The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
Today, Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot is generally regarded as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — comedies of all time, but upon its release it was condemned by the Catholic League of Decency for being “seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency.” It was the only film to come out in 1959 to receive this dubious distinction, with even Tennessee Williams’s ode to homosexual cannibalism and Elizabeth Taylor’s heaving bosom, Suddenly Last Summer, skating by relatively unscathed. Lobotomy and depraved sexual appetites proved less morally reprehensible than two dudes in drag. But Some Like It Hot is far more than just one long cross-dressing joke. It flies in the face of sexual mores and stereotypes while subverting gender roles, all with tongue firmly in cheek.
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Make no mistake, this comedy has some serious balls. And they’re tucked.
Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon in an Oscar-nominated performance) are two down-and-out musicians in 1929 Chicago. When they accidentally witness a St. Valentine’s Day-esque Massacre, they hop town, in stilettos no less, joining an all-female jazz band heading to Florida. Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators.
The history of cinema is filled with men cross-dressing for laughs. It’s been one of the easiest, and progressively laziest, jokes since before the advent of sound. But Wilder, Curtis and Lemmon were serious about their comedy. The studio hired famed female impersonator Barbette to teach the leading men how to walk like ladies, but Lemmon demurred. He preferred to walk like a man trying to walk like a woman.
By the end of the film, they’re sprinting in heels so clearly Tony and Jack picked up a few tips. To ensure that they could “pass” as women, Lemmon and Curtis sashayed around MGM and later invaded public ladies rooms to fix their face — also known as the Arizona state legislature’s greatest fear in life.
When they could powder their nose without incident, Lemmon and Curtis knew they were ready for their close-up.
As long as it wasn’t too close. The film was shot in black and white after color tests revealed a green tinge to their face.
Meanwhile, legendary costume designer Orry-Kelly was brought on to do the costumes for the film’s leading lady — a little actress you might’ve heard of: Marilyn Fucking Monroe as the ukelele playing, gold-digging singer in the all-girl band, Sugar Kane.
Monroe was nearing the final stages of her long spiral into tragedy and her behavior on the film has become stuff of legend. She was frequently late, routinely flubbed the simplest of lines — it took her 47 takes to get “It’s me, Sugar!” — and displayed other diva behavior that would even make Alec Baldwin say, “Hunty, please.” Still, for all her troubles, her performance is generally cited as her finest and she truly shines under Wilder’s direction.
The two had worked previously on The Seven Year Itch, though Wilder had vowed never to work with her again after that experience. But then Monroe expressed interest and began campaigning for the part, and her star power was just the “oomph” Wilder needed to get the film made.
Not wanting to be too badly upstaged by the sultry, albeit then-pregnant, Monroe, Curtis insisted that Orry-Kelly do his and Lemmon’s dresses as well. Because even when with child, Marilyn Monroe is still Marilyn Fucking Monroe.
Orry-Kelly did such a great job on the costumes for Curtis and Lemmon that Monroe decided she preferred one of Lemmon’s dresses to her own. An enraged Orry-Kelly ran screaming to Jack Lemmon, “She took your dress! The bitch has pinched your dress!”
Joe and Jerry, having made themselves over as Josephine and Geraldine, or rather, Daphne —
— slip into their roles with gusto. Jerry/Daphne seems especially game.
Off-screen, both Lemmon and Curtis had reservations about all the gender-bending. Lemmon’s friends warned him audiences would think he was “faggy” or had a “yen to be a transvestite,” but he decided to just jump, wig-first, into the role. Curtis, was a bit more hesitant and had to be literally dragged out (PUN!) by Lemmon. However, Curtis — a close friend of Rock Hudson — was no stranger to blurring the lines of sexuality, to which his famous “oysters v. snails” debate from the following year’s Spartacus attests. Even though that scene was cut from the original release (only to be restored some 30 years later) Spartacus was also condemned by the Catholic League.
As the plot progresses, lines are further blurred beyond recognition, no doubt leading to the Catholic League’s dismissal and the film’s outright ban in Kansas, which claimed the cross-dressing was “too disturbing for Kansans.” As women, Josephine and Daphne come off a bit leztastic — with veiled references to dyke haven, Vassar, as well as other lady-loving tendencies.
As for Sweet Sue, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was syncopating with some of the gals in her band.
And then there’s the kiss between Josephine and Sugar, which makes Marlene Dietrich’s lezzy lip lock in Morocco look downright neighborly.
Of course Josephine is really Joe, who goes through an elaborate ruse complete with a remarkable Cary Grant impression to lure the unsuspecting Sugar. This depth and complexity of story is what really sets Some Like It Hot apart from other men-in-drag comedies. There’s so much play with gender identity it can make your head spin, if it weren’t done so damn well.
As the pretend millionaire, Shell Oil Jr., Joe/Josephine pretends to be impotent so as to entice the naive Sugar into “curing” him for good.
While Joe is running the gamut of gender expression, Jerry/Daphne meets a handsy millionaire, the rubber-faced Osgood Fielding, III. After initially rebuffing his would-be playboy paramour’s overtures, a night of tango turns into mutual affection. So much so that Jerry doesn’t see anything wrong with Osgood’s proposal of marriage, despite Joe’s attempts to talk him out of it.
And to think this was over 40 years before Massachusetts made history as the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Even more amazing is Osgood’s reaction to Jerry’s reveal, leading to the punchline to end all punchlines:
It’s funny. Hell, it’s hilarious. But it’s also really poignant: Osgood’s love for Daphne transcends gender. A dramatic film would never be able to get away with a sentiment like that. By wrapping such progressive, nontraditional in wisecracks and sly nods, Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond were able to circumvent the Hays Code. Even while being banned in Kansas and condemned by Catholics. Six Oscar nominations (including one win for Orry-Kelly) and numerous laurels later, nobody may be perfect but Some Like It Hot comes pretty close.
Tony Curtis refers to Some Like It Hot as his “greatest contribution” to film — to the raised eyebrow of daughter, one Jamie Lee Curtis. But even JLC must concede that Some Like It Hot trumps 302 Halloween films and her striptease scene in True Lies. That being said, the remake of Freaky Friday will probably stand the test of time or at least the test of Oprah’s patience with Lindsay Lohan’s documentary series on OWN.