Wednesday 11 December 2019

Billy Wilder hit that has stood the test of time

Some Like It Hot is a star turn at the IFI this week – and you won't want to miss it, even if you've seen it before

'Some Like it Hot' poster
'Some Like it Hot' poster
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in 'Some Like It Hot'
Jack Lemmon
Tony Curtis
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Fans of vintage comedy will get a rare chance to watch Some Like It Hot on the big screen this week. Billy Wilder's 1959 masterpiece is being shown at Dublin's Irish Film Institute as part of their IFI Classics season, and has stood the test of time spectacularly well.

It's been called the greatest comedy of all time, and would definitely make most critics' top five. But while it might seem fairly harmless these days, it was considered controversial in its time.

The cross-dressing theme alarmed the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency so much, they gave it the melodramatic rating "condemned", and the state of Kansas agreed and banned it outright.

Several stars including Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye turned down the role of Jerry/Daphne for similar reasons, and Jack Lemmon's co-star Tony Curtis later admitted his terror when he first dressed up in drag.

Billy Wilder, meanwhile, almost lost his reason dealing with his mercurial leading lady Marilyn Monroe, who drove him to distraction with her dire time-keeping and inability to learn lines.

The producers wanted to tinker with the finished film after it screened poorly for test audiences, but Wilder stood his ground. "This is a very funny movie," he said, "and I believe in it just as it is." He certainly got that right.

Wilder was not particularly known for comedy when he turned to the project in 1958. His most famous films to that point had been hardboiled dramas such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. He and his regular writing partner Iz Diamond were knocking ideas around one day when they came up with a story about two Prohibition-era musicians who go on the run after witnessing the St Valentine's Day Massacre and end up dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band.

He sold the idea to the producer Walter Mirisch, and an initial cast of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Mitsy Gaynor was agreed upon. But according to Iz Diamond's wife, Barbara Ann Bentley, "The money people didn't think Jack Lemmon was a big enough star at that time, and they wanted Frank Sinatra instead.

"Billy made a lunch date with Sinatra, and Sinatra stood him up, and that was it for Billy. He felt he'd be too much trouble, then about the same time Marilyn called and said she wanted to work with Billy again."

Monroe replaced Mitsy Gaynor in the role of nightclub singer Sugar Kowalski, and Lemmon took on the part of jazz musician Jerry.

"A lot of people," Lemmon later said, "including me, thought that he was crazy to try and make this two-hour farce out of a five-minute burlesque sketch."

They also thought Wilder was mad to insist on shooting a big budget comedy in black and white, but the director had his reasons.For instance, Some Like It Hot would be set during Prohibition, and he felt that Lemmon and Curtis's drag make-up would be more convincing in monochrome.

As Iz Diamond recalled, dressing up as a woman was "harder for Tony". "He was very self-conscious," he said. "But with Jack, the first time you put him in high heels he went swaggering out and was talking girltalk to the girls and having a ball." Curtis chose a different approach: "I saw what Jack was doing and I knew I couldn't do it. I came out like Grace Kelly, or my mother – meticulous, ladylike."

In the end, Curtis and Lemmon were brilliant in demanding roles, but with Marilyn Monroe, Wilder faced a challenge of an altogether different magnitude. He had worked with her before on the 1955 romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch, so to some extent knew what he was in for. But by the end of the 1950s, Monroe had deteriorated into a neurotic mess.

"It was tough with Monroe – her fear of the camera, her occasional lack of concentration," Wilder commented ruefully during a documentary about the making of the film.

"This was not cheap, even in those days. A day of shooting would cost $20,000 and it would all be blown to bits. She would come (late) and say, 'I'm sorry I lost my way to the studio'. She forgot the address of the studio. Every possible thing happened."

As well as Monroe, Wilder had to deal with the constant, meddling presence of her method coach Paula Strasberg. As Tony Curtis remembered, "She was under the auspices of Lee and Paula Strasberg, and when she finished a shot, she wouldn't look at you – she'd look at them. Billy caught on to that , and after one shot he said, 'How was that for you Paula?'"

In one of the film's later scenes, Monroe had to knock on Josephine and Daphne's room, say, "It's me, Sugar", come in and ask, "Where's the bourbon?". Wilder had the lines taped to the door and furniture, but it didn't help.

"She had a mental block," he recalled. "She could not say that line. And after 16 takes, she starts bursting into tears, so we have to re-make the make-up. After like 53 I took her aside and said, 'Marilyn don't worry', and she said ,'Worry about what?' Such a strange girl."

Wilder eventually told Lemmon and Curtis they had to be, "Perfect on every single take, because once Marilyn gets it right, that's it, that's getting printed".

Some Like It Hot's famous ending was arrived at by accident. Wilder and Diamond had come up with an idea where Daphne revealed to her fiancé Osgood (Joe E. Brown) she was a man. "We needed a punchline," said Wilder, "and it got to be late and Diamond said, 'Nobody's perfect'. And we said, 'It'll do – we can always change it later.'" They never did.

The first public preview, at the Bay Theatre in City Palisades, was a disaster. "Nobody laughed," Curtis recalled. "Nobody really got it, they weren't sure what it was about, they thought it was kind of a melodrama." The producers were jittery, but Wilder believed in his film. He cut just 60 seconds, and when Some Like It Hot was shown again the following week, the audience fell about laughing.

"Once I knew we had it," Wilder said years later, "there was a moment of, 'Never again'. (But) if Marilyn was around today I would be on my knees saying, 'Please, let's do it again.'"

For all her neuroses, Monroe had delivered a brilliant, pitch-perfect portrayal of a vulnerable but lovable young woman. She only made two more films, and was dead within three years.

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