Tuesday 23 May 2017

Some like their festive films hot

Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot is one of those films that's indelibly associated with Christmas. There's nothing particularly festive about its story, but since the 1970s it's been traditional for one or other of the channels to show it on Christmas Day. This year RTE2 has the honour, and the screening will be particularly poignant as one of its stars, Tony Curtis, died earlier this year at the grand old age of 85.

Curtis was the last surviving star from the sparkling cross-dressing comedy, and while he made a number of fine movies during a long and distinguished career, this is the best film he was ever involved in, and the same could arguably be said of Marilyn Monroe and even Jack Lemmon.

The 1959 masterpiece has regularly been voted the greatest comedy of all time, and has also been credited with helping end the era of the notoriously prudish Hays Code. Considered hugely daring in its day, Wilder's film poked fun at sexual mores, drew from Marilyn Monroe one of her most touching late performances, and asked its two leading men to take the considerable risk of appearing for most of the film in drag.

For Jack Lemmon, already an accomplished screen comic, dragging up was less of a reach, but for Tony Curtis, who'd spent most of the 1950s establishing himself as a dashing matinee idol, it was a very brave move.

Born in the Bronx, Bernie Schwartz (Curtis's real name) had risen to the top of the Hollywood pile only after enduring the toughest of childhoods. As a young man Bernie was prettier than most women, and it was his looks that landed him a contract at Universal Pictures, where it was suggested he change his name to the more dashing-sounding Anthony Curtis.

Tony was no Olivier, and he toiled in small parts for several years before landing a lead role in the 1953 biopic Houdini. By the time he signed up to star in Some Like It Hot, his hard work had paid off and he'd become a major star. And while he would have been very keen to work with Billy Wilder, a legendary writer/director whose credits included such classics as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, the great man's script must surely have given Tony pause for thought.

He and Lemmon played two Depression-era jazz musicians called Joe and Jerry, who go on the run after witnessing the St Valentine's Day massacre and end up dressing as women and joining an all-girl band in order to evade capture. In compensation his character would also get to fall in love with Marilyn Monroe's ditsy character Sugar Kowalski, but Tony would have to do so for the most part in drag.

In his memoirs, and a book he only released last year called The Making of Some Like It Hot, Curtis colourfully recalled preparing for the role.

While others maintained that Tony was decidedly more complexed about putting on a dress than Lemmon, Curtis has said "I loved it -- Jack was outrageous as a girl, he couldn't wait to go tromping out. I was more hesitant, I was more like Grace Kelly than my mother. I was on track."

He also recalled a story from when he, Lemmon and Monroe were being measured for their frocks. According to Curtis, when the tailor got to Marilyn he said: "You know Tony Curtis has got a better-looking ass than you." Monroe allegedly undid her blouse and said proudly: "He doesn't have tits like these."

Indeed he did not, and he apparently had a hard time learning to walk in heels too. Wilder hired a cabaret drag artist to teach Curtis and Lemmon how to do so, but Lemmon was a canny actor, and soon bowed out saying that he didn't want to walk like a woman, but like a man trying to walk like a woman.

Lemmon's performance was perfectly judged, and reached its climax when Jerry's female alter ego, 'Geraldine', returns from a night on the tiles with an ageing but enthusiastic millionaire called Osgood, and announces that she's engaged. "Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" asks Joe. "Security," says Jerry.

Wilder, never short on confidence, knew how funny the scene was going to be, and he gave Lemmon a pair of maracas as a prop that would provide a regular pause so the lines wouldn't be drowned out by laughter.

Curtis, meanwhile, was bringing little flourishes of his own to the role of Joe/Josephine. When Joe poses as an oil magnate in order to impress Sugar, it was Curtis who asked Wilder if he could use a Cary Grant impersonation for the millionaire's voice. It worked a treat, and legend has it that when Grant saw the finished film he said: "I don't talk like that!"

Throughout the shoot Monroe was the bane of Wilder's life. Before he died, Curtis claimed that he and she were having an affair (both were married at the time), and that she became pregnant by him and suffered a miscarriage. But whatever it was, Monroe was not happy, and her unprofessionalism drove her director almost to despair. She regularly turned up hours late, and took so many takes to get a simple line right that Wilder started writing them down on various props.

"We were in mid-flight," Wilder would later comment, "and there was a nut on the plane."

By the time Some Like It Hot was finished he was furious with Monroe, and apparently did not invite her to the wrap party. He later came to appreciate the moving fragility of her performance, however, and remained very proud of the finished film.

While Curtis moved on to the traumas of working with Stanley Kubrick on Spartacus, Wilder used the $1.2m he earned from Some Like It Hot to add to his impressive art collection, buying two Paul Klee's, an Egon Schiele and a couple of Braque's. And when some fool later asked him if he'd have made films for nothing he quipped: "What do you think, I'm a sucker?"

Some Like It Hot screens on Christmas Day on RTE2 at 1.55pm.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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