Some Like It Hot laughed in the face of the censorious Hays Production Code while sealing its place in the pantheon of movie greats and delivering the most memorable and hilarious closing line. Often voted the best comedy film ever made, the Billy Wilder classic celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
The 1959 farce was released without the highly moral Production Code seal of approval due to its unabashed sexual themes, which included a cross-dressing Tony Curtis. The matinee idol and his costar, a relative newcomer named Jack Lemmon, join an all-girl jazz band to escape a murderous mob in '20s Prohibition America.
Beneath the sparkling surface of the plot is a warm buddy film laced with a dose of crime caper wrapped around a romantic comedy. Writer-director Wilder met Curtis at a Hollywood party and asked him to play one of the musicians. When asked why he wanted Curtis, Wilder replied, “You’re the handsomest kid in this town. Who else am I going to use?”
He then set his sights on the decade’s most alluring sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, and the dexterous comedic skills of Jack Lemmon. With this triumvirate of comedy perfection in place the plot was set against a backdrop of a mafia mob murder, a glamorous seaside setting, and a series of identity misunderstandings that create some of the wittiest and most memorable lines in film.
The Plot Unfolds
Heroes Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), a saxophonist and a bassist, are scraping by in Chicago when they witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — or a version of that legendary event. Desperate to escape the city’s ruthless gangster, Spats Colombo (George Raft), they disguise themselves as Josephine and Daphne ("I’ve never liked the name Geraldine," explains Jerry) so that they can hide in a Florida hotel for three weeks with a female jazz orchestra, Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators.
Onboard the sleeper train, they are both attracted to the band’s voluptuous ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Monroe), who makes a sensuous, hip-wiggling walk past the men to board the carriage. Sugar tells Joe/Josephine she is hoping to seduce a millionaire in Florida.
When the band arrives at the hotel, Joe has a plan to win Sugar over by adopting yet another disguise. He steals some clothes and borrows Cary Grant’s accent to impress Sugar as the bespectacled Junior, heir to the Shell Oil fortune. When Sugar meets Junior on the beach, he doesn’t throw himself at her but plays hard to get, peeping from behind his broadsheet newspaper. He picks up a seashell when Sugar wants to know about his wealth and she leaps to the "oil magnate" conclusion. Sugar tells him that her band specializes in hot jazz, but Junior sniffs what will become the film’s printed title, “Well, I guess some like it hot. But personally, I prefer classical music.”
Meanwhile, Jerry/Daphne has been inveigled into going out with an elderly — and presumably short-sighted — tycoon, Osgood (Joe E. Brown) — and their enchanted evening ends with a delighted Jerry returning to his room to tell Joe he and Osgood are engaged. As he prances around shaking maracas, Joe protests that there are "laws, conventions" that have to be observed.
The film’s finale has Jerry whipping off his girly locks and revealing to his fiancé that he is a man. Osgood responds with the film’s perfectly timed last line, "Well, nobody’s perfect." The odd couple then sail off into the night as the credits roll, and maybe they live happily ever after!
Wilder Versus Monroe
Wilder’s original choice to play Sugar Kane was Mitzi Gaynor. After Curtis had signed on, Wilder had also considered both Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra for the second male lead.
The trials and tribulations of working with Monroe at this period of her life are well known. She had health and personal problems, with frequent no-shows on set and tardy time-keeping that irritated her costars. This was her second film working with director Wilder (the first was The Seven Year Itch) and Monroe was haunted by doubts and an inability to remember her lines.
Wilder was reputedly exasperated by Monroe as she struggled to remember her lines. One scene that called for the sex symbol to open drawers and ask, "Where’s the bourbon?" was only successfully filmed after 59 takes.
Monroe continually fluffed the lines by asking, "Where’s the bonbon?" "Where’s the whiskey?" and "Where’s the bottle?" Finally, Wilder pasted the line to the bottom of the drawer she had to open. When Monroe struggled to remember which specific drawer she had to open, Wilder pasted the same line to the bottom of each drawer.
She continually deferred to her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, in the midst of arguments with Wilder. All of this put epic strains on Wilder and the cast, especially Curtis and Lemmon, who had to be perfect on every take because Wilder would use the one where Monroe was perfect, regardless of how well they performed.
In later years, his view of Monroe softened, and he's called her "an absolute genius as a comedic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comedic dialogue."
If the men had to wear dresses, they wanted to look just as glamorous as Monroe. Lemmon and Curtis knew if they were to be convincing as women, they needed to look the part. And that meant good clothes.
“We were very cooperative,” Lemmon recalled about being put in makeup and high heels, “But we did put our feet down when we wanted better dresses. They wanted us to select off-the-rack stuff from the costume department. We said we wanted dresses done by Orry-Kelly, who was doing Monroe’s costumes.”
With the clothes sorted each actor had to give their female alter ego a personality. Lemmon took the lead and created a high-pitched, ditzy, good-time girl. Curtis laughingly described the look as being "like a 20-cent tart."
But the matinee idol was wise enough to know the film couldn’t handle two characters quite so bubbly. Curtis took the opposite approach to womanhood as he revealed in interviews, “I had to be a lady, very grand, like my mother or Grace Kelly. I held my head up straight and high, and never went for those low-down jokes.”
He also had to create a third persona and decided a homage to his hero Cary Grant was perfect. When Grant saw the performance he asked Curtis, “I don’t talk like that, do I?”
Jack Lemmon embraced his female side with great comedic gusto. He was a favorite of director Billy Wilder, starring in films like The Apartment, Irma la Douce, The Fortune Cookie, and The Front Page. Wilder felt he had a natural tendency toward overacting that had to be tempered. In Wilder’s biography, Nobody’s Perfect, the director says of Lemmon, "I would describe him as a ham, a fine ham, and with ham you have to trim a little fat."
More than just a pretty face, Tony Curtis was once the darling of the fan magazines — but Curtis’ love affair with Hollywood didn’t last. In the '50s and early '60s, Curtis and Janet Leigh were Hollywood royalty. Their circle of friends included everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Kennedys, and every detail of their domestic bliss was avidly followed by readers of fan magazines.
But just over a decade later, a disillusioned Curtis described Hollywood as "the cruelest, most heartless town I’ve ever lived in." By then, his marriage to Leigh was over, and he was reduced to making fourth-rate films, such as Sextette, with an aging Mae West.
He had come a long way from the eager young actor by the name of Bernie Schwartz, who had flown from his native New York to sign a contract with Universal Studios. As he wrote later, "All my life I had one dream, and that was to be in the movies."
Born on June 3, 1925 to poor Hungarian Jewish parents, Bernie escaped from an unhappy childhood by joining the navy at 16. After his discharge, he took advantage of the GI Bill to study drama, and it wasn’t long before a talent scout spotted him and arranged a screen test.
Keen to exploit his pin-up potential, the studio promoted him as a teen idol, even offering "a weekend with Tony Curtis" as the prize in a competition. Always a ladies’ man, Curtis adored the female adulation that went with being "the baron of beefcake," and he was happy to accept small parts in any film that was offered to him.
He worked hard at his craft and it wasn’t long before the roles grew bigger. After he appeared in several films with budding young starlet Piper Laurie, Universal was keen to make them a couple in real life, but Curtis turned down the studio’s offer of $30,000 to marry her and wed Leigh instead.
Not content with being just a heartthrob, Curtis was ambitious to be taken seriously as an actor. But it wasn’t until he played Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) that the critics acknowledged he was more than just a pretty face. Playing opposite Burt Lancaster, Curtis gave a chilling edge to the character of the press agent prepared to go to any lengths to further his career.
The following year Curtis gave another powerful performance as an escaped prisoner in The Defiant Ones, in which he starred with Sidney Poitier. And he flouted the film industry’s unspoken racial prejudice by insisting that the relatively unknown black actor should share top billing.
Having proved he could carry off the heavy roles, Curtis went on to show that he had as sure a touch with comedy as his longtime screen hero, Cary Grant. The two starred together in Operation Petticoat (1959) which Curtis described as "the easiest film I ever made."
The same could not be said of Some Like It Hot, which was bedeviled by the trying behavior of Monroe. After Lemmon and Curtis arrived early each day to get dressed in their uncomfortable women’s costumes, they were forced to hang around for hours waiting for their costar to arrive on set. When she did, the crew had to do so many takes before she got her lines right, director Billy Wilder was driven to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Curtis’s most challenging role was that of Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler. He prepared by reading everything he could about the killer, as well as visiting the scenes of his crimes. The resulting performance was the finest of his career, and nobody could understand why he didn’t receive an Oscar for it. Although, Frank Sinatra had his own theory. He said, “They were never going to nominate him for an Academy Award because he dumped Janet Leigh who everybody loves. Hollywood is unforgiving.”
Whether or not this was the real reason for his lack of recognition, the snub rankled. Curtis continued to make films but his love affair with Hollywood was over. Like many other stars of that era, he turned to television and in the '70s found success starring in The Persuaders! with Roger Moore. He bought a house in London and was a popular guest on British chat shows. As his acting work diminished, the former star focused on his love of art. His last years, before he died in 2010, were spent painting at his home near Las Vegas, which he shared with his sixth wife, Jill.
Did you know: Curtis was buried with his favorite possessions: a Stetson hat, an Armani scarf, driving gloves, an iPhone, and the novel Anthony Adverse ($25.95, Amazon) — the book that inspired his name. Curtis came to regret his oft-quoted throwaway line that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler. The couple had history long before they met on the set of Some Like It Hot, as they’d dated when they were both young actors.
In his autobiography, Curtis recalled his first sight of the shapely starlet with her red hair tied back. He was smitten, and they even talked about getting married. But their careers came first and they drifted apart. Years later, when they found themselves shooting a steamy love scene on board the millionaire Osgood’s yacht, Monroe made it clear she hadn’t forgotten their affair. Sugar Kane’s passionate kisses were the real thing!
From Sunset Boulevard to Some Like It Hot, we look back at Billy Wilder’s incredible cinematic legacy.
"Nobody’s perfect.” A closing line that’s impossible to forget. Understated, cleanly delivered, and downright ridiculous. Like so many of Billy Wilder’s films, Some Like It Hot blends comedy, drama, and a hint of indefinable quirkiness that has ensured a lasting legacy not many directors have achieved.
Wilder wasn’t actually as prolific as you might imagine (which just goes to show how many of his projects were solid gold hits), making 25 films over a 40-year career. His back catalogue is a "who’s who" of '50s movie stars, as he coaxed dazzling performances out of Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Bogey, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, and of course, the wonderfully rubber-faced Jack Lemmon. His skill was working across different genres, as both a co-writer and director, as happy to turn his hand to a mistaken identity comedy as suspenseful mysteries.
Born in Sucha, Austria, in 1906, Wilder mostly grew up in Vienna. He settled in Berlin early in his career as a journalist and screenwriter. However, Hitler’s rise to power meant that in 1933 he decided to start over — first in Paris, and ultimately in Hollywood.
Despite not being fluent in English, he worked as a screenwriter with writing partner Charles Brackett on romantic comedies including Midnight and Ninotchka throughout the late '30s and early '40s. The pair had two screenplays nominated for Oscars, but Wilder found the process of writing frustrating, as he longed for more creative control. He later joked he became a director to stop other people butchering his scripts.
At that time, very few screenwriters made the transition to director, but Wilder managed it with the comedy film The Major and the Minor, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland (although he had hoped for Cary Grant). It went well, and after honing his craft in Five Graves to Cairo, he went on to co-write Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler, which was a resounding success and scored him several Oscar nominations. It’s strange that a director best remembered for his comedies actually cut his teeth on well-regarded film noirs and thrillers.
It was a surprise to everyone when he made the musical The Emperor Waltz — a joyful technicolor romp starring Bing Crosby. And this element of surprise would become a calling card of his career, whether he was making a comedy about cross-dressing, a courtroom drama packed with twists, or a man’s temptation when faced with Marilyn’s legs over an air vent — it was hard to predict what you were buying a ticket for when you chose a Wilder film — and audiences loved it.
What makes a Wilder film?
Wilder once said, “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant, and a bastard.” And it seems that he must have been a master of all five, because there’s something distinctive about a Wilder film no matter the genre.
For one thing, his characters often seem ready to flee — to take on new identities, to lie, even to cross-dress — which, it has been suggested, is a reflection of Wilder’s own experience escaping from Austria and starting over in Hollywood. And while he’s known for making people laugh, there’s a certain darkness underlying even his goofiest films — the bullet holes in a double bass case; the ghost in the ballroom; the fuzzy end of the lollipop. This could well be the result of several personal heartaches Wilder experienced throughout his Hollywood years.
His first wife Judith Cappicus had twins (Victoria and Vincent) in 1939, but tragically, Vincent died just weeks later. The couple divorced in 1946 after a decade of marriage. Once the war had ended, Wilder returned to Europe in search of his mother, stepfather, and grandmother, only to discover they had been killed in the Holocaust.
For all the shifts in genre, there’s one key indicator of a Wilder film — his innate understanding of human behavior. His characters are so well fleshed out so that we can understand the motivations of conmen, crooks, and even killers, and, for humor or an uncomfortable shudder, recognize elements of ourselves in them.
Nobody’s perfect, perhaps. But in his career, Wilder came pretty darn close.
Billy’s Best Collaborations
One of his skills was understanding the value of collaboration. There were particular actors who he cast and re-cast, and he also had outstanding partnerships in terms of writing.
His most famous collaboration was of course with Jack Lemmon, who he first worked with on Some Like It Hot before going on to direct him in six other films.
Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond (known as Iz) had a long-standing creative partnership, and the pair co-wrote the screenplay for Some Like It Hot in just four days, in part due to their close friendship. “Never a harsh word, 25 years of working together,” Wilder commented.
Actress Audrey Young was his second wife. They married in 1949 and remained together until his death in 2002. She often worked alongside her husband as a costume consultant for hits including Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.
He directed Marilyn twice, in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, teasing out some of her most memorable performances. However, it was a painful process. After the second film wrapped he said: “I’ve discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again”
Top Five Billy Wilder Films
Some Like It Hot, 1959 — This film should be at the top of any best-loved lists thanks to its blend of charming comedy and gorgeous stars.
Sunset Boulevard, 1950 — Another belter, this film was a smart look at the cruel world of Hollywood.
The Apartment, 1960 — We all fell (yet again) for Jack Lemmon’s comic timing in this comedy-drama co-starring Shirley MacLaine.
Double Indemnity, 1944 — This collaboration with Raymond Chandler was said to have shortened the author’s life, but it’s a wonderful film noir with great dialogue.
The Lost Weekend, 1945 — Wilder won his first Oscar for directing this tale of murder and adultery.
Did you know: Marlene Dietrich only accepted her role in Witness For the Prosecution on the condition that Wilder would direct it.
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