Billy Wilder’s career is a lengthy one, full of highly acclaimed features. But out of all the great films that he made over the course of forty some years, Some Like It Hot may be the most famous. And when you talk about what his masterpiece was creatively, it’s often mentioned right up there with movies like Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment. But I guess that’s no surprise, it’s got Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis acting like ladies and Marilyn Monroe slinking around in cocktail dresses. That’s memorable stuff.
Ted Kotcheff’s career was a lengthy but unspectacular one. He mostly did TV work and is probably best known for being the guy who directed the original Rambo film First Blood. But what I best remember him for is a movie about two guys and a dead dude called Weekend at Bernie’s. I must have watched it about a million times on HBO when I was growing up. These days, when you mention it, people talk about it like it’s a joke; but I guess that’s because Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy didn’t quite become Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and Terry Kiser is no Marilyn Monroe.
What do they have in common?
If somebody were to come up with an exact definition for what a classic, screwball, comedy of errors is, both of these movies would probably meet the criteria exactly. I’m not the person to go around trying to define genres though, so let’s just line the plots up and compare a bit. In Some Like It Hot a couple of guys named Joe and Jerry end up having to pretend that they’re women in order to evade some crooks that are trying to murder them. In Weekend at Bernie’s a couple of guys named Larry and Richard have to drag around a dead guy and pretend that he’s still alive in order to evade some crooks that are trying to murder them. The humor in both films is broad and wacky, but there is also an element of danger to both films because people are really getting hurt and the stakes are as serious as life and death. Both movies also give us a glimpse into the lives of rich people when they’re on vacation. Rich people who get painted as debauched, thoughtless animals who aren’t concerned with anything but their next party, their next extravagant purchase, and their next lay. Even the old rich people. Yuck.
Why is Some Like it Hot overrated?
I think that Some Like It Hot is a cute little relic of the era in which it was made, and it’s kind of fun to watch every once in a while. And this is a Billy Wilder film, so of course it looks nice. It presents its story in a slick package. But, to steal a phrase from snooty intellectuals, I think that this movie is minor Wilder. As a matter of fact, of all the Billy Wilder movies that I’ve seen, I think that I enjoy this one the least. While the opening scenes of the Saint Valentines Day Massacre and Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry’s (Jack Lemmon) involvement with gangland violence play like the beginnings of a good crime movie, as soon as the duo don dresses and the movie gets farcical it completely loses me. Perhaps seeing a couple of guys put on dresses and talk like ladies was funny enough on its own to carry an entire film back in the 50s, but with my modern eyes it just doesn’t play as funny enough to become what the whole film is about. And this certainly isn’t the funniest movie of all time, which I’ve heard opined a time or two. There is a clever turn of phrase here and there, watching Tony Curtis try to pull off posing as a millionaire has its moments, but a lot of this movie falls flat when not viewed as kitsch.
The biggest reason for that is Jack Lemmon’s performance. Lemmon is an actor who I’ve enjoyed quite a bit. A year after he made this film he gave what I consider to be one of the greatest comedic performances of all time in another Wilder film, The Apartment. In that film he’s funny, yes, but he’s also creates an air of melancholy, and he’s dramatic while still being subtle. Here Lemmon is acting like he’s on stage in a 6000 seat theater playing to the back row. He’s mugging in every scene, he’s mincing around, he’s using goofy voices and constantly cackling. It pains me to say it, but watching Lemmon in this movie is downright embarrassing. Even Monroe, who at her best was still pretty hit or miss, and who is inconsistent from scene to scene in this film, outclasses him at every turn. He commits the cardinal sin of comedy by treating his material like it’s a lark rather than treating it with respect. That’s the dividing line between being a comedian and being a clown. One makes people laugh, and the other just creeps out little kids.
Why is Weekend at Bernie’s underpraised?
Weekend at Bernie’s had a really bad sequel that took a concept with a short shelf life and ran it deep into the ground, complete with the addition of supernatural nonsense. Weekend at Bernie’s II was so bad that I think it put a taint on the original. People hear the title and they think cheesy, they think stupid. But they forget that the original was once so popular that it had enough juice to spawn a highly anticipated sequel. And that’s because, despite the fact that it is admittedly a ridiculous farce, it’s a pretty charming one. Watching Weekend at Bernie’s is kind of like watching some classic Three Stooges shorts. There are a lot of nut shots, some falls, and a bunch of gags with Bernie’s corpse that are borderline puppetry, but Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman are strong enough in the classic loud mouth/straight man dynamic that they’re able to anchor all of the silliness and give it some weight. While Some Like It Hot plays like a relic of the past, Weekend at Bernie’s plays like a throwback to something that doesn’t exist anymore; but with a modern (for 1989) presentation that makes it more palatable.
Slapstick can work, you just need actors who are willing to play it straight enough to ground the material. It’s the juxtaposition of delivering the absurd while remaining super serious that’s funny. Constant wackiness is just exhausting. In Some Like It Hot Jack Lemmon is winking at the camera and putting on an obvious performance. In Weekend at Bernie’s Silverman and McCarthy are doing ridiculous stuff, but they either play it natural or play it with even more weight than it deserves; and that’s where humor comes from. In Some Like It Hot every side character in the film has to pretend like they don’t realize “Josephine” and “Daphne” are men. Curtis and Lemmon are not feminine. It gets to the point where everyone in the movie must have legitimate brain damage in order to not realize what’s going on. In Weekend at Bernie’s the characters are all so into themselves, their own greed, their own highs, and cultivating their own image, that they’re looking too inward to notice that Bernie has been dead the whole time. It’s ridiculous, but there’s some satire going on. We’re not asked to inch quite so far out onto the ledge and take quite as big a leap of faith in order to suspend our disbelief.
Evening the odds.
Normally with this column I just mean to prop up a bullied or forgotten movie a little bit and ask people to give it another look, and pick apart a well liked movie enough to get the reader asking whether it’s really as good as they think. I don’t consider this to be a space to talk about one movie being better than the other, or to create any sort of ranking system. But here, I think it’s interesting to compare how these movies stack up against one another because they’re so similar in concept. I’ll go on record as saying that I think they’re equally good. One of the best things Some Like It Hot has going for it is its one-liners, but Weekend at Bernie’s has some quips in it as well. I’ll put Andrew McCarthy’s aside of, “My old man worked hard his whole life, all they gave him was more work,” up against Curtis’, “With all the unrest in the world, I don’t think anybody should have a yacht that sleeps more than twelve.” And while Some Like It Hot looks a lot more high rent than Weekend at Bernie’s, I think Bernie’s has a more sophisticated view of how to pull off slapstick humor. By my count, that makes them Even Steven.
If you’re looking for a fight, there’s plenty more in the Overrated/Underpraised Archives