magnificent – perfect physically and in every other way. She was someone anyone would just love to be with, not only for the obvious reasons but for her energy and perseverance and yes, focus. She had the capacity to make you feel that she was totally engaged with whatever you were talking about. She was kind, she was good, she was beautiful, and the press took shots at her that she didn’t deserve. They got on her case from day one – a textbook example of celebrity-bashing.”
In 1956, the Martin and Lewis collaboration ended as Dean, tired of being the ‘straight man’, decided to pursue a solo career. Jerry was heartbroken but his partner was adamant, and despite occasional public appearances together, the pair were estranged for thirty years.
In 1958, Jerry was offered the chance to star opposite Marilyn as jazz musician and ‘bosom pal’ Jerry/Daphne in Billy Wilder’s classic drag farce, Some Like It Hot. Unsure of his ability to convincingly impersonate a woman, he declined and the part went to Jack Lemmon. In 1959, Lewis signed a groundbreaking deal with Paramount Pictures, earning $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over the next 7 years. In partnership with director Frank Tashlin, Jerry also produced and co-wrote his movies, including his greatest success, The Nutty Professor (1962.)
Shortly before her death in 1962, Marilyn had been filming Something’s Got to Give with Dean Martin, who refused to work with another actress after Monroe was fired. Many of the rumours surrounding her demise have focused on her alleged affair with John F. Kennedy, but in a 2002 interview with GQ magazine, Lewis – himself a friend of the president – quipped that it wasn’t true, because Marilyn was having an affair with him. This bizarre remark – possibly a joke – nonetheless made headlines, but a sexual liaison at this time seems unlikely.
By the mid-1960s, Jerry’s popularity was fading, though he became a cult figure in France, where he was hailed as a comedic auteur. In 1966, he hosted the first of 44 annual US telethons for muscular dystrophy on Labour Day weekend. His long marriage to Patti Palmer ended in 1982, and a year later he married 30 year-Old stewardess San-Dee Pitnick. They later adopted a daughter.
His performance in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1983), as a television host stalked by obsessive fans, hinted at a darker side to the Lewis persona and established him as a serious actor. He played further acclaimed roles in Arizona Dream (1994), Funny Bones (1995.)
In recent years he suffered from increasingly poor health. Tragedy struck in 2009 when his 45 year-old son Joseph died of a drug overdose, and in 2010, Lewis began raising funds to build a facility for vulnerable and traumatised children in Melbourne, Australia. In a recent television interview, he spoke candidly about his fear of dying. He continued working until the end, playing the titular role in Max Rose (2016.) Jerry Lewis died at home in Las Vegas on August 20, 2017.
As The Misfits is re-released in selected French cinemas, Ludevic Beot writes for Les Inrockuptibles about its ‘morbid’ history. (Apologies for any errors in my translation…)
“This is the end of an era, the myth of the free cowboy in nature, and the great American western. In this, the screenplay of writer Arthur Miller draws a sad and particularly bleak observation of Eisenhower’s America from the late fifties, a nation that has trouble communicating and whose dream of the Founding Fathers has failed … Even today, it seems very difficult to resist the disturbing charm of this mirror work, not to be carried away by the elegiac melody of this ultimate dance with the dead. The images of Huston have captured for the last time the faces of his disappearing actors. All these elements make The Misfits one of the most beautiful ghost movies in American cinema.”
Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.
“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.
The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’
Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?
Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’
Any longtime Marilyn fan will know the challenges we face in preserving her true legacy, and two recent news stories suggest our troubles are only beginning. Toby Walsh, a professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI), believes that by 2050 – a century after she first found fame – Marilyn will be ‘starring in movies via an avatar program that talks and acts like her, with machines having learned her speech and mannerisms from her films,’ reports The Australian.
Even more alarming is an article in The Sun about the burgeoning popularity of sex robots. ‘Marilyn comes up quite often,’ says engineer Douglas Hines, of the public requests for celebrity lookalike dolls. ‘The caveat is we need the approval of the person or family. If you wanted a robot that looked like Marilyn Monroe, you would have to have her estate approve it.’ (The idea of a ‘Marilyn Monroebot‘ was first mooted – albeit in jest – on a 2001 episode of the animated series, Futurama.)
Fortunately, Marilyn’s estate has not granted permission for a robot MM, and hopefully they never will. But how long will it take until ‘bootleg’ sex dolls hit the market? And meanwhile, CGI ‘hologram‘ Marilyns have already been seen in TV ads, with her estate planning digitalised ‘live’ shows starring Marilyn and other dead icons. They can replicate her body, but not her soul, and Monroe fans of the future will have to be ever more vigilant against degrading misrepresentations.
Marilyn’s steamy 1953 thriller, Niagara, will be screened on October 3 at the NAU College of Arts and Letters in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona, as part of a two-season retrospective, 20th Century Fox: The Stars. Prior to this, you can enjoy Marilyn’s supporting role in All About Eve on September 26. (Let’s hope Bus Stop gets an airing in the next season, as it was partly filmed in the state capital of Phoenix, Arizona.)
Marilyn will be the star attraction at a very special event in one of London’s most famous concert venues, the Royal Albert Hall, on Sunday, October 8. Aptly titled ‘The Many Sides of Marilyn,’ the movie double bill begins in the Elgar Room at 5pm, with a rare screening of Fritz Lang’s 1952 melodrama, Clash by Night, where a young Marilyn plays a feisty factory girl. There will be a post-film discussion with film producer Mia Bays, and Jacqueline Rose, who wrote about Marilyn in her 2015 book, Women in Dark Times. Then at 8:15 pm, the comedy classic Some Like It Hot follows. You can see both films for £25, or book separately if you wish. Seating is unreserved, at cabaret tables, and you can order dinner with a 20% discount.
In an article for the Biography website, Sara Kettler sheds light on some lesser-known aspects of Marilyn’s personality including her struggle to overcome a traumatic childhood and mental health problems; her passion for justice and equality; and her charitable nature.
“Monroe was generous throughout her life, a trait that was apparent even as she spent time in institutions and foster homes. She gave an acting teacher a valuable fur coat and offered money to people in need; shopping companions would often find Monroe had sent them items she’d ostensibly purchased for herself. She was especially generous with children, and offered assistance to child-focused charities like the Milk Fund for Babies and the March of Dimes.”
FIlmed while she was on the cusp of stardom, Don’t Bother to Knock gave Marilyn one of her most important, yet least-known rones. Over at Birth Movies Death today, Kalyn Corrigan takes a closer look at this remarkable performance.
“For a girl who gained fame as a stunningly photogenic sex symbol, working her dumb blonde persona to her advantage, it’s fascinating to see Monroe play someone who’s so irrevocably cracked. Best known as the steamy naïve seductress in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, and this writer’s personal favorite, Some Like It Hot, it’s a graceful and gratifying pivot to see Marilyn take on the role of a damsel come undone. Jed tells Nell at one point in the film that she’s ‘silk on one side and sandpaper on the other’, and the description couldn’t be more fitting to Monroe’s performance. As she flutters back and forth between the shy, sweet girl who did everything in truth, to the manipulatively maniacal beauty queen with a screw loose, we really get to see a taste of Monroe’s range, and it’s an invigorating break from the normal romantic comedy routine. Norma Jeane was undoubtedly beautiful, but she was also an actor, and it’s cool to see her given a chance to show off her skills in a rare, multi-layered role for women in cinema in the 1950s.”