Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they think subversively about Billy Wilder’s men-in-dresses comedy Some Like It Hot since everything seems to have a “secret gay agenda” these days. And because you can’t bend genders without making romance a little interesting.
In the #43 (tied) movie on the list, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who foolishly witness the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Trying to hide out, they get into drag to join an all-female band traveling to sunny Miami where they both court love with Marilyn Monroe and Joe Brown.
But why is it one of the best movies of all time?
Landon: Tootsie. Mrs. Doubtfire. Big Momma’s House. Too many Tyler Perry movies to name. Probably a dozen or so movies before and after 1959 that I don’t know about. While Tootsie is a good film, I wouldn’t label any of these as “great” films. So what does Some Like It Hot do that the rest of the gender-swapping canon doesn’t?
Besides having a supporting character named “Beinstock.”
Scott: Has two people cross-dressing instead of one?
Scott: Honestly, it’s a bit of a mystery. Not simply because it’s a cross-dressing comedy, but because there aren’t many comedies canonized in Best Of lists like this. Humor gets short shrift for whatever bizarre reason, but I can’t figure out why Some Like It Hot is so fortunate to be temporarily immortalized like this.
It’s interesting, slightly complex, and it features a great partnership, but it’s hardly the best comedy ever made. And probably not even the best Billy Wilder comedy ever made.
Landon: Some Like It Hot fits in so well with Wilder’s work across comedy and drama. Whether in The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, or this, his films show an interest in the gap between people’s private identity/behavior and public appearances. There’s almost always a return of the norm by the end, but his movies dance across the line of what’s socially acceptable.
Parts of Some Like It Hot’s humor haven’t aged well at all, especially where the film hams it up to the audience, while other components of it have aged remarkably well. But as this is the only Hollywood non-silent comedy in the top 50 (and it’s been so canonized elsewhere), it does have the burden of “best comedy” status. But as with all awards and lists, it seems easier to evaluate “important” drama. What criteria does one use for comedy? Laugh-out-loud funniest? Best developed characters/storytelling? Says something about its time?
Scott: All three of those questions seem legitimate. Crying is not the only facial exercise that can lead to learning something about human nature.
Landon: Absolutely. And case in point, Some Like It Hot is a good example of comedy’s ability to accomplish something that drama, at least in 1959, never could or would be interested in.
Scott: What specifically?
Landon: The movie’s play with gender dynamics. Many of the movies I mentioned use the gender-swapping framework to reinforce gender binaries. This movie, rather remarkably, instead goes all over the spectrum, and through its light, playful framework has some great moments that really blur the lines. I can’t imagine a drama doing this in 1959. At least, not one released by United Artists.
That’s the marker of great comedy, whether in stand-up, writing, or at the movies: its ability to look at things people would be reluctant to explore in any other form.
Scott: There’s definitely a corollary with Tootsie, but it is a bit striking for 1959 (years before Don Draper!) to see the scene where Jack Lemmon gets his intimates squeezed by Bienstock on the bus. It’s a legitimate commentary on opening men’s eyes to a common reality for women – that unironically has a character named Sugar Kane.
Landon: That’s another thing I was struck by in revisiting this movie. I’ve seen other films this past year where Monroe plays a supporting role as a stock dumb blonde, but she really gets to shine her. This may be her most dimensional character.
This past year I read a Mae West biography that talks about the behind-the-scenes world of NYC vaudeville culture in the 1920s, and the book mentions characters like Sugar and the other women in the band: exuberant, confident, hard-drinking, hard-living, and sexually liberated. The movie’s fascinating gender dynamics aren’t just in the high-concept switch, but in it’s general portrayal of young women in contrast to the ’50s housewife.
Scott: Some of that seems muted now – it’s easy to watch the movie and simply see Monroe as an object being hunted, even though she does a lot of work to create a complete character. That’s something we often miss when watching stock romantic comedies. When done right, the woman being courted (tell me I wasn’t a bet!) ends up changing the man because of who she is. There’s something powerful in that. We tend to focus on the character who changes as “the hero,” but stories like this tacitly reinforce that it’s men who, by and large, need to change.
Landon: Yeah, I really appreciate that Some Like It Hot doesn’t follow some of the same beats, especially that Daphne and Josephine never really get found out (the gangsters recognize them more so via the shot-up bass and some forced dialogue). There seemed to me an implication that they could go on passing as women as long as they wanted. They both “come out” to their significant others in the last scene, and neither interprets it as a deception.
But I want to qualify my praise here a bit, because I’m not saying that Some Like It Hot is a radical film (despite our tongue-in-cheek headline), but simply has several rich, interesting aspects and moments that break convention. To your point about its unworthy status as “the best comedy ever,” these moments don’t necessarily erase the conventionality of the whole – they’re just interesting ruptures.
Scott: And I don’t want to get stuck on the Best Of aspect either. It’s too easy to get stuck on the general mistreatment of comedies. Where are The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope or Bing Crosby, a half century of funny films?
Landon: And why doesn’t Chaplin show up until the end of our list? But we’ll get to that later.
Scott: Right – and I hate that the list itself re-contextualizes this movie that I like, making me question it instead of purely praising it. There’s a great crossroads hidden inside of Some Like It Hot between Vaudeville, Situational Comedy and Social Satire. Unsurprising for a filmmaker with as deft a touch as Wilder.
I’m not sure I’d characterize what Joe and and Jerry do at the end as “coming out” any more than other characters that come clean about who they truly are, but it is curious to me that Osgood’s famous response in the boat – while played totally for the gag – is still effectively saying, “I’m cool marrying a dude.”
“Nobody’s perfect.” is a genius little line, but it also has some strange ramifications for after the credits roll, and it’s oddly sweet considering Osgood bases his desire to be with Jerry on the time they’ve spent together, not on his particular brand of genitals.
Landon: I like that list of comedy traditions the film gets into. I’d add Laurel/Hardy-style genre-blending to it.
To your latter point, it’s got to be the best last line in a Hollywood comedy – maybe that hyperbolic status is more indisputable. It not only “leaves them laughing” as a comedy rule, but ends the movie in a sweet moment that embraces the film’s edgier, more playful side as opposed to its more conventional side – a moment that only works because it’s played for laughs. It can be not taken seriously, of course, but it works so well that it can’t be dismissed.
I’m realizing now how difficult it can be to talk seriously about comedy.
Scott: People seem to romanticize suffering – to think that in order to be serious, you have to come face to face with pain. I find comedy more interesting because it can often be more revealing, and because it can often sneak under the radar to surprise us – like with Osgood here. After all of Lemmon’s protestations, we’re left unsure as to how he’s going to end his relationship with Osgood. Kind of amazing to think about it like that.
And Lemmon’s eyes! The line gets a lot of attention, but even Jerry looks like he’ll have to resign himself to marrying a man. His trump card had no effect.
Landon: That last line and the scene where Jerry is excited about being engaged to Osgood (“Im a boy! I’m a boy!”). Those are some uncanny moments where comedy is doing some real work.
Scott: Everyone who sees Some Like It Hot expects Osgood to do a double take when Jerry loses the wig. Drop jaw, big WTF eyes, and roll credits. Wacky style.
Instead, his unquestioning acceptance of who Jerry is knocks us on our ass a bit. Not to mention that Joe Brown absolutely nails the line delivery…
Landon: That made me forgive him for bursting into laughter after delivering every line during that scene on his yacht.
This is one comedy where I’ve been curious about what it would have been like to see it in 1959 – not only to experience a theater that I assume is keeled over in laughter, but to listen to the conversations after.
I want to time travel and stalk moviegoers is basically what I’m saying.
Scott: Instead of killing Hitler. Seems like a much better use of your time.
The titles you brought up at the beginning have me wondering why we’re so keen on revisiting the same concept every few decades. Like that video of Dustin Hoffman tearing up thinking about what he learned doing Tootsie. There seems to be an entire subgenre of movies where a man dresses up like a woman to figure out pretty simple, quotidian stuff.
Landon: I guess that’s a more marketable concept than a film called “Take My Word For It.”
There are also very few films about the reverse, suggesting that by being in a historically subjected position, many cisgender women already know what it means to be both a man and a woman in the world. Cisgender men, to Hoffman’s point in that revealing interview, need to leave their subject position in order to go on this journey and learn things.
But there’s a difference between movies that choose to take that journey and movies that assume no more than “Man Dressed As Woman = Funny.”
Scott: Proving that Big Momma’s House has more to teach us than all the Tyler Perry Madea movies.
Landon: Hey, nobody’s perfect.
Scott: You’ve been waiting for that one.
Next Time: Jacques Tati’s Playtime