Marilyn, maracas and the madness
BILLY WILDER put it best. Looking back on the filming of Some Like It Hot – a process that produced one of the funniest movies of all time but damn near killed the director – he said: “We were in mid-flight when we discovered there was a nut on the plane.”
That nut was Marilyn Monroe.
On set, MM soon stood for Missing Monroe. A reporter joked that she “did the seemingly impossible by arriving half an hour late aboard a Trans World Airlines plane that was on time”.
She turned up to one dinner party at 11.20pm. If her call at work was for 11am, she’d turn up at 3.30pm and retire to her trailer.
One day, after she’d been working there for a month, she claimed to have got lost on the way to the studio. On other days she wouldn’t show up at all, or would refuse to come out of her trailer, where she glugged vermouth from a flask.
Even when she was on set, she was trouble. She’d blow her lines, burst into tears, blow her lines again, and disappear into huddles with her ghastly voice coach Paula Strasberg. It took her 81 takes to speak the line: “Where’s that bourbon?”
Tony Curtis recounts this feelingly in his new book Some Like it Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie, co-written with Mark Avier. He was the one standing up in high heels, calves in agony, while he waited for her to nail the scene. And yet, as Curtis and Wilder had to admit, when she was on celluloid she was magnetic.
Technically, Monroe was a supporting actor in the film, but she became the centre of it; and though she’s a supporting actor in this memoir, it comes to revolve around her. Everything does. One of the things about stars is that they have very powerful gravitational fields.
Monroe yearned to be taken seriously. She was fed up playing dumb blondes. Wilder roped her in by lying about the film, saying it wasn’t going to be treated as a farce.
So in scene after scene, there she is, method-acting away, which for her seems to have meant wiggling her hands a lot before she goes on camera.
Curtis once shared a flat with Marlon Brando, but he hasn’t much time for the method: “I thought it was phony... This idea of trying to remember when your sister stole your peanut butter sandwich so you can give an angry performance is bulls***.”
Between method and madness, though, the film came together. At the first test screening nobody laughed. But then it grew – and grew. And when he pauses from marvelling at Marilyn, Curtis has interesting things to say about Wilder’s consummate technique as a film-maker.
In one scene he equipped Jack Lemmon with a pair of maracas, simply to give him some physical business to fill in the gaps between laugh lines. He knew exactly how funny his film was going to be – and he didn’t want the audience’s laughter to render the next line of dialogue inaudible.
Curtis’s memoir is seldom flat and he has a nice, if sometimes bizarre, turn of phrase.
Musing on Monroe’s sex appeal, he writes that she was: “A little girl – with this incredible body. And I mean incredible. A body that had everything a man would want. She had hips like a Polish washerwoman...”
He would perhaps know best. He was well acquainted with those hips.
Curtis dated Marilyn when they were young actors and they climbed back into bed together while making Some Like It Hot. Curtis was married, increasingly unhappily, to Janet Leigh. Marilyn was married, increasingly unhappily, to Arthur Miller.
Curtis’s dislike of Miller is strong. He recalls how he “made a fool of himself ” by lecturing Billy Wilder on comedy, and how “there was always a little superiority, a little hostility” in his attitude.
Mind you, he points out: “He was kind of a strange guy. He looked like Abraham Lincoln. But then all of Marilyn’s husbands did.”
When Miller learned that Curtis had cuckolded him, there was a showdown in Marilyn’s trailer. The playwright threatened: “I can beat the hell out of you.”
“This guy was full of s***,” writes Curtis. “He didn’t know who the f*** he was dealing with. I crossed my arms. ‘Yeah?’”
The scene could only have been more perfect had Curtis still been in costume as a woman.
This book is a slight thing, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It ably gathers old (and, you suspect, wellburnished) stories and weaves them in with new ones, and it is fleshed out with dozens of photographs. It’s good to have from the horse’s mouth what Hollywood was like 50 years ago. – The Daily Mail
CLOSE: Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe dated when they were young, and had an affair during the filming of Some Like it Hot.