I know that the field of comedy has always been dominated by men. It’s no surprise that when humorous films are ranked, those most amusing to men lead the pack. But I still find it disturbing that the film the AFI considers the funniest of all time is one that gives me just a few laughs in its two hours of running time.
I’m willing to admit that I might be missing something in Some Like It Hot; after all, many women whose judgment I respect are fans of it, and I am an enthusiastic viewer of most of Billy Wilder’s work. But for what it’s worth, I’d like to vent a bit about why (for mainly gender-related reasons) I find this film that sounds so promising—two male musicians acting like women in order to travel with an all-female band—so annoying.
Daphne/Jerry (Jack Lemmon’s character): By Turns Annoying & Creepy
The script doesn’t help, but Lemmon is largely to blame for a very unfunny portrayal of a man turned on by his fellow female band members. His suggestive comments range from grating to disturbing, and his hyena laugh is Jim Carrey-annoying.
Take this scene: Jerry is in bed in his cross-dressing gear (i.e., as Daphne), when Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) visits his train berth to thank him for a favor.
After the two get some drinks, Jerry says, “This may even turn out to be a surprise party.”
“What’s a surprise?” she answers.
“Better have a drink first.”
“That’ll put hair on your chest.”
“No fair guessing.”
He then protests other women crashing his party, as it’ll ruin his surprise. I tried not to examine the logic of this scene too closely, but unfortunately, Lemmon’s delivery added to my initial reaction. Does this face look like seduction to you?
If there were any hint of self-deprecation here, any understatement, the scene might have played as lighthearted, with a hint of, I don’t know, possible participation from Monroe. But with Lemmon’s high-pitched, broad delivery and leer, I felt uncomfortable, not amused. Look, this isn’t It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in which the humor is based on the immorality of its leads. We’re supposed to empathize with this man, not wish to warn Sugar Kane there’s a pervert on the loose.
Once Lemmon is being courted by a man and his energy dissipates into snarly comments and stiff movements, he’s quite amusing. I particularly enjoyed when he starts to really get into his gender ambiguity as he dances.
Joe/Josephine (Tony Curtis) a Bore—Until He Becomes a Pseudo-Millionaire
I’m not a fan of Tony Curtis’s. With the exception of Sweet Smell of Success, I tend to dislike his films, finding him too smugly pleased with himself, too much the “Matthew McConaughey of his generation,” as my sister puts it. While his low-key portrayal in Some Like It Hot is a welcome break from Lemmon’s energy, he takes his lethargy too far. It seems watching Lemmon’s hypercaffeinated performance caused Curtis to nap his way through the script.
But once Curtis (as Joe) ditches the dress and takes on a different costume, he is quite amusing. He has dressed himself in what he deems sophisticated clothing, complete with a cap and metal buttons. He wants to convince Sugar he’s from old money.
When he speaks, it’s with Cary Grant’s accent. I like the layers of jokes here, even if they’re anachronistic given the movie’s 1929 timeline: Joe is so unfamiliar with well-born men that he mimics a movie star’s imitation of one. (Admittedly, this wasn’t a bad choice: Grant was so convincing in his own portrayal of a blue blood that he probably convinced 90 percent of us.)
As the Shell millionaire he’s aping, Joe can be quite funny. I like when he mistakes a stuffed swordfish for a member of the “herring family.” Curtis is far more animated in these scenes, and the script so much stronger than in the rest of the movie. Joe’s description of his love’s death is funny, and his details about his family’s attempts at a cure for his heartache—a French maid, a troupe of Balinese dancers—are hilarious.
Male Fantasy Scenes Played as Realistic
I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling with a bunch of female friends, I tend to relax in lingerie like this:
If this kind of scenario is played as fantasy, I find it funny. But when I’m supposed to take it as a given, with the humor to be found elsewhere, I’m so busy rolling my eyes that I miss the action. Look, I understand that Hollywood wants to show some skin, especially in a film featuring Marilyn Monroe. And I’ll admit I’m jaded from one too many sorority house/girls’ locker room scenes of a similar nature. Admittedly, I have seen much worse in other movies; at least all of the women in the band aren’t dressed like this (just the most attractive ones, as they always eschew comfort for sexiness, right?)
If they’re played as campy, how funny scenes like these can be! But if they aren’t, I tend to look up the screenwriters and confirm my suspicion—yep, written by men, probably ones who’ve spent too much time on adult-only channels/sites. Am I the only one who thinks humor works best when it’s based on actual human behavior, not teen boys’ daydreams?
Missed Opportunities in the Script
Cross dressing is almost always funny in film, and Curtis and Lemmon are so unattractive as women, and so obviously male, that it makes the gullibility of those around them funny in itself. Initially, their disgust at the casual chauvinism of the other hotel guests is entertaining too, as when Daphne gets pinched and Josephine is propositioned by the bellboy. Pity that there’s no accompanying recognition of their own chauvinism, as without it, we’re left mainly with tired gags about breasts, high heels, etc. While occasionally both of the men (and the script) give a fun twist to their adoption of female clothing and mannerisms, in most scenes, I didn’t see anything new.
Of course, I know that this territory is much better canvassed today than in 1959, when it would have been far more scandalous. Still, the stars’ parents would have found the film tame; it’s impossible to be shocked by men in tights and Marilyn’s walk when earlier (pre-Code) movies portrayed women sleeping to the top and cheating on their husbands to get even—without judgment. Let’s not forget that Mae West had drag queens in her 1927 play, and planned to feature them in her next before the censors stepped in.
I know there are times when repetition of references, as we often see in Some Like It Hot, is funny. I still laugh every time I hear the name Mr. Bigglesworth. But those references only continue to be amusing if they were particularly funny—and ideally fresh—to begin with. I was disappointed to find that a writer/director who in an earlier film (with Charles Brackett) defined craziness as giving an engagement gift of a “roller skate…covered with Thousand Island dressing” would (with I.A.L. Diamond) resort to lines as flat as these: “I’ve got a funny sensation in my toes, like someone was barbequing them over a slow flame.”/ “Let’s throw another log on the fire.”
One Reason to Watch: Sugar Kane
Monroe is mesmerizing as Sugar Kane. She is, of course, unbelievably attractive in the movie.
And she manages to turn what could have been a brainless blonde stereotype into something believable, even touching. I particularly enjoyed her effort to convince Joe-as-Shell-millionaire that she has a sophisticated background. While he comes across as conniving and silly in his con, her performance is moving and honest and funny in spite of her lies. While she fabricates a Bryn Mawr education, she conceals nothing else, and her openness makes her deceptions so obvious they might as well not be deceptions at all.
It might seem that I hated this movie. I didn’t. In fact, I enjoyed the first 25 minutes or so, after which I just kept hoping it would improve in the interludes between Monroe’s perfect delivery of her lines. But the film’s undeserved reputation infuriates me. I can’t help wondering if I were a woman new to classic comedies and started with this one, would I have kept watching?
This post is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, where we set the consensus on its head by defending a maligned film, performer or director or toppling a beloved one! Check out the other entries.