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Movie Review: Some Like it Hot (1959)

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“Well, nobody’s perfect.”

If you’ve seen this film, you will instantly recognize the line I’m quoting. It’s one of the most famous lines in cinema history, next to “May the Force be with you” and “You had me at ‘hello’.” If you don’t know this film, I won’t spoil the joke, but you should stop reading this review now. You need to see this movie. In 2000, “Some Like It Hot” was rated by the American Film Institute as being the funniest American comedy of all time. It doesn’t disappoint.

The first scene offers an unusual spectacle: a full squadron of police cars, sirens wailing, in hot pursuit of a hearse. We soon realize that Some Like It Hot is set in Prohibition-era Chicago, and that the local gangs have been using funeral homes as cover for loud and raucous night-clubs. The film quickly introduces us to the main characters, Joe and Jerry, two musicians who lose their jobs, lose their money, and nearly lose their lives in rapid succession. After inadvertently witnessing the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the two musicians are forced to flee the city and cover their tracks. Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-girl’s band en route to a Florida resort. This is where the comedy kicks it up a few notches.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to do justice to the plot in such a brief review: certainly it’s not possible to do justice to the humor. Both of the leading men, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, give stunning performances as the cross-dressing musicians, while Marilyn Monroe (as the band’s ukulele player and vocalist “Sugar Kane”) is just stunning, period. The film features a few musical interludes with her that, as stand-alone pieces, are fairly breathtaking. Roger Ebert described her performance of “I Wanna Be Loved by You” as “a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous.” That seems accurate.

Certainly Curtis deserves ample credit as well. Not only does he pull off the demanding double-role as “Joe” and “Josephine,” but he even assumes a third persona to woo Monroe’s “Sugar.” As “Junior,” heir to the Shell Oil empire, Curtis turns in a brilliant (and improvised) impression of the suave-yet-distant Cary Grant. In one scene, “Junior” pretends to be sexually frigid, to subtly inspire the hapless Sugar to kiss him more passionately. The scene is rightly famous, both for its own right and for a behind-the-scenes quote by Curtis, who said that kissing Monroe was like kissing Hitler. Ebert has a delightful rejoinder: “You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.”

Truly, though it is Lemmon’s performance as Jerry/Daphne that is the highlight of the film. His scene with Monroe in the train compartment is exquisitely hilarious, while his scenes with Joe E. Brown (as the amorous septuagenarian millionaire Osgood Fielding III) are comic gold. The tango probably gets the most attention — attention it definitely deserves — but in my opinion Lemmon’s best scene is the one immediately after it. The morning after “her” date with Osgood, Jerry is lying in bed, still dressed in drag, playing with castanets in almost manic desperation. I am unable to watch that scene without laughing.

Some Like It Hot is a gangster film, a romance, and a screwball comedy wrapped up in one. The screenplay drips with wit, pathos, and even suspense. Nobody’s perfect, but this film just might be.

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