Some Like It Hot is a persistent force in American cinema. It is referenced, recreated, and beloved, decade after decade — long past the expected shelf life of comedies. The plot, centered around two men in the 1950s dressing as women to escape the mob, makes the odds of the film dodging the pitfalls of political correctness seventy years after its release very slim. Of course the movie does not perfectly align to modern sensibilities of gender, but it does a remarkable job of avoiding the temptation to lean on the base level gendered humor that has cropped up in popular entertainment consistently since the film was released. This is not a film about the differences between men and women, it’s more interested in the similarities that cross those divides and how fluid those boundaries are.
The film is set in prohibition era America, and we first meet the heroes at a speakeasy hidden within a funeral home, which is an appropriate tone setting scene for the film. The relationship between the two musicians as bosom buddies is established immediately. Tony Curtis, who weaves in and out of his best Cary Grant impression, playing Joe, and Jack Lemon, playing Jerry. The scene orients the viewer on a spectrum of morality. We understand immediately that we are positioned to root for a certain amount of deviance and should be prepared to embrace the kind of lawlessness that lands between outright murder (as demonstrated by the gangsters in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre) and the extreme rigidity toward having a jazzy good time demonstrated by the police force.
Their is also Marilyn Monroe. She owns this film and not because she delivers a world class performance. Her acting is adequate, but to be fair, she can’t outperform her massively bloated legacy. What’s utterly undeniable when watching this film is that she sizzles on screen. Director Billy Wilder has a way of bringing sex to the forefront of our minds, as he did with Seven Year Itch or The Apartment, without resorting to raunchiness. Marilyn Monroe is his secret weapon. I didn’t grow up with Marilyn Monroe, but I knew her as a sex symbol and she has a face I can call up in my minds eye with a shocking amount of ease. One of the best parts of watching this film for me is seeing her so fully embodied and vibrant — adding so much depth that is lacking from the posters and static images I see of her so frequently.
There is undoubtedly a voyeuristic quality to the sleeper car scenes where Daphne sits perched, smirking at the women preparing for bed in their nightgowns. Marilyn is at ease and naughty, quick to accept an invitation to a cheeky drink in Daphne’s bunk and then go on to invite the rest of the band. It’s understandable why Daphne stares at her with wide eyed wonder, and why Jerry has to be reminded that he’s a girl, he’s a girl. The voyeurism is a violation, but a seemingly light touch one. There’s a queer quality to it, a relatable moment that many non-straight people felt throughout a myriad of childhood experiences— cautiously curious but focused on passing with that familiar refrain (I’m a girl, I’m a girl) running through the brain. I can imagine the queer meme accounts I follow doing wonders with this GIF:
That queerness is omnipresent, and every time I watch this movie I find immense joyfulness that never quite crosses into the realm of cringiness. The cross dressing and examination of men experiencing the lives of women feels good natured, but also like it could veer from a “playing with gender is fun!” vantage point into “laugh at the freaks” territory at any moment. But this too is reflective of the Wilder deftness, he never caves to cheap wins: there’s no scene where Daphne tries to dodge a man’s kiss as if it’s a matter of life or death, or where the women are reduced to flightiness. Wilder remains focused on the the heart of the characters, which is far more interesting and a driving factor behind this movie’s timelessness.
Throughout the film, there is deception on behalf of all parties with the exception of the millionaire swooning over Daphne, Osgood, who is as open a book as they come. It’s lucky for everyone that Osgood didn’t cross paths with Sugar before Daphne caught his eye, because those two suit each other perfectly. For Sugar, she’s using the man she believes to be a millionaire to chase his money - unconcerned by the possibility of not loving him after the seduction. On the opposite side of that exchange, Joe is pretending to be that millionaire. Pushing the hoax a step further, he claims that he is incapable of arousal, realizing that Sugar would see this as a challenge to be conquered. Joe’s speech may have hit some in the audience differently as he recounts all the doctors he’s seen who have tried and failed to correct his condition. In a film starring gay icon and drag queen favorite, Marilyn Monroe, about men passing as women to save their lives, it’s possible this scene could have resonated with a broader spectrum of viewers than even Wilder realized.
On the other hand, Jerry / Daphne is a man pretending to be a woman, and after a half-hearted resistance he lovingly embraces the role. The dance sequence between Daphne and Osgood is as emotionally sweeping as its yacht scene counterpart. The humor is partly due to the stature of the couple, but also ingrained in their irresistible chemistry - as they each dip each other in turn. Jerry allows himself to revel in the fantasy of a life with Osgood, even before his partner in crime returns and encourages him to remember “I’m a boy, I’m a boy”.
What Wilder did, perhaps unintentionally, is demonstrate how easily the fortresses we’ve built around identity and gender can be penetrated — and how joyful the results of that transgression can be. The final line of the film is cinema magic, and I won’t risk spoiling it here, but I think it’s a perfect wrap for a film that embraces imperfection, and those of us who swim upstream in a world they feel displaced from.