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Some Like It Dead: What WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S Owes to Billy Wilder

Some Like It Dead: What WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S Owes to Billy Wilder

Procrastination
can bring you to surprising places. Recently, I made the decision to leave
a stack of papers ungraded and watch Weekend
at Bernie’s
, because . . . why not. I’d already gone through a string of Iron Chef repeats, some Ninja Warrior, and the back half of the
astounding, horrendous We Bought a Zoo.
Bernie’s, I thought, was the natural
next step—a movie notorious for its badness, something that would remind me I had
far more important things to do. But what I saw as I watched Bernie’s blindsided me—the kindred soul of a much older, much
more respected film.


What I
saw in Bernie’s was Some Like It Hot.

I hadn’t seen Weekend at Bernie’s since its release in 1989. I was eleven then,
and in the decades since, I’d managed to retain nothing about the movie beyond
its crass, high concept: Richard and Larry, two broke, young accountants for a
Manhattan insurance firm (played by Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy),
find evidence of millions of dollars in corporate theft. But their high-rolling
boss, Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser), is the actual thief; in the guise of a
congratulatory gesture, he invites Richard and Larry for a weekend at his
Hamptons home, then arranges for a mafia hit man to meet them there first. But

But the mafia don pulls a switcheroo, Lomax gets whacked instead,  and when Richard and Larry arrive to find his
body slumped in a chair, they do what any movie worth its weight in farce
would: they use Lomax’s corpse as an all-access pass to infiltrate a world far
beyond their means. Perhaps because in 1989, we weren’t ready for a buddy
comedy built entirely around necro-play, Bernie’s
opened poorly at the box office. It was panned by critics.

Yet, somewhat like the body at the core
of the film, Bernie’s has somehow
stayed alive in our cultural memory. As with the Police Academy films, Summer
School
, or Just One of the Guys, Bernie’s has become a kind of
apologetic, cultural shorthand for a time when our tastes veered toward the
horribly inexplicable. But people seem drawn back to Bernie’s more than any
other schlocky comedy of that era, especially in recent years. In 2011 a
Colorado news team cited Bernie’s to
describe a
real
crime
in which two Denver guys found their buddy dead, then “
took his body — and his credit card — out for a night
of diners, bar hopping, burritos and a strip club.” There are two
Facebook campaigns and an online petition to jumpstart another sequel (Bernie’s 2 hit theaters in 1992), and
at
least one t-shirt
dedicated to the same cause (as of this writing, a
total of 948 people have “liked” this idea). Just weeks ago Bill Maher
lit
into the ancient members of Congress
by calling it a “Weekend at Bernie’s government.”

Something about Bernie’s sticks with us. But what?


For twenty-four years, I thought
it was its ironic value, and when it came on that night I expected to be
transported to a time when I was far too young to understand what “good” comedy
was. But it was too late. Perhaps I’d taken too many “film as literature”
classes in undergrad, or streamed my way through too much of the Criterion
collection, but now all I saw when I looked at Bernie’s were the sensibilities, timing, and even shot makeup of
Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic.

For one, Bernie’s pickpockets the Some
Like It Hot
’s plot, wholesale: unlucky,
prohibition-era musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), witness
a New York mob hit, then hide out by posing as women in an all-girl
band—fronted by Marilyn Monroe—at a Florida resort stuffed with millionaires,
and when one falls for Jerry’s lady version, “Daphne,” things get interesting.
Down-and-out
buddy trope? Check. Mafia-related danger? Check. Taboo as a dramatic hook?
Absolutely. But reputation-wise, Some
Like It Hot
bests Bernie’s on all
fronts. Currently atop AFI’s list of greatest American comedies, any mention of
the film conjures Wilder’s golden catalogue (Sunset Boulevard, Double
Indemnity
, The Apartment, etc.)
and talk of its
revolutionary
take on gender roles
. It’s been called the “Great American Comedy,”
while the most Bernie’s
could muster was a “heavy-handed spoof of social life in the Hamptons” that’s
“as sophisticated as a ‘National Lampoon’ romp.” But reviewers of Bernie’s seemed too hung up on the dead
guy, writing it off as a retread of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry or Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. What critics missed was how well Bernie’s harmonizes with Some
Like It Hot
in tone, sensibility, and in the interesting (and maybe even
sophisticated) things it has to say about privilege, wealth, and what it means
to move within those worlds without possessing either.

From the
early club scenes to Joe and Jerry’s arrival at the resort, Wilder layers the
world of Some Like It Hot with dark excess:
rum-running in hearses, police raids, Vassar girls on the hunt for sugar
daddies (Monroe’s character is actually
named Sugar Kane), and Wilder puts his heroes on the outside looking in, where
they become their most dangerous. Bernie’s
director Ted Kotcheff (of Fun With Dick
& Jane
and, oddly enough, First
Blood
fame) updates that world to the boom-time eighties with just as much
ingenuity. Bernie’s opens with a
montage of sweltering Manhattan—soundtracked with an eighties-tastic Jermaine
Stewart cut, the chorus of which repeats “
some like it
hot
”— as stodgy Richard and proto-slacker Larry schlep to the office
on a Saturday to number-crunch for Lomax, a stand-in for the sharks and
soulless moneymakers of the Reagan/Bush I era. While both films traffic in
deception, in Bernie’s it begins way
before Lomax is killed, and the deception here is less for the sake of survival
than for that of social preservation. In an early scene, Richard’s first date
with the new company intern, Gwen, goes south once she realizes Richard’s been
lying all night about being the heir to a fortune. When the two meet again that
weekend, in the Hamptons, Richard launches a quest to convince Gwen he’s
trustworthy enough to sleep with—all while passing off a dead guy as alive.

And it’s once both
films reach their moneyed destinations that Kotcheff works his hardest to keep
up with Wilder’s tone and aesthetic, from the pacing to the look. From getaways
to seduction scenes, boats and waterways play huge roles in each film, and
Kotcheff, along with his cinematographer, François Protat, frame Larry’s and
Richard’s Hampton arrival shots to match the way we see Joe and Jerry arrive as
“Josephine” and “Daphne” in Florida: docks, expansive skies, sand leading to
mansions. And both films waste zero time establishing the natives of these
lands as, at best, absolute idiots. Within seconds of Joe and Jerry’s arrival
in Florida, Some Like It Hot gives us a meet-cute between Lemmon’s
Daphne and rich bachelor Osgood Fielding III that results in an improbable
(and, it must be said, date-rape-ish) bout of elevator grab-ass. In Bernie’s
we get it moments after Richard and Larry grasp their predicament, when the
house is invaded by the now-dead Lomax’s hangers-on, all zombified versions of
rich archetypes and clichés far too self-involved to realize they’re
humble-bragging to a corpse. “He’s dead,” Richard says to a half-in-the-bag
partygoer. “That’s the idea, isn’t it?” he replies.

Wilder seems more
interested, as his film goes on, in making Monroe the butt of his film’s jokes,
particularly the plotline in which Joe/Josephine tricks Monroe’s Sugar into
sleeping with him by disguising himself, yet again, this time as the heir to
the Shell oil fortune. But in Bernie’s, the wealthy remain Kotcheff’s
mark, even as the joke goes increasingly stale. Every scene with Lomax in
public is an indictment of him and his kind, as when his body is met on the
beach with big hellos from oblivious Hamptonites, or when, in the film’s most
bizarrely sterile scene, Lomax actually gets laid. Even Gwen, ever burned by
Richard’s cover-ups and lies, refuses to acknowledge Lomax is dead until an
exasperated Larry drags his corpse to her feet.

Both films make a
case that to move in wealthy circles is to engage in a certain kind of
self-deception, but each film is only as rich as its choice of taboo, and it’s
here that Kotcheff’s effort gets a bit exposed. Wilder’s
taboo—homosexuality—allowed him to crack open what could have been a
boilerplate crime caper, then push it into thrilling territory that muddles the
way we think about love, money, redemption, and self, leading to one of the
most memorable endings in American film history. And Bernie’s? Bernie’s
has a dead guy at its heart, which presents about as much opportunity for
narrative growth as you’d imagine. The hardest part of re-watching the movie
after so long, after noticing its potential, was how it devolved in its final
act into easy dead-guy jokes. Dead guy falls off a boat. Dead guy as a life
raft. Dead guy as deus ex machina.
I could almost feel Kotcheff realizing
the limits of his ambition for Bernie’s, then, like his protagonists,
deciding to get the most he can out of the conceit and exit the movie as cleanly as
possible.

But maybe the most
important quality of Bernie’s—and why it’s stuck with us so long—is its
inhabiting of the spirit of Some Like It Hot, which presented a
controversial but universal concept to an audience in a digestible,
non-threatening way.
Some Like It Hot was revolutionary because it
was a movie about coming out that skirted all the murky—and in that era,
legal–complications. Bernie’s performs a similar trick, only with
something as bleak as death, which might be the key to why we still carry
affection for it. Weekend at Bernie’s was
released three years after children my age had huddled excitedly around a TV,
only to see the Space Shuttle Challenger explode, violently, in midair. It came
out two years after news channels broadcast footage of a press conference in
which Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer removed a revolver from a manila
envelope and shot himself through the mouth. It’s not hard to see how that
generation might harbor a soft spot for a movie that starred a corpse, yet
wasn’t about death at all. Instead, Weekend at Bernie’s becomes about
two young people who confront death and, for at least a weekend, find new,
crude ways in which to defy it—which, when you think about it, isn’t the
worst possibility to find yourself revisiting now and then.

Mike Scalise’s essays and
articles have appeared or are forthcoming in
Agni, The Paris Review, PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

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