Billy Wilder, who co-wrote and directed Some Like It Hot, had an exceptionally long career in the film industry, starting in 1920s Germany and extending in Hollywood from the 1930s to the early 1980s. He acted and produced, but it was as writer and director that he made a lasting contribution to the heritage of movies.
Wilder was not only enormously skilled at his trades, but he brought intelligence and wit to his product and he never pandered to his audience, perhaps Hollywood’s saddest strategic and aesthetic error of recent years. As writer-director, Wilder could be courageous in dealing with a controversial subject like alcoholism (The Lost Weekend, 1945), but over a wide range of subject matter he amassed a record of quality entertainment as have few others in the industry: Ninotchka, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, One, Two, Three – and, of course, Some Like It Hot.
From the very first scene in Some Like It Hot, a car chase with cops leaning out of the side of their vehicle shooting at gangsters, Wilder establishes a grand tone of farce – and makes reference to the film history which he knew first hand. The scene, of course, is a direct allusion to the work of Mack Sennett.
Efficiently building a complicated plot line, Wilder quickly cuts to the core joke which sustains the movie: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, two out-of-work musicians, get into drag in order to land jobs with an all girls band and avoid the gangsters who are after them. Comedy based on drag is as old as the Greeks and has a strong tradition, including Charlie’s Aunt on the stage and the more recent Tootsie on the screen.
Drag humor is complex and its ironies can be played in a variety of ways, but here it is straightforward and relatively uncomplicated – men’s legs wobbling in high heeled shoes, the sexual energy of Curtis in drag sharing an upper Pullman berth with Marilyn Monroe, Lemmon dancing a wickedly funny tango with Joe E. Brown. All three leads seem today to be impossibly young. All three were also superbly cast for their comic powers. Monroe was never more beautiful, more sexy, or funnier. This film alone would guarantee her place in the Hollywood pantheon; the role suited her as snugly as did her revealing gowns. And, surely, her exaggerated feminine voluptuousness is the perfect foil for the men in dresses.
The supporting roles are peppered with great names of Hollywood and the result of such high powered casting, combined with the great skill of the writing, is that each minor character adds to the fun – George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Nehemiah Persoff. Maybe what Wilder saved by shooting the Florida scenes in San Diego allowed the budget to bring this cast together – a fine artistic decision, as well as a sound business one.
Some Like It Hot did not win an Academy Award. It went that year to Ben Hur, the sort of expensive, self-important epic that Hollywood likes to reward. Watch both pictures today and Ben Hur seems dated and stiff; Some Like It Hot is still terrific entertainment. True to its frequently delayed reactions, the Academy did recognize Wilder the very next year for The Apartment.