“Story of my life, I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop,”is just one of the many sublime, double-edged lines that Marilyn Monroe delivers in Billy Wilder’s gender-bending comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), which this year celebrates its 55th anniversary. The note of that line is pitch perfect, the sensual, iconic actress allowing it to drop off her lips with comic finesse, whilst simultaneously echoing the tragedy of her own life. Monroe, who died just three years after Some Like It Hot, shares the limelight with two of the finest comedic actors of their generation, Tony Curtis (who, according to Hollywood legend, was sleeping with the actress during the production) and Jack Lemmon (who would star in The Apartment).
Opening in prohibition era Chicago, jazz musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) accidentally witness the Valentine’s Day Massacre, forcing them to promptly flee the city or face the wrath of mobster Spats Colombo (George Raft). Their escape plan is less than conventional and sets up the comedy of the whole movie. They decide to masquerade as women and join a travelling jazz band heading for Florida. It is here that they meet Sugar Kane neé Kowalczyk (Monroe), a curvaceous blonde bombshell who stores her liquor in her garter, plays the ukulele and has sworn off tenor-saxophone players. After a midnight boozy romp, the trio arrives in Florida where the antics only get higher. In a bid to win Sugar’s heart Joe drops his skirt for a sailor’s outfit impersonating an heir to the Shell fortune.
Wilder’s greatest gift lays in his ability to rope-a-dope us with lines that make us howl in the aisle whilst actually doing something much more subversive. There are lines contained within where you wonder how they got past the censor board although they are deeply wrapped-up tight in a genderless Polari. There is no clearer example than the iconic last line, when after Jerry reveals he is a man, Osgood simply replies, “Nobody’s perfect”. The brilliance of this line (which again according to Hollywood lore, which Some Like It Hot is shrouded in, was actually a stand in until Wilder and writer I.A.L. Diamond could come up with a better one), lays in tomfoolery, and in subversion, where gender becomes fluid. It’s one big masquerade, where Lemmon’s Jerry is camp, whilst Curtis changes his costumes like a snake sheds its skin.
Curtis and Lemmon both play women with extraordinary panache (Wilder brought in a German drag queen to consult on the film), and to a worryingly convincing degree. As well as gender identity the film is rife with sex. Most famously is Monroe, who poured into the iconic (not to mention revealing) white dress, wins ever man’s heart as she sings I Wanna Be Loved By You, the careful lighting just casting enough shadow to hide her modesty. The gift of this movie lays not just in how entertaining it is, nor the memorable one-liners, but in how Wilder balances light and dark, life with death, love with loneliness, men and women. Some Like It Hot is what all great comedy should aspire to be – both sweet and sour.