#2 — Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Some Like It Hot, a film routinely cited as one of the greatest straight comedies Hollywood ever produced, begins with an act of mass murder. And it’s not some gently softened version of rampant violence either, shifted into a safe, farcical mode. The depiction of the famed St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is tame by today’s standards, but it’s right in line with any given urban drama of the time. It’s a little detail of the film’s construction of which I remain forever fond. It’s not simply because of the enlivening incongruity of the scene, the splendid friction of an incident at odds with the action it provokes (the entirety of the plot is set into motion when a pair of musicians, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, accidentally witness the crime). Instead, the distance between the grim tommy gun mayhem and the zippy comedic machinations that follow exemplifies the breadth of Billy Wilder as a filmmaker. Here was someone who could unspool the deftest of comedies and the gloomiest of dramas with equal skill and creativity ferocity, touching on every last variation between the two, seemingly without an ounce of uncertainty. Wilder may not have been as bold or as intensely innovative as other directors. But his ability to absolutely master wildly divergent films makes him one of the finest creators to ever cash a major studio paycheck.
Forced to evade the attention of gangsters bent on erasing any witnesses to their murderous act, the musicians don dresses to masquerade with a traveling all-girl band. Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) become Josephine and Daphne, respectively. Guys in drag was already one of the hoariest gags by the time Some Like It Hot hit movie screens. Milton Berle had already worn out the gimmick in his once wildly-popular television program, for example. And yet Wilder and his most dependable screenwriting collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, take what could and arguably should be a one-joke premise and build a stellar comic adventure out of it, defined by its inspired digressions. While both Joe and Jerry are immediately enamored with sexpot singer Sugar Kane and ukelele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe, in what may very be her defining role), it’s Joe who actively pursues her, engaging in yet another act of identity subterfuge at the Miami resort where the band has a gig. He poses as wealthy playboy who goes by the name of Junior, Curtis expertly aping the voice and mannerisms of Cary Grant as the apex of a robust masculine charm. Simultaneously, Jerry, as Daphne, is wooed by a genuine tycoon, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who engages in this romantic pursuit with the nonchalance of a man used to getting his way, who’s acquired previous wives like other magnates collect cars or properties. Fraught with potential narrative pitfalls, each of these story threads is abundant with charm, with, and sly truths. Either could actually be a little creepy, especially with fifty years of social progress between then and now. Instead, Wilder’s practically unparalleled sense of tonal balance keeps it light and winning.
While Some Like It Hot doesn’t possess the sort of stealth progressivism that elevated Tootsie a couple decades later, it’s remarkable how little of it feels dated by outmoded ideas. There’s very little of it — maybe none of it — that can viewed as transphobic or otherwise hostile to the sort of recalibration of exterior identity that is increasingly letting individuals represent their true inner selves in a way that would have been widely denigrating just a few years ago. Arguably, the rightfully revered final punchline, originally intended as a placeholder until Wilder and Diamond came up with something they felt better, is as forceful of a statement of acceptance as anything cooked up in activist meetings in the decades that followed. I don’t think this quality of the film betrays a hidden agenda on the part of Wilder. Tellingly, it is more a reflection of the common quality in all his best work: a resolute conviction in embracing the humanity of his characters, of being true to them. Some Like It Hot is unmistakably a comedy. It’s unimaginable to call it anything but. That doesn’t mean Wilder views the fictional people who populate it as subservient to whatever joke is propelled into the film like a pinball out of the chute. The story still belongs to them, and they merit respect, even when they lapse towards the buffoonish. Wilder clearly believes in them. Of course he wants the audience to do the same. Happily, he has the skill to insure that happens.