The Making of Billy Wilder's Hilarious Comedy Some Like It Hot (1959)
When Marilyn Monroe performed “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), she undoubtedly knew that she was loved by almost everyone already. Even those who managed to remain unaffected by her sex appeal before then, probably buckled at the knees during that performance. The delightful screwball comedy — starring Marilyn Monroe (1926 - 1962), Tony Curtis (1925 - 2010), and Jack Lemmon (1925 - 2001) — is indisputably one of the greatest films of all time, and offers up one of the most deliciously sensual musical scenes ever captured on camera.
The plot revolves around two musicians — played by Curtis and Lemmon — who unintentionally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre; to avoid being gunned down by the mob, they disguise themselves as women and join an all-female orchestra on its way to Florida. Monroe plays the singer, who dreams of marrying a millionaire. Curtis’ character, who lusts after Monroe’s, disguises himself as a millionaire to win her. While Lemmon plays his best friend, who gets engaged to a real millionaire, masterfully portrayed by the totally adorable Joe E. Brown (1891 - 1973).
Though the production of the film was far from smooth sailing, the chemistry between the actors is off the charts. Monroe, who notoriously struggled to remember her lines, still managed to deliver her dialogue as if by happy inspiration. A frustrated Curtis, who had to exercise a legendary amount of patience during those moments, successfully feigned unbridled energy and enthusiasm in every take. And Lemmon, well, his comedic timing and delivery are a master class in hilarity that should be studied by all actors, everywhere. If there was personal tension between the actors, the audience was none the wiser.
Some Like It Hot is an enduring work of art because of the meticulousness of Billy Wilder (1906 - 2002). The script, which he co-wrote with I. A. L. Diamond (1920 - 1988), is full of witty one liners, goofy characters, and a humorous take on a fairly common partnership — a marriage of convenience. It’s blunt, unabashed, and written with so much humor, you forget it’s a film about people who want to use each other for sex and money. Yes, Monroe’s character is looking to bag a millionaire, but so is Lemmon’s. "You're a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" Curtis asks him in the film. "Security!" replies Lemmon.
There is an unshakable foundation of thematic integrity to the film, and that theme is reversal. “Reversals, small and large, run the length of the picture; they are its comic oxygen, taking the form of sight gags (a hearse—that runs booze), sound gags (Curtis speaking in a high voice), character twists (Lemmon’s character gets hornier when dressed as a woman), and innuendo,” writes Sam Wesson for The Criterion. "The sheer density of reversals—the number of ironies per cinematic square inch — not only keeps the laughs coming, and coming on thematic point, it pumps Some Like It Hot full of momentum.”
But another theme is transformation. Take the beach scene as an example. “It was written by two men who were once called Samuel Wilder and Itec Domnici, and acted by a man and a woman who were once called Bernie Schwartz and Norma Jeane Mortenson,” notes Nicholas Barber for BBC. “Schwartz, who renamed himself Tony Curtis, is playing Joe, who is pretending to be Junior, using the mid-Atlantic vowels of Cary Grant, who was once called Archibald Leach.” And “Mortenson, who renamed herself Marilyn Monroe, is playing Sugar Kowalczyk, who renamed herself Sugar Kane, and who is using lines which Joe used when he was pretending to be Josephine.”
Though Wilder is a master filmmaker, he actually borrowed the basic plot set-up from the French farce, Fanfare of Love (1935), and its German remake, Fanfares of Love (1951). In a way, this also aligns with the theme of transformation. But, instead of France or Germany, Wilder set his film in America. He also wound the time frame back by a couple of decades and changed a few minor details. Clearly the formula worked out. Some Like It Hot opened to critical and commercial success and received six Academy Award nominations in the Best Costume Design, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.
But Wilder was also a genius at casting. He reportedly chose Curtis because of his dashing good looks, but also because of his spot-on Cary Grant impersonation. Lemmon was cast because of his innate charm and comedic excellence, which carries so much of the film’s humor. And, of course, Monroe was cast for her mind-blowing sensuality, which Wilder directly points to with his writing. "Look at that!" Lemmon’s character tells Curtis’ as he watches her search for the entrance to the train on the platform. "Look how she moves. Like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it's a whole different sex."
Wilder seemed to know Monroe inside and out, and was well aware of what she could and couldn't do. “We know Marilyn is hot,” writes Wesson, “but Wilder saw that she was warm too.” She is the “heart of the comedy, the only one not playing for laughs.” But her heart was in an insane body; Wilder had a great time filming and directing the bombshell, even when she reportedly made things difficult on set. He didn’t use the camera to manage our thinking, or get us to feel what the characters are feeling, or to editorialize on the drama. “His stance is simply amoral, which is the stance you want to have when you want to have maximum fun.”
There are a lot of amazing scenes that feature Marilyn Monroe. But that scene! Ooof, it’s hard to top that scene. Roger Ebert put it well:
“She wears that clinging, see-through dress, gauze covering the upper slopes of her breasts, the neckline scooping to a censor's eyebrow north of trouble. Wilder places her in the center of a round spotlight that does not simply illuminate her from the waist up, as an ordinary spotlight would, but toys with her like a surrogate neckline, dipping and clinging as Monroe moves her body higher and lower in the light with teasing precision. It is 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.”
While we’re on the subject, kudos to the film’s fashion department. Headed by Hollywood designer Orry George Kelly [1897 - 1964), known for his ability to “design for distraction,” Some Like It Hot featured garments “that hugged Monroe’s famous figure in sequins, crystal dangles, and other dazzling embellishments, gestured toward the film’s flapper-era setting while also deliberately bursting the seams of period accuracy.” Indeed, Marilyn's eye-catching outfits, as well as the fabulous drag attire of Curtis and Lemmon, earned Kelly the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, the only category the film won in.
But one of the loveliest and funniest scenes in the movie comes at the very, very end. As recorded in Ed Sikov’s 1998 biography of Wilder, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, the events that gave us that iconic gem unfolded as follows:
“‘Diamond and I were in our room working together,’ Wilder explained, ‘waiting for the next line — Joe E. Brown’s response, the final line, the curtain line of the film — to come to us. Then I heard Diamond say, “Nobody’s perfect.” I thought about it, and I said, “Well, let’s put in ‘Nobody’s perfect’ for now. But only for the time being. We have a whole week to think about it.’” Without a better idea, they shot the line, and it went into the movie. Both remained unsatisfied until they screened the movie for an audience, and, Wilder said, ‘that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater.’ That’s what mattered to Billy Wilder: the laugh. A man with a message to deliver his audience would have had his ending in mind from the beginning; Wilder just wanted us to have fun, and as the line makes clear, any kind of fun, any way we can — or, when life gives you lemons, make a martini.”