Some Like It Hot (1959)

Directed by Billy Wilder


Is Some Like It Hot subversive?  I think it’s subversive, though it seems to have spawned countless cross-dressing comedies, like TootsieMrs. Doubtfire, and even such classics as Juwanna Man and White Chicks.  In these stories, something forces or compels a character to go undercover, and along the way a love interest will challenge their ability to remain undercover.  There are plenty of gender jokes thrown in, and by the end the character’s true identity is revealed before the love interest forgives them and accepts them anyway.

“The conventions of the typical cross-dressing comedy require that all possible confusion is neatly resolved and contained by the end of the film. Some Like It Hot allows the confusion to continue, and thereby allows each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction.” – Suzanne Woodward, ‘Disruptive Influence: The Enduring Appeal of Some Like It Hot

In Some Like It Hot, the film subverts this notion of how a friendly, cheerful Hollywood comedy should end.  The final scene follows our two male protagonists speeding away with their respective love interests.  One is conventional, as Tony Curtis falls for Marilyn Monroe, and the other is mostly a sounding board for gender jokes and aggressive infatuation.  That latter relationship, between Jack Lemmon’s character and an older man, ends with the reveal of Lemmon’s true identity and the older man, Lemmon’s fiancé, doesn’t dismiss him.  On one level, it’s just a joke, something new to throw Lemmon off balance, but it could also be seen as a deeper, more thoughtful acceptance of the person, the soul within Lemmon’s body.  The whole film is about gender and mistaken identity, but perhaps your true self is beneath all that, something more abstract.  When Lemmon is accepted, it’s funny, surprising and heartwarming, particularly because we’re not given enough time to see if Lemmon dismisses this latest advance.

The point, though, is that the ending isn’t cut and dry.  There is room for interpretation, showing that maybe the characters learned something along the way beyond just going through the motions of the plot.  But even if this were just about the plot, it would still be a great movie.  It’s big and broad, funny and subtly sensual.  It plays off Curtis’ and Lemmon’s comic strength and makes great use of Marilyn Monroe as an icon.

It would be a disservice to say that all Monroe does is stand there and be Monroe.  She’s actually quite good, charming and elusive, funny and aloof.  She plays the part well, which might be surprising given the intense struggles director Billy Wilder had directing her.

The story is that Monroe would frequently flub her lines and require up to fifty takes to deliver a line as simple as “it’s me, Sugar.”  In some cases, the dialogue had to be written on items in the shot or just offscreen so that she could read the lines.

“Marilyn, as most movie fans know, was pretty messed up by this point in her career. It reportedly took her 47 takes to correctly deliver her line “It’s me, Sugar,” in one scene. Exasperated, director Wilder finally had the line written on a blackboard for the actress to read. In another, it took 59 takes to say the line “Where’s the bourbon?” A fed-up Wilder had the line written on a slip of paper and placed in the drawer Marilyn was searching through. If you watch the final climactic scene where Tony Curtis has to say goodbye to Marilyn over the phone, it is easy to see Marilyn’s eyes going back and forth, back and forth. This is because she is reading her dialogue directly off a blackboard.” – (

It’s surprising, then, that she’s pretty good throughout the film.  If Monroe’s scenes were chopped up and pieced together from what little they could get out of her at a time, Lemmon and Curtis are the opposite.  Though a movie like this might not have the same level of choreography as something like a Gene Kelly musical, their performances are still incredibly physical, drawing laughs from their movements and expressions as much as specific lines of dialogue.

As men playing women, Joe and Jerry (Curtis, Lemmon) struggle with their new wardrobe and mannerisms and the unwanted advances of other men.  They try to saunter through a web of hands, unwanted gazes, voyeurism and even just the physical restraints of what they wear (skirts and heels).

Joe and Jerry are struggling Chicago musicians during Prohibition.  When they witness a mob hit, they go on the run, joining an all-female band on the way to Florida.  Joe becomes Josephine, and Jerry becomes Daphne, the band’s two new musicians.  On their way to Florida, both lust after Sugar Kane (Monroe), with Jerry’s infatuation giving way to Curtis’.  Once in Florida, Jerry anticipates that they will ditch the costumes and run for it, but Joe implores his friend to stick with the ruse so he can see this through with Sugar.  Jerry, apparently a very loyal friend, agrees and even goes on a date with an older man, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) when it helps Joe’s plan to seduce Sugar.

That plan involves pretending to be a wealthy yacht owner named Junior.  Joe capitalizes on everything he learns about Sugar as Josephine and becomes this perfect person, a millionaire, that she seeks out.  When Osgood tries to impress Jerry/Daphne with his own yacht, Joe gets Jerry to distract Osgood so he himself can use the yacht to impress Sugar.

Soon Jerry finds himself falling for Osgood’s peculiar charms.  In one of the funnier moments of the film, we see that Jerry has fallen for Osgood following a night of dancing, just another scene that showcases Lemmon’s comic physicality, something like the physical comedy of a Chaplin film.

Eventually the Chicago mobsters find themselves in Florida, and sure enough they locate Joe and Jerry.  What follows is a long slapstick-esque foot chase throughout the hotel, leading to the two protagonists hiding under a table in a banquet room full of mobsters.  After a grizzly, fatal shootout, they once again flee for their lives.  Joe kisses Sugar as Josephine, and despite her initial shock, the simple-minded Sugar falls for him regardless (she even refers to her own stupidity multiple times, as justification for her eagerness to overlook Joe’s deceit).

They rush to Osgood’s boat where we get that final scene, in which everyone rides off into the moonlight having been accepted by their respective love interest.

Some Like It Hot is about gender, clearly.  It’s a comedy that touches subject matter which may have been taboo at the time.  Hell, the state of Kansas banned the film.  The comedy, though, presents such possibly sensitive material through a comforting lens.  These are two well-known actors (and then Marilyn Monroe too) who express as much frustration towards this predicament as some audiences might feel about the nature of the story.  By presenting this situation as comedy, a more conservative audience might be willing to go further than they would in a dramatic film which asks us to empathize with these characters, not laugh at them.  Maybe that’s why it seems like so many comedies and horror films touch on certain subjects that a more grounded film isn’t yet ready to tackle.  Or maybe that’s not a right assessment either, but it seems like you can push the story into a more sensitive direction by asking the audience to laugh or to scream at what they see.  If the premise of the film feels sensational, it might feel appropriate for a genre that is typically bigger and more wild than real life.

The film delivers a message of acceptance by the end, somewhat unexpectedly.  You expect Osgood to reject Jerry, even get angry, as we might had we been lied to in such a fashion.  But Osgood seems even excited by this sudden reveal.  Part of that final line might be grounded in the joke that is Osgood’s character.  He’s slimy, aggressive and infatuated, and we’re meant to shy away from him like Jerry does.  But then he becomes at least a little more human, partially through the liking Jerry takes to him.

Here are some more academic readings into the film that I found fascinating:

“Mainstream gender-bending film comedies function as a form of sanctioned disruption of the heteronormative order, revealing slippages in the dominant cultural discourse by examining its logic and effects… There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, Some Like It Hot. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses and its undiminished popular appeal. In many ways it is prototypical of the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, but at the same time offers an unusual level of resistance to heteronormative reinstatement by allowing each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction.” – Suzanne Woodward, ‘Disruptive Influence: The Enduring Appeal of Some Like It Hot

Up Next: Some Like It Hot (1959), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach (2008), Geostorm (2017)

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