Ab­so­lute drag

Billy Wilder’s clas­sic ‘Some Like it Hot’ still gets crit­ics hot un­der the col­lar, but how did it achieve its un­touch­able sta­tus?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY DON­ALD CLARKE

How Some Like it Hot be­came the world’s most revered com­edy

Late last year, the BBC polled the world’s film crit­ics to dis­cover the “great­est com­edy of all time”. The usual can­di­dates showed up: Dr Strangelov­e (a great film, but is it that funny?), His Girl Fri­day

(three hours of dia­logue in 92 min­utes), Air­plane! (the jokes, the jokes!). But no­body was in much doubt as to what would take the top spot. Sure enough, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot

romped home. Had the book­ies been tak­ing bets you wouldn’t have got bet­ter than 1/5.

At some point in the past 30 years the supremacy of Some Like It Hot, which re­turns next week in a new print, be­came a crit­i­cal semi-or­tho­doxy. In 2012, Sight and Sound’s

de­cen­nial poll – the lofti­est-browed of such chil­dren’s games – placed it be­hind Buster Keaton’s The Gen­eral, but no other sound com­edy came close. It’s the law. Some Like It Hot is the fun­ni­est film with ac­tual talk­ing in it. And the law’s the law.

It im­plies no at­tack on the film’s rep­u­ta­tion to won­der how this came to be. This writer listed Wilder’s The Apart­ment – a more som­bre com­edy – ahead of Some Like It Hot in both polls, but I was still happy to see the cross-dress­ing romp score so highly. Not ev­ery­body re­gards Some Like It Hot as their favourite com­edy. But no­body hates it.

The personnel make their own case. Renowned for wrap­ping sub­ver­sive cyn­i­cism around the most per­fectly cal­i­brated jokes, Wilder re­mains a holy fig­ure in Amer­i­can cin­ema. Like John Ford or Howard Hawks, he is as pop­u­lar with crit­ics as he is with the gen­eral pub­lic (or that part of the pub­lic that still watches films made be­fore 1990). Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s com­plex, trou­bled en­ergy is undimmed by the pass­ing of the years. Jack Lem­mon and Tony Cur­tis, perky ac­tors at home with Wilder’s mis­an­thropy, throw them­selves heartily at un­usu­ally de­mand­ing roles. Joe and Jerry are funny. Josephine and Daphne are fun­nier still.

One should never un­der­es­ti­mate the amuse­ment to be de­rived from men dress­ing up as women. We are now more sen­si­tive about the in­ter­fer­ence pat­terns that wa­ver be­tween gen­ders, but this durable comic sta­ple is go­ing nowhere. You get a bit of it in Shake­speare. Bugs Bunny was rarely fun­nier than when he was pre­tend­ing to be a Brook­lyn broad. Toot­sie is as hi­lar­i­ous as any Amer­i­can pic­ture of the 1980s.

No­body will need to be told that Some Like It Hot fol­lows two mu­si­cians, com­pro­mised af­ter wit­ness­ing the St Valen­tine’s Day Mas­sacre, as they pull on fe­male dis­guises and join an all-fe­male dance band. De­rived from a French film called Fan­fare of Love (re­mind any­one whing­ing about re­makes that the term also cov­ers the most fa­mous ver­sions of The Wizard of Oz and The Mal­tese Fal­con), the pic­ture ex­ploits ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to high­light the sur­face dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women. Josephine (Cur­tis) and Daphne (Lem­mon) are scarcely con­vinc­ing as everyday fe­males, but they’re per­sua­sive enough to root the film in plau­si­ble un­cer­tainty. You know? Like in Mrs Doubt­fire. That’s al­ways a hoot.

But the un­touch­able sta­tus of Some Like It Hot surely re­sults from some­thing broader and more pro­found. Like a lot of works that fig­ure in “great­est ever” lists, Wilder’s film sits on the cusp be­tween ap­proaches; it strad­dles the fence be­tween ideas; it in­cor­po­rates ap­par­ently com­ple­men­tary tones. The viewer can ap­proach from a num­ber of an­gles.

The tim­ing of the film is sig­nif­i­cant. Some Like It Hot ar­rived at the end of a decade that – not en­tirely ac­cu­rately – is as­so­ci­ated with the con­sol­i­da­tion of the subur­ban Amer­i­can dream. The Catholic League of De­cency, on the film’s re­lease in 1959, con­demned the con­tent as “morally ob­jec­tion­able”. Its sub­se­quent success went some way to­wards fi­nally killing off the Hays Code that had con­strained de­pic­tions of sex­u­al­ity since the 1930s. In that sense, Some Like It Hot of­fers a bridge be­tween Amer­i­can cul­ture of the 1950s and 1960s. Shot in mono­chrome af­ter makeup tests re­vealed a “ghoul­ish” Josephine and Daphne in colour cam­eras, the pic­ture doesn’t ex­actly de­clare a New Fron­tier, but that fa­mous last line – “No­body’s per­fect,” Joe E Brown’s play­boy quips af­ter learn­ing that Daphne is less fe­male than sus­pected – sug­gests an ac­com­mo­da­tion with same-sex re­la­tion­ships that would have been harder to sell at the start of the decade.

The film is pitched be­tween light and dark. Few come­dies be­gin with an ac­tual mas­sacre and Ge­orge Raft, a man with a tough past, makes no con­ces­sions to lev­ity in his por­trayal of hood­lum “Spats” Colombo. There’s a real threat there.

The story around Some Like It Hot lay­ers the pic­ture with fur­ther un­cer­tain­ties. Mon­roe, who was to die three years later, was fa­mously hard to work with and re­quired dozens of takes to com­plete even the sim­plest scene. None of her later films are free from those whis­pers of im­pend­ing doom.

Yet Some Like It Hot is still up­roar­i­ously funny. The Apart­ment, shot the fol­low­ing year, is so gloomy – it fea­tures a sui­cide at­tempt at Christ­mas, af­ter all – that it barely counts as a com­edy. Mi­nor chords un­der­score ev­ery laugh. The ear­lier film is never so weighed down. It skips across pud­dles.

There’s more. Some Like It Hot’s po­si­tion on those charts con­firms its sta­tus as a work that be­longs to the high arts and to pop­u­lar cul­ture. One is never in any doubt that one is watch­ing the most gifted Amer­i­can film pro­fes­sion­als at the top of their game. It’s a trib­ute to a glo­ri­ous ma­chine – the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem – as that ma­chine was splut­ter­ing into re­dun­dancy.

It’s all things to all men. And all women. And all those some­where in be­tween.

■ Some Like It Hot is reis­sued on Nov 2nd


Above: Joe E. Brown and Jack Lem­mon in Some Like It Hot. Left: Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe on set with di­rec­tor Billy Wilder.

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