By the time Billy Wilder‘s Some Like it Hot premiered in 1959, Marilyn Monroe had earned her place as one of the most glamorous and beloved stars in Hollywood. Despite starring in dozens of successful films, Monroe’s star image was centered on her beauty, her body, and the mysteries of her personal life. Critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum have reconsidered her work in the years since her death, noting that she was capable of intelligent and nuanced acting, a fact that is perhaps more important to her legacy than her physical appearance.
She did some of her best comedic acting under the direction of Billy Wilder, first in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and then four years later in Some Like it Hot. Perhaps Wilder’s comedic masterpiece, Some Like it Hot is set in 1929 and follows the misadventures of jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) as they dress as women to flee from the violent gangsters who once employed them in Chicago. Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne and join an all-female jazz band on their way to Florida. Marilyn stars as Sugar Kane, the band’s singer, and ukulele player, who befriends Josephine and Daphne and spends much of the movie lamenting her unlucky love life.
Sugar is breezy and cheerful, seemingly gullible as she befriends two women who are very obviously men in disguise, yet Marilyn imbues her with both wide-eyed silliness and something darker lurking just beneath the surface. Perhaps this characterization mirrors Marilyn’s real-life persona as a bubbly star with a rocky past, but it also attests to her talent that she could create comedic characters whose countenances belie something deeper just beneath. Sugar’s references to her past heartbreaks – ending up with the “fuzzy end of the lollipop” – hint at a sense of loneliness and a longing for companionship. Although we never learn much about her past, her status as a touring musician indicates that she lives a somewhat transient life, never settled down anywhere, always giving pieces of herself away in her performances. All of this shines through as Marilyn dances, sings, giggles, and gossips throughout the film.
Some Like it Hot was Marilyn’s final comedic film performance before her death in 1962. Glimpses of her particular style of comedic acting can be found in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and The Seven Year Itch. Marilyn’s claim to fame is her ability to play breathless naivete, creating wide-eyed, clueless-seeming characters with the unique ability to enchant men and influence their every decision. As Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she approaches men with a combination of innocence and seduction, presenting herself as a helpless little girl and distracting them just long enough that she can steal their diamonds or money. Marilyn was keenly aware of the “dumb blonde” stereotype, and her work in Blondes demonstrates her brilliant ability to subvert such sexist misconceptions.
In Richard Dyer’s influential study, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, his chapter on Marilyn Monroe posits that she stands as a symbol of blondeness, femininity, and an innocent sexuality where she sees pleasure and sex as a natural part of life, yet seems totally oblivious to double entendres and potentially compromising situations (think of Piggy embracing her in his suite in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Her status as a symbol is on full display in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn’s character has no name except “The Girl.” She plays something of a siren, tempting her downstairs neighbor Richard (Tom Ewell) to cheat on his out-of-town wife, and yet, as is typical for Monroe, she brings a surprising humanity to the role. The Girl is indeed a beautifully dressed, voluptuous, and charming distraction, yet she is also considerate, generous, and genuinely interested in Richard as a person.
The film is filled with expertly choreographed physical comedy, demonstrating Wilder’s keen eye as a director, and both Monroe and Ewell’s nimble comedic talents. The two tumble from a piano bench after Richard awkwardly tries to grab The Girl, and following his apology she responds that this happens to her all the time, both a ridiculous yet believable statement. In one scene, Monroe hides behind a chair when Richard receives a visit from a repairman, and slowly and carefully reaches her toes out, using them to pick up her shoes so she can sneak back upstairs to her house. Monroe and Ewell reach a perfect balance, walking the line between harmless friendship and inappropriate flirtation, developing a genuine respect for each other in the meantime.
Wilder was once again able to elicit perfectly balanced comedic performances from his lead actors in Some Like it Hot. Curtis and Lemmon are brilliant as Josephine and Daphne, stumbling around in their disguises and somehow fooling both the women and men they meet on their journey to Miami. Monroe’s Sugar adds a charming third element to the comic duo, treating the two men like her new closest girlfriends. She confides in them, invites them to her bunk on the train to drink alcohol and gossip, and very comfortably undresses in front of them. As always, Monroe’s beauty is a distraction and temptation, and Curtis and Lemmon have to fight their urges to make a pass at her.
While the film is quite lighthearted and funny, one cannot help but feel sorry for Sugar, being lied to and perhaps taken advantage of by what she thinks are two nice older women and a dashing millionaire named Junior, a disguise Curtis fashions with the direct purpose of winning over Sugar. Toward the end of the film, Curtis and Lemmon once again witness a mob murder and fearing for their lives, flee the Miami hotel. When Curtis kisses Sugar goodbye as she sings “I’m Through With Love,” she realizes that Josephine and Junior are indeed the same man, and runs after him, determined to pursue the genuine love she found with this person, whoever he/she may be.
In the end, this is a comedy, and nobody ends up truly hurt (except for maybe the people who got murdered). As is a tradition in comedy, the film ends with two romantic unions: Sugar and Joe, and Jerry and his millionaire suitor, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Indeed, not even the fact that Daphne was a made-up man in disguise deters Mr. Fielding from wanting to marry her (“Well, nobody’s perfect!”). Some Like it Hot is a witty comedic classic and has rightly earned its place as one of the most beloved films of the classical Hollywood era. Marilyn Monroe’s talents as both a comedic and dramatic actress cannot be underestimated, and her performance as Sugar is a crystalline example of just how funny, compelling, and intelligent she could be onscreen. She was always more than just blonde hair and a soft voice.