20 June, 2010

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Damn hot!

Billy Wilder was honoured with the EFA Lifetime Achievement Award back in 1992 - here then, an appreciation of what is perhaps his finest work.

A critic knows a masterpiece when it drives him or her to distraction in shovelling out a new angle with each new appraisal. With an auteur like Billy Wilder at the helm, one’s pencil is going to be bitten and licked to the quick.

The hook for the studio here was, firstly, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, two rising young male leads, and also Marilyn Monroe to add jiggle factor and to offset the cross-dressing that, although it may be central to the plotting of this rambunctious black farce, might have resulted in it not playing too well in Peoria. Wilder, ever the master, and with his trusted sidekick I.A.L Diamond, is one jump ahead, with a screenplay to elevate an otherwise one-ply plot – two loser jazz musicians unwittingly witness the St Valentine’s Day massacre and flee in drag to Miami to escape mob retribution where they fetch up with an all-girl jazz-band, dominated by singing uke-player Sugar Kane (Monroe), where the Mafiosi are foiled and true love blooms.

That it should between Curtis and Monroe is a given; but in a peculiarly Jewish fatal twist, that Lemmon is left with ultra-camp millionaire Joe E Brown is less predictable. But then again, the dialogue is so full of electricity that this hardly matters. The film’s last exchange, where Lemmon rips off his wig and yells at Brown’s vacant visage, "I’m a man!", to which Brown responds "Well, nobody’s perfect!" is a perfect summation. Ditto Monroe as Sugar, husking "I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop." And Curtis’s anachronistic assumption of Cary Grant’s vocal mannerisms to seduce Sugar, to which Lemmon expostulates: "Nobody talks like that!" And Lemmon, in drag, as Monroe makes her entrance: "Look how she moves! It’s like Jello on springs! I’m telling you, it’s a whole different sex."

The characterization and casting is also to die for; Monroe was never more beguiling, Lemmon was the twitchy neurotic, Curtis all laid-back street sensuality. Let’s look at it another way – place Jayne Mansfield, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the leads, and shudder.

Wilder’s gifts as a natural cineaste are paraded with pride; the watchmakerly timing of the chases’ tension, the sometimes startling and contrasting immediacy of the brutal machine-gunning (Peckinpah without the ketchup), the lingering interpolations of the approaching consummation of Monroe’s and Curtis’s first kiss (which, given Curtis’s judgement of Marilyn as a kisser, must have been a thankless chore). The classic scene of Sugar leading a charmingly innocent and low-key Runnin’ Wild on the train as her bandmates join in, is executed with precision and real swing. Wilder even manages to elicit fine performances from a good actor (Lemmon) and a bad one (Curtis) playing to type and imbuing them from a narcoleptic tool-through.

This – unbelievably by today’s standards – was a mass-market movie, a multiplex multi-million-dollar baby. Reading between the lines, what else could it have been? The year (1959) was the age of the jet, the railroad streamliners with their club cars and observation coaches, of multi-fin gas-guzzlers, of holidays in licentious Florida, of the swellness of the US. The Roaring 20s are seen as something akin. The Miami interiors are sumptuous, often dazzling, as though made of fondant icing. Digs at the hypocrisy of Prohibition apart, there is no anti-US subversion here. Elia Kazan this ain’t.

That this movie raked it in at the box-office is testified by the publicity for Wilder’s 1960 classic, The Apartment, where he is credited as Billy ‘Some Like It Hot’ Wilder. There, Wilder and Diamond disparage US conformism and plasticity in an age of supposed consumer choice, and here they seem to suggest that the real golden age – guns and all – had gone forever.

This is as glorious and ravishing a monument to classic Hollywood as the cake that the mob machine-gunners emerge from in one of the movie’s climactic shoot-outs. And it’s guffaw-a-minute stuff.

As Brown says, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. But here, Wilder, as a director, comes pretty damn close.

Awards: Click here for details.

Paul Stump
120 mins.

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