Monday, April 26, 2010

Some Like It Hot

Year: 1959
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 22
Writer: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Director: Billy Wilder
Star: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe

“Some Like It Hot” says just about everything there is to say about comedy and says it just about as well as any comedy ever could. It’s difficult to believe that a film that is about cross-dressing men on the run from the mob could also be one of the wittiest, most literate films ever imprinted on celluloid, but there you go. It may not be the best comedy of all time, nor is it my favorite (see my upcoming entry on “Bringing Up Baby”), but you can make a strong case that it is the funniest.

The story, as it is, tracks two musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and then go into hiding by posing as women in an all-female band in Florida. Lemmon finds himself involuntarily romancing a rich playboy ready to settle down while Curtis poses as a rich playboy (in addition to his drag get-up) in order to romance Marilyn Monroe.

It’s taking all of my power as a writer to not turn this review into a random reading of the movie’s best gags and zingers. Billy Wilder is the co-writer and director, so of course the film has the same gleeful cynicism that infects all of his best work. Lemmon and Curtis’ actions in the film make them terrible human beings. Lemmon gets engaged to a man gleefully while Curtis first poses as Monroe’s best galpal to learn what she wants in a man and then poses as her ideal boytoy in order to see what else is up her skirt other than a flask. And yet the movie never gets caught up in the morality of all of this silliness, so why should we?

Part of the reason we don’t is that the three leads are just so dang charismatic. Curtis’ dry wit and ability to deliver the funniest of punchlines with the straightest of faces keeps the movie from flying off the rails just before it goes too over the top for its own good. It’s also shocking to see how much he looks like comedienne Kathy Griffin when he is wearing drag. He is also one of the best examples of a giving comedian, often allowing the more overzealous Lemmon take center stage in most of their scenes together. And what a brilliant performance Lemmon gives, never giving a false beat as he transitions from the horndog in the upper berth to the smiling fiancĂ© in Florida. Together the men form a fantastic chemistry and then create an entirely different, even funnier, dynamic once they don their dresses and wigs.

And then we have Monroe, never curvier in a film and never more seductive. Look at the way she sings “I Want To Be Loved By You” in an almost see-through dress and the way Wilder teases us by playing with the spotlight on her. If the leading men/women of “Some Like It Hot” excel at delivering well-rehearsed comedy, Monroe compliments them beautifully by playing every line with a glorious spontaneity that no actress, past or present, has been able to match. When she woefully tells Curtis that the story of her life is that “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop” you have no doubt that Monroe invented the line on the spot, even though it probably took Wilder fifteen takes to get her to even read the line properly on camera.

When the three characters share the screen the resultant scenes have a kind of comedic power that makes you laugh so much and with such consistency that you end up in tears. Think of the scene where Lemmon and Curtis watch Marilyn sing and dance for the first time. Or that splendid sequence where what is supposed to be an intimate get-together between Lemmon and Monroe in an upper berth turns into a party where the entire train seems to be invited.

It’s odd because, despite them working so well together here, “Some Like It Hot” is not the best performance of any of the three leads. Curtis’ best work was in “Spartacus,” Lemmon’s was in Wilder’s “The Apartment” (or perhaps “The Odd Couple” or “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and Monroe most shined in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Though much of the comedy springs from his three leads, Wilder ensures that his trademark style is not lost in the mix. The first few minutes of the film are (I think) wordless and is a pretty darn inventive chase scene between a hearse and the police. He also finds time to embrace some Marx Brothers-like slapstick when Lemmon and Curtis are on the run from the mob.

Speaking of the mob, we’ve reached the major fault of the film. Though most of the early stuff involving the gangsters in Mozzarella Funeral Home hits the mark, after that whenever the film shifts its focus, it falters. Gangster humor, however well-acted and shot, just does not belong in “Some Like It Hot.” This becomes painfully apparent during one of the climactic scenes that has Lemmon and Curtis hiding beneath a table while a ganger pops out of a birthday cake and wipes out his rival mobsters with a machine gun. The scene, by the way, is directly lifted in “Enemy of the State” and the plot has been rejiggered millions of times since, though “Sister Act” seems to be its closest homage.

Ah well. As someone says memorably during the film, “Nobody’s perfect.” “Some Like It Hot” may be imperfect when looked at under a microscope, but there are more perfect scenes in this comedy than any other.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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