Tony Curtis has died. Shit.
Quoth the ABC News site: "News of the passing of legendary movie actor Tony Curtis has no doubt sent millions of film aficionados to their stash of DVDs. And they comb through the pile, most will no doubt pull out 'Some Like It Hot,' the 1959 gem directed by Billy Wilder that co-starred Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon."
Within moments after I hit the Publish Post button, I'll put the DVD in the player and catch it on the big screen downstairs. Not a bad way to raise a toast and say, "Thanks, Tony."
"Movies should be like amusement parks. People should go to them to have fun." — Billy Wilder
"...a lighthearted farce with sexual tension and a lot of dirty jokes — in short, sublime but filthy.... Some Like It Hot pays a great deal of attention to penises — their presence as well as their threatening absence." — Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder
"Zowie!" — Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown)
My top ten reasons why this 1959 comedy
is the still sweet end of the lollipop
is the still sweet end of the lollipop
10. The story
In The Legacy of "Some Like It Hot" — one of the two featurettes added to this movie's 2006 Collector's Edition DVD — Jack Lemmon says that studying how this fizzy cocktail of a screenplay works "should be mandatory for young writers." He adds, "if there were a few scripts that they should really study for dialogue, construction, etc., that would have to be number one. It's flawless, I think."
Oh fuck yes.
Suddenly on the run from every gangster in Chicago, they hop a train to Florida with Sweet Sue's Society Syncopators, an all-girl hot jazz band. How do Joe and Jerry do it? By dressing up as and pretending to be girls, of course. So Joe and Jerry become "Josephine" and "Daphne" ("I never liked the sound of 'Geraldine'") to blend in — like two frat boys at Hugh Hefner's summer barbecue. Jerry, goggle-eyed at the delights on display, says it reminds him of a favorite childhood dream in which he's locked overnight in a pastry shop with "jelly rolls and mocha éclairs and sponge cake and Boston cream pie and cherry tarts." Joe, perhaps catching that last double entendre, warns him, "We're on a diet!"
On the train they hook up (not in the modern sense) with singer and ukulele-player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), with whom both men, decked out in eyeliner and heels and fake "chests," fall in lust. She's a sweet young thing running away from a past filled with men (usually tenor sax players like Joe) who leave her with only "a pair of old socks and a tube of toothpaste, all squeezed out." As she puts it, "It's the story of my life; I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop." Sugar takes a liking to the new girls in the band, particularly Jerry — that is, Daphne — who covers for her when Sugar's bourbon flask slips from her legs in view of Sweet Sue, who has forbidden two things from her girls: booze and men.
Chases and machine gun bullets and witty lines fly by, guided by the sure hand of director (and co-writer with his frequent collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond) Billy Wilder. Joe E. Brown delivers one of the most famous curtain lines in Hollywood history.
9. SEX Sex sex
Even the narrator of the original theatrical trailer knew it: "You've never laughed so much at sex — or a picture about it."
There's Joe's shipboard seduction of Sugar (or is it the other way around?) by pretending to be a frigid (read: gay) millionaire who just needs a good lay from Sugar/Marilyn to set him straight (in every possible way). It's a cad's ploy, yes. Still, it's one that works for Joe and for us. According to Curtis in the DVD's feature interview, Monroe knew exactly how to play the scene for all it's worth, to Curtis's remembered arousal and frustration. Meanwhile, Curtis's impersonation of his long-time idol, Cary Grant, is one of the film's standout features.
Mind you, love has nothing to do with it. The word is never spoken. Male-female relationships are reduced to two primal elements: sex and money. And let's not allow an unnatural impediment like honesty get in the way, at least not until the final scene when even that too is played for laughs and proven to be immaterial. But it's all a lark and wittily rendered and effervescent good fun, so somehow there's nary an unseemly moment in the whole thing.
One of the funniest segments is "the maracas scene" after Osgood has proposed to Jerry/Daphne — and Jerry likes it. A lot. Exclaims Joe after hearing the big news: "You're a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" Says Jerry, sensibly: "Security!" A preview audience laughed so hard during the scene that portions of dialogue were lost under the noise. So Wilder reshot the scene, adding room for laughs by giving Lemmon a pair of maracas to punctuate Jerry's ecstatic reverie.
Roger Ebert to call the scene "a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous. All the time she seems unaware of the effect, singing the song innocently, as if she thinks it's the literal truth. To experience that scene is to understand why no other actor, male or female, has more sexual chemistry with the camera than Monroe."
So naturally Kansas banned the film throughout the state after United Artists refused to cut the love scene on the yacht. (IMDB reports an additional objection that cross-dressing was "too disturbing for Kansans." And yet the costumes were so intelligently designed.) The same scene caused the Memphis censorship board, one of the most authoritarian in the country, to restrict the film as "adult entertainment."
Monsignor Little needed to get out more. Some Like It Hot, which used its "gross suggestiveness" the way Star Wars used special effects, is still a gem you can enjoy with your kids or your mother. Wilder gave his audience credit for being as smart as he was, and, boy, they don't make 'em like that anymore, but they oughtta.
8. The on-set trivia and gossip
The initial casting considerations included Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Anthony Perkins, and Wilder's buddy Frank Sinatra.
The late 1950s were particularly hard on Monroe. (But then, what years weren't?) Her troubled personal life was overwhelming her public/professional life. Consequently, the troubles she brought to the filming of Some Like It Hot are legendary. Some days she wouldn't show up for work at all. Other days she'd show up but not leave her dressing room. Fortunately, Wilder had the magic touch and managed to coax out Monroe's talent and put superb Monroe footage up on the screen.
Monroe required 47 takes to get "It's me, Sugar" correct, instead saying either "Sugar, it's me" or "It's Sugar, me." After take 30, Wilder had the line written on a blackboard. Another scene required Monroe to rummage through some drawers and say "Where's the bourbon?" After 40 takes of Monroe saying "Where's the whiskey?", "Where's the bottle", or "Where's the bonbon?", Wilder pasted the correct line in one of the drawers. After Monroe became confused about which drawer contained the line, Wilder had it pasted in every drawer. Fifty-nine takes were required for this scene. In one of the DVD's featurettes, The Making of "Some Like it Hot," we get Wilder's personal account of the incident.
For decades it's been repeated that after many takes of the big make-out scene on the yacht, Curtis complained that kissing Monroe was "like kissing Hitler." He ended up swallowing those words for years. In his interview with Leonard Maltin on the DVD, Curtis denies saying that. Elsewhere on the disc he claims that he might have said it, but he didn't mean it the way he sounded. In two books he tried mightily to contextualize the statement into something playful, just off-the-cuff verbal shenanigans. (To quote Roger Ebert again: "She kisses him not erotically but tenderly, sweetly, as if offering a gift and healing a wound. You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.")
A good article by Barry Paris at Carnegie Online adds this about the Hitler story:
It was The Putdown Heard ’Round the World, and it “went viral”—then as now. When I asked Billy Wilder about it in 1992, he said: “I never met anyone as utterly mean as Marilyn Monroe, nor as utterly fabulous on the screen. She paid absolutely no attention to anybody. She never thought, ‘We’re doing 80 takes, and these guys are standing here, cramping, they’re not going to get any better—in fact, it may kind of curdle on us.’ That’s what Tony meant when he said it was like kissing Hitler....
Marilyn’s own response to the Hitler remark later surfaced in a LIFE magazine interview taped just six weeks before she died in 1962. Asked about Curtis’ comment, her angry, hurt reaction is not wholly coherent and, in retrospect, very sad: “That’s his problem ... It’s not him, it’s somebody else ... Out with him—get somebody else!” Like everyone else, she interpreted it as a vicious erotic insult.Hollywood costume designer Orry Kelly won an Oscar for his work in Some Like It Hot. While measuring Monroe's hips, he told her that Tony Curtis's "ass is better looking than yours." Whereupon she opened her blouse. "Oh, yeah?" she replied. "Well, he doesn't have tits like these."
Monroe, her then-husband (playwright Arthur Miller), Miller's mother, and many of Monroe's fans blamed Wilder for the miscarriage she suffered twelve hours after filming her last take on Some Like It Hot. Wilder told Miller that if Miller had been her writer and director rather than her husband, he would have thrown her out "on her can." Wilder said that he (Wilder) did the braver thing — had a nervous breakdown.
Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Screenplay, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, and Best Black-and-White Art Direction/Set Decoration. That Marilyn wasn't at least nominated for Best Supporting Actress is one of the historical Hollywood fuckups. The movie's only Oscar win went to Best Black-and-White Costume Design. Why the misses? It was competing against one of the biggest take-em-all winners in Academy Award history — Ben Hur.
7. Gangsters are cool
You've seen it a hundred times: a gangster flipping a coin in the air again and again. You see it in Bugs Bunny cartoons, in Singin' in the Rain, in almost every gangster parody since the 1930s. The signature gimmick first appeared in 1932's Scarface, in which George Raft plays a small-time hood remembered for that perpetual coin toss. That role made Raft a star.
Some Like It Hot is an affectionate sendup of the gangster genre. It opens with the classic guns-ablazin' car chase with the cops. It has a stoolie named Toothpick Charlie who, yes, chews a toothpick and is later rubbed out with a Tommy gun. Spats's goons, headed by Mike Mazurki, are so classic that they could appear in a Dick Tracy movie. Pat O'Brien (Angels With Dirty Faces) plays the Chicago cop on their trail. The big boss gangster is "Little Bonaparte," a nod toward Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar. There's even a quick play on Jimmy Cagney's famous grapefruit-in-the-kisser bit from The Public Enemy.
Incidentally, Raft's career as a movie mobster was possibly influenced by his associations with real-life gangsters such as Owney Madden and Bugsy Siegel. Born and raised in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Raft tried prizefighting before becoming a dancer on Broadway and in Prohibition-era nightclubs, where he got to know some of the biggest racketeers in the city. Joe Mantegna played Raft on-screen in Barry Levinson's Bugsy (1991).
6. Jack Lemmon
With a startling talent for both dramatic and comic roles, Lemmon is half of one of the great screen pairings, the other half being Walter Matthau. They made several films together, including The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Front Page (1974), and Buddy Buddy (1981), all directed by Wilder. You could do worse than to double-feature Some Like It Hot with Lemmon's pile-driver performance in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).
5. Tony Curtis
Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, Tony Curtis was already a box-office star when Wilder signed him to Some Like It Hot. Like Lemmon, he possessed both comic and dramatic skills, although he didn't attain nearly the star status that Lemmon later acquired.
He is well remembered for a long list of work on our screens, some 60-odd films that include a hefty plateful of lesser and forgettable titles (I'm quite fond of the broad self-parodying comic romp The Great Race, again with Lemmon) plus four undeniable highpoints within a three-year span: Sweet Smell of Success ('57), Some Like It Hot, The Defiant Ones ('58, Oscar nomination), and Spartacus ('60).
He was married to Janet "Psycho shower scene" Leigh when he became Jamie Lee Curtis's pop.
Here's to ya, Bernie.
4. Marilyn Monroe
"Look at that! Look how she moves. That's just like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motors. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!" — Jerry
No need for me to add to the volumes of speculation, analysis, and idolatry devoted to Ms. Monroe. Except to say that Hollywood's ultimate "It" girl represents one of the great what-if mysteries: What if her personal life had been less dramatic? What if she'd cultivated a greater sense of professionalism? What if she hadn't died in 1962?
Because she was from a generation before mine (born just two months after my dad), I grew up aware of her the way a 20-year-old today might be aware of, I dunno, Madonna maybe — a vague pop-culture understanding rooted in a bygone time. Absolutely I grew up aware of her in the abstract, recognizing her signature look and voice and "type" well before I actually saw her in a movie. It wasn't until the first time I watched Some Like It Hot that I could say, "Okay, now I finally get the Marilyn mystique thing."
No matter what occurred behind the scenes, what you see onscreen is something extraordinary. Some Like It Hot, The Misfits, Bus Stop, and a few other films offer reasons for us to believe that she could have grown into something more than just another male fantasy figure. But there's no denying that being a male fantasy figure is what made her bankable.
Unlike her "sex pot" predecessors such as Jane Russell and Jean Harlow, Monroe exuded the aura of a nonthreatening "nice girl" — one who between the sheets could happily take the right man to the stars and back, and somehow she convinced many ordinary Joes that they were The Right Man. Even in poor films (such as her next one, 1960's Let's Make Love) she expressed a preternatural, and seemingly congenital and unprocessed, ability to swirl together percolating-pheromones sexuality and girlish vulnerability.
Had she lived, would that have survived the next four decades? How much of the aura that surrounds her even today comes rooted in the tragedy of her final years and early death? I don't know. What I do know is that I enjoy watching her in Some Like It Hot. No mystique need apply.
3. Billy Wilder
Book-length treatises have been written about this iconoclastic writer and director's work, with special attention given to the art and craft he demonstrated in Some Like It Hot. Anybody who can give us such a variety as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Apartment can't be less than one of the most talented and versatile writers and directors to ever move a lens.
He was at the top of his comedic form in Some Like It Hot, and although it's now trite to say that a particular film is by itself "a film school course," I'll reach into my old toolbox and say without apology that pretty much every scene here is a Making Movies 101 essay in How To Do It Right.
2. The "Collector's Edition" DVD
First of all, we get an anamorphic image (1.66:1 OAR) that's cleaner than any previous edition's. This Collector's Edition removes most of the 2001 disc's visible wear, flecks, and scratches. There's been no frame-by-frame restoration to remove every speck and spot, so the print isn't quite "pristine," but it's close. Charles Lang's lovely black-and-white cinematography looks better too, with deeper black tones, broader grayscale, and a generally smoother appearance throughout. All that plus a digital transfer that rubs out the artifacting visible on the previous disc.
Like the 2001 edition, the audio comes in your choice of two flavors: the original monaural (DD 2.0) and the default DD 5.1 remix. Both options are crisp and clean and free from distortion, fuzz, or drop-outs. Not surprisingly, the 5.1 provides the richer experience and more dynamic soundspace. The 5.1 mix is thorough but modest, and does well by this fine '59 vintage soundtrack. Most dialogue is firmly centered while the music spreads to the surrounds without artificial stereo separation. Sound effects (such as gunfire and squealing tires during the beginning's police chase) and general background ambience get pulled into the room without being intrusive or showy. In comparison, the mono track sounds awfully thin. The only alternate language track is French DD 1.0.
Here's what's new to this edition:
- Full-length commentary featuring interviews with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and more — It's nice to have, but it's a lackluster effort that adds little to the more informative and entertaining new featurettes on Disc Two. Chief voices here are I.A.L. Diamond's son and the screenwriting team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, Parenthood, A League of Their Own, Night Shift, and more). They give us their personal appreciation of the scene-by-scene action, and that's not enough to hook us into the whole thing. Edited among them are archival interludes from Lemmon and Curtis. It does no harm, but it only occasionally rises a bit beyond the ordinary.
- Documentary The Making of "Some Like It Hot" (26 minutes) — Here's a casual, well-made thumbnail history assembled from new and archival materials that chronicle the film's writing (including good moments spent on Joe E. Brown's closing line) and production. On hand are Curtis, Lemmon, and Wilder, with I.A.L. Diamond's widow, Barbara Diamond. So we get the production history told by first-person reminiscences and anecdotes from the participants. At last we get some oft-told tales, such as Monroe's troubled "bourbon" and "It's me, Sugar" scenes, straight from the source. Monroe is lauded but doesn't receive the kid-glove treatment from her co-stars or, especially, Wilder. Otherwise it's clear that their memories of the experience are fond ones.
- Documentary The Legacy of "Some Like It Hot" (20 mins.) — An even more nostalgic and warmly felt companion piece to The Making of..., this one adds Hugh Hefner, UCLA cinema professor Harold Suber, producer Walter Mirisch, and director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) to Lemmon, Curtis, Wilder, and Mrs. Diamond. Hanson tours us through the studio lot where Wilder's writing office existed before a fire gutted it. Monroe gets a more generous treatment this time, and we get color footage from the shoot at San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado. Also probed is the film's position as a sexual envelope-pusher straddling the pathologically conservative 1950s and the liberating openness of the oncoming '60s. When Hugh Hefner, in his red silk jim-jams, calls your film sexually revolutionary, that's something you can hang your wig on.
- New inserts within the case are an 8-page liner notes booklet and four postcards (a poster and three Hirschfeld-like caricatures of Monroe, Lemmon, and Curtis.)
- Nostalgic Look Back (31 mins.) — An interview with Tony Curtis by Leonard Maltin. While it's entertaining to hear Curtis's generous behind-the-scenes memories of working with Monroe and Wilder and Lemmon, he's also unctuous and self-congratulatory as he regales us with accounts of his clever inventiveness on set. He remains likable in an insufferable sort of way, but there's a whiff of greater interest in his own image. Maltin's lapdog approach to the interview and Curtis's apparent patronage of the William Shatner Hair Club For Men don't help. When they get into how neato it is that they're recording this interview for a DVD that we are now watching, that just sucks up allotted time with the most obvious point they could make.
- Memories from the Sweet Sues — This 12-minute retrospective interviews four of the bit-part actresses who played members of the all-girl jazz band. More interesting than I would have thought, the actresses in this pleasant photo-album reminiscence genially recall being on the set, and of course most of the talk revolves around Monroe. They praise her charms while also adding more stories about the star's tardiness and unpredictability. Wilder, Curtis, and Lemmon also get some props, and the featurette feels like a homey reunion of sorority sisters bringing back the good times.
- Interactive 3-D Hall of Memories — A grandiose name for a 21-minute montage of stills, scene snippets, and "Never-Before-Seen" photos devoted to Monroe, Curtis, Lemmon, Wilder, and Behind The Scenes. The ornate gold museum frame surrounding it all is more than a little annoying.
- The original pressbook gallery offers a click-through collection of original press materials. You can click red dots for close-ups of particular sections.
- The original theatrical trailer. It hasn't been restored, so its wear and washed-out contrast remind us that it's been around the block a few times. Accompanying it are promos for The Princess Bride Collector's Edition DVD and the West Side Story Special Edition DVD.
1. It's not the fuzzy end
In the words of Sugar Kane, Some Like It Hot is "the sweet end of the lollipop."
The American Film Institute ranked Some Like It Hot #14 on its list of the 100 greatest Hollywood movies, and #1 on its list of Hollywood comedies. Arguable, for sure. Few things are more subjective than comedy, and sex is one of them. But if you've never seen Some Like It Hot, you owe it to your soul to see the masters at play.