Tuesday 17 September 2019

Salty and still a family favourite - how Some Like It Hot was way ahead of its time


Nobody's perfect: Jack Lemmon in make-up for his role as 'Daphne' on the set of Some Like it Hot
Nobody's perfect: Jack Lemmon in make-up for his role as 'Daphne' on the set of Some Like it Hot
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Synonymous with Christmas for no good reason, Some Like it Hot always gets shown on television at this time of the year. It'll be on umpteen times over the festive period, and next week at the IFI, members of the Wild Strawberries club will get the chance to see Billy Wilder's timeless comedy on the big screen.

I say timeless, but its enduring appeal has sometimes baffled me. After all, it's set in the 1920s, was made in the late 1950s and its major theme is sexual politics and the illusory nature of love. Nothing dates quite so fast as attitudes to sex, and since the film was made, the western world has hurtled through flower power, the feminist awakening, the sexual revolution, the gay rights movement, same-sex marriage and #MeToo. Taking all that into account, Wilder's film ought to be an offensive anachronism: so why isn't it?

Perhaps because it was made not by an Eisenhower-era American, but by a sophisticated Weimar-era Berliner, who wasn't shocked by much and instinctively felt that, within reason, anything goes. Some Like it Hot was way ahead of its time, and helped sound the death knell of a stifling puritanical movement that had muffled Hollywood's wilder excesses for several decades.

It also laughed at Hollywood itself, the blindingly glitzy dream machine that had made billions of dollars flogging the fantasy of perfect love. There was nothing perfect about the love stories in Wilder's film, in which men dressed as women fell in love with women and even other men, none of whom seemed too bothered when they discovered the truth.

Given its disrespectful attitudes to 1950s masculinity, Some Like it Hot is in many ways a downright un-American film, and it's something of a miracle that it ever got made.

A Jewish, Austrian-born former journalist who'd fled Germany in the 1930s for obvious reasons, Wilder had made his name as the writer and director of such Hollywood classics as Ace in the Hole, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend. But while all of those films have darkly satirical elements, none are overtly funny, and when the legendary producer David O Selznick found out that Billy intended making a comedy that started with a machine gun massacre before proceeding cheerfully to cross-dressing, he was sceptical.

"They're going to walk out in droves," Selznick predicted, and in fact at the first public screening, they more or less did.

In 1958, Wilder and his regular writing partner IAL 'Iz' Diamond were knocking screenplay ideas about when they remembered a strange 1935 French comedy called Fanfare d'amour about two struggling male musicians who dress up as women to get work. In Hollywood terms, it sounded fresh, and they decided to set the story in late 1920s Chicago, before the Wall Street Crash, Hitler and the death camps had made the world seem a less innocent place.

Not that Chicago in the Roaring Twenties was exactly a walk in the park. Wilder and Diamond's musicians would be jazz players who are forced on the run after inadvertently witnessing the St Valentine's Day massacre, or a thinly veiled fictional version thereof, and find work in a touring all-girl orchestra where hiding their true gender will not be easy.

Those two musicians would be played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, but Lemmon, who'd steal the picture, was nobody's first choice. Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye were both considered for the broadly comic role of Jerry, and so, believe it or not, was Frank Sinatra.

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".

Thankfully, Lemmon got the part, and Mitzi Gaynor, who'd initially been cast as sultry nightclub singer Sugar 'Kane' Kowalczyk, was replaced by Marilyn Monroe. Her presence would prove a mixed blessing.

As Diamond himself recalled, Lemmon took to womanhood like a duck to water. "With Jack, the first time you put him in high heels, he went swaggering out and was talking girl talk to the girls, and having a ball... It was much harder for Tony, he was very self-conscious".

Curtis was forced to choose a different approach: "I saw what Jack was doing," he explained later, "and I knew I couldn't do it. I came out like Grace Kelly, or my mother - meticulous, ladylike."

That contrast worked, and both actors were terrific as 'Daphne' and 'Josephine', but Wilder made the probably wise decision to shoot in black and white to make the pair look less terrifying in full make-up.

Scary make-up wasn't Wilder's only problem, because on the set of Some Like it Hot, Marilyn Monroe would be at her most needy and neurotic. Flanked at all times by her troublemaking acting coach Paula Strasberg, Monroe turned up late and seemed incapable of remembering lines.

As 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 very early, 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 add "where's the bourbon?" Wilder had the lines taped to the door and furniture, but it didn't help.

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

Wilder eventually told Lemmon and Curtis that they had to be "perfect on every single take, because once Marilyn gets it right, that's it, that's getting printed". For all her neuroses, however, Monroe delivered a brilliant, pitch-perfect portrayal of a vulnerable but lovable young woman. She only made two more movies, and was dead within three years.

What's so interesting about this film is the deep strain of compassionate realism beneath the music, the comic routines and the jokes. Wilder and Diamond's story constantly suggests that romantic love depends on illusion. Joe (Curtis) falls for Sugar's blinding glamour, but she's a sad and dreamy girl who always picks the wrong guy. And she only falls for him when he pretends to be a super-wealthy oil tycoon.

As for millionaire Osgood (Joe E Brown), he falls for 'Daphne' because he believes she's a large and lively "sassy" girl. But he's wiser than he looks: when Jerry finally tires of his relentless romanticism and admits "I'm a guy", Osgood smiles calmly before muttering the film's immortal closing line "nobody's perfect".

No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency were alarmed: in fact, they were so outraged by all this loucheness and gender confusion that they gave Some Like it Hot the melodramatic rating, "condemned"; the state of Kansas agreed and banned it altogether. But the cultural crosswinds were against them, and with Wilder, who'd brought a salty slice of Weimar to the heart of Hollywood.

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."

It is indeed, and its brilliant script is packed with brilliant one-liners. My favourite? The moment 'Daphne' returns from a night on the tiles with Osgood, and announces that she's engaged. "Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" asks Joe. "Security," says Jerry.

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