It’s funny how movies come to you sometimes. For years, the only thing I knew about Some Like It Hot was that it was mentioned on an episode of The Facts of Life. The show’s matriarchal figure, Mrs. Garrett (as played by Charlotte Rae), was comforting the girls in her charge following the death of someone close to them. Mrs. Garrett shared that when her father had passed, the grief was too much to bear, and so she and her siblings went to see Some Like It Hot. They laughed for two hours, forgetting for a brief time that they had previously been crying...and that was okay. Life has to move on.
This stuck in my head for years before I ever saw the film. I don’t know if I finally sought it out because of my teenage obsession with Marilyn Monroe or my Billy Wilder hero worship, it could have been both, but upon first viewing it was immediately apparent why the Facts of Life writers had chosen Some Like It Hot as their example: it was a comedy that was empirically funny, that could be mentioned to any film fan, casual or devoted, and they’d be able to say, “Yes, that’s a good one.”
The slugline of Some Like It Hot is rather simple: two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) inadvertently witness a gangland execution. To escape mob retribution, they dress as women to hide out in an all-girl band. As a result of the close quarters, one of them, Curtis’ Joe/Josephine, falls for the group’s blonde lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), and he woos her under a third alter ego, that of the heir to an oil empire. But once they are in love with each other, how does he reveal who he really is?
It’s not exactly a classic case of mistaken identity, more like misdirected identity. For his part, the other fugitive, Lemmon’s Jerry, a.k.a. Daphne, ends up running interference by letting himself be wined and dined by a legitimate millionaire, a goofy little fellow named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). He’s a persistent Casanova, ready to shower Daphne with diamonds and talk of marriage. Surely no one is going to get hurt when the truth comes out, right?
Actually, that is right, and that’s what allows Some Like It Hot to resonate all these years later. Thematically, it’s about a group of misfits who, for better or worse, being unable to fit in their current situation, create a space where they belong. This can be in the literal sense, with Joe and Jerry remaking themselves to avoid gangsters, or it could be in the more metaphorical sense. Sugar’s foibles and bad decisions with men keep getting her in trouble, so she ostensibly removes the male temptation by joining a band of women who themselves all seem to be a little out of place in polite society. Joe falls for Sugar knowing these things about her, she’s confided her weakness to him woman to woman; he loves her anyway.
More important, however, is Osgood’s acceptance of Daphne in the movie’s famous last scene, and its oft-quoted final lines. As the four of them rush out to sea, Joe and Jerry having ditched the mob at last, Jerry--still dressed as Daphne--tries to let the smitten tycoon down easy. Except he rejects every reason Daphne can come up with to say they can’t be together, until, in exasperation, Jerry rips off his wig and declares he’s a man. To which Osgood simply replies, “Nobody’s perfect.”
And indeed, nobody is, not in this group, not anywhere, and the simple acceptance of that is, well...the simplest perfection. Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot was coming at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, meaning it was still subject to the morality police that had required the studios to create a homogenized image of American life for several decades running. Homosexuality was considered taboo, and even with more enlightened times to come, it would be many years before the notion of a character in drag would be played for anything but ridicule. It would have been easy for Billy Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond to wring laughs out of scenarios where people were reacting “ewwww, it’s a man in a dress.” That there is not a whiff of that anywhere here is not just commendable, but astounding. Not to mention subversive! Ending the film where they do, Wilder and Diamond are suggesting that Osgood and Jerry could stay together...and that there’s not anything wrong with that. Because they’ve already set up Joe to take Sugar without any judgment for past misdeeds, and her to forgive him for not being on the up-and-up.
Of course, this requires a lot more than good intentions to work. Some Like It Hot is an embarrassment of riches. The sharp dialogue and clever comedic scenarios provide a solid foundation. Just about anybody could have made that script funny, but it’s important that not just anybody did. The pitch perfect casting of Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe--all at the top of their game, all potentially never better--means that we like all three of the characters they portray as much as they like each other, and thus we can also accept them for who they are, even when their actions are, let’s be honest, totally underhanded. We want to see Joe and Jerry get away, we want to see them all find love, we want them to be happy.
Because their happiness makes us happy. And allows us to forget our troubles.
Just like it did for Mrs. Garrett. Laugh instead of crying.
Owners of previous editions of the movie are also treated to new supplements, but also some behind-the-scenes featurettes that are holdovers from the MGM packaging (meaning you’ll weigh hanging on to old discs based on what is missing here). The bulk of the extras focus on interviews, with all the principles represented, via archival pieces featuring Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe, and Wilder.