Critic's Notebook: 'Some Like It Hot' Turns 60, as Fresh and Frisky as Ever

Some Like it Hot-Photofest still 2-H 2019

Sixty years on, the Billy Wilder classic remains a prescient and provocative take on issues of gender and sexuality.

The wonderful Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and even more wonderful Tootsie (1982) conclude with reassuring resolutions. Indeed, they’re downright complacent compared with Some Like It Hot, the cross-dressing archetype that set the stage for the two flicks that followed. In the 1959 pic, important lessons are not learned, order is not restored, and redemption is nowhere to be found. Or maybe it’s the ultimate morality tale, or something in between — or something else altogether.

On its 60th anniversary, Billy Wilder’s slyly subversive movie — marrying farce, vaudeville and social satire — remains elusive even in its most prescient depiction of drag, male-female dynamics, fluid sexuality and the blurring of binary gender lines, not to mention its treatment of class and the image of women. 

As everyone knows, the iconic film (written by I. A. L. Diamond) recounts the misadventures of two hapless, second-tier jazz musicians who need to escape Chicago’s mobster world at the height of Prohibition. After witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (or, more precisely, a fictionalized version of it), saxophone-playing Joe (Tony Curtis), a gambling bad boy, and the more grounded, responsible double bass player Jerry (Jack Lemmon) gussy themselves up as women, becoming Josephine and Daphne, respectively, before joining an all-female traveling band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators.

Traveling with their new bandmates on the train to Miami, they meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a down-on-her-luck vocalist and ukulele player in search of a wealthy spouse. By the time they disembark, Joe/Josephine is smitten with her, and, in an effort to woo her, he assumes the identity of Junior, an oil tycoon bachelor. Meanwhile, Daphne is being aggressively pursued by the fatuous millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).

Much of the comedy stems from female-impersonating hetero males and the frenetic chaos that ensues, though interestingly the two protagonists never go all out in “drag"; they’re men with muscles and deep voices sporting dresses. Seen today, some of the bits fall flat, feeling overly familiar, like an extended one-note joke. Yes, the movie was way ahead of its time with its main characters acknowledging women’s discomfort in the restricting garments they’re forced to wear and the unwelcome leers and gropes they’re subjected to. But now, through a 21st century lens, it’s "been there, done that." (Paradoxically, the less pivotal mobster shenanigans continue to be hilarious. Who can forget the opening scene featuring deadpan bootleggers tearing down the street in a hearse housing a casket filled to the brim with contraband liquor bottles as gunning gangsters, headed by Spats Columbo — played by George Raft, no less — close in on them?)

Yet at its core, the film is about sexual relations and attraction, and to judge by some of the pic’s 1959 reviews it was pushing the good-taste envelope. Repeatedly, our two very heterosexual leads are suppressing their arousal as they’re flanked on all sides by nubile female musicians. In one legendary snippet, these nightie-clad instrumentalists are frolicking about in a train berth with Jerry/Daphne, for whom the experience is by turns delightful and tormenting.    

And how’s this for a bit of convention-defying vulgarity? The women are heavy-duty drinkers and sexually schooled, and not feeling unhappy about it at all. On the contrary, they’re boisterous, living out loud and having a hell of a time reveling in their agency.

Admittedly, Sugar Kane has been exploited by love ’em-and-leave ’em saxophone players. But make no mistake: She milks her victimization for all it’s worth. Like Monroe herself, Sugar is an embodiment of the male fantasy (breathless, helpless and in need of saving), and employs it to her advantage. When Joe, in the guise of Junior, who is trying hard to evoke Cary Grant, says he likes classical music, Sugar lies outright, proclaiming she studied at the Sheboygan Conservatory. The film is a heady celebration of play-acting.

Manipulation and deception are the name of the game, and everyone indulges with impunity. Even at the end, when Jerry admits to Sugar that he’s a lying louse, just another one of her abusive saxophone players, he hasn’t really changed and neither has she. But true to movie tradition, heterosexual love conquers all — or does it?

Wilder’s universe is far too nuanced for anything as obvious as that. Here, homoerotic twists are everywhere — not least the full mouth-on-mouth kiss between Sugar and Josephine. It’s the turning point when Sugar realizes that Josephine and Junior are one and the same. The line straddling best female bud and male lover is fluid; Sugar adores both sides of that mask, conceivably loving Josephine even more, while Joe has virtually disappeared in the melee of disguises.   

But none of the relationships is more ambivalent than the Osgood-Daphne coupling — starting with the fact that Jerry doesn't choose “Geraldine,” the feminized version of his name, as his new moniker (and the obvious choice), but rather “Daphne,” summoning a brand-new identity. And Jerry really gets into it, so much so that he actually finds himself “engaged” to Osgood and needs Joe to remind him that he’s a man and can’t possibly marry him. It’s at once dated and resonant. “Why would a guy want to marry a guy?” the exasperated Joe asks. “Security,” Jerry responds thoughtfully, revealing just how deeply entrenched he is in his new gender role.

The most complex character on board, and an extraordinary comic creation, is Osgood himself, fully realized by Brown. He’s lecherous yet cherubic, if not saint-like, almost gender-free and none too bright. He’s a holy fool. Following a litany of irrelevant reasons why Jerry cannot marry him, culminating in his proclamation, “I’m a man!” Osgood’s oft-quoted line, “Nobody’s perfect” opens a Pandora’s box of possible interpretations. Is Osgood’s forgiving view of Jerry’s, uh, limitation an expression of a deep-seated psychiatric problem or the ultimate outpouring of love that conquers all in a world gone mad? Either way (both ways), it’s delightfully unknowable — now more than ever, six decades down the road.

Simi Horwitz is an award-winning film reviewer and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Backstage, Film Journal International, The Forward and American Theater.