God Bless America, Marilyn Monroe, and Some Like It Hot

07/01/2011 3:41 PM |

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Tonight, BAM begins a two-plus-week, 14-film Marilyn Monroe retrospective, simply titled “Marilyn!“. (Do read The L’s Dan Callahan’s deep consideration of Norma Jean at AltScreen.) Some Like It Hot, one of America’s all-time best justifications for its continued existence, plays Sunday, July 3, and Monday, July 4.

If the aliens who inherit Earth ever need proof that Marilyn Monroe was magic, all they’ll need to do is watch Some Like It Hot.

True, the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond script has flashes of brilliance, starting with the line that ends it all. And true, the rubber-faced Joe E. Brown, who delivers that last line as calmly as a Windsor asking for tea, is just one of several great character actors whose expressive mugs and body language animate this late-50s farce in the sophisticated style of Hollywood’s pre-War Golden Age. Jack Lemmon is also very funny as a newly minted female impersonator, strutting his dubious stuff with a relish that feels fresh more than half a century later. And under the broad comedy that director Wilder keeps flapping at us, like a red flag at a bull, is the cold shiv of social satire that gave his best work its bite, this time aimed at the sexual and gender stereotypes that imprisoned Americans in the Eisenhower age.

But, as Lemmon himself has said, Some Like It Hot was “really just a five-minute burlesque sketch stretched to two hours.” The first few minutes are sheer farce, all jut-jawed gangsters and leering innuendo (Wot, guys dressed as dolls? Yer killin’ me!). Then Monroe makes her famous entrance, sashaying down the platform “like Jell-o on springs,” as Lemmon’s Jerry marvels. The waiting train toots steam at her tightly wrapped pear of an ass, she scoots out of the way with a hop and a backward glance, and we’re hooked.

Monroe plays Sugar Kane, a wounded bird of a singer and ukulele player who fronts an all-girl band. Jerry and his hound dog of a running mate Joe (Tony Curtis) have joined the band to shake off the gangsters who are pursuing them because they had the bad luck to witness a mob hit. Joe and Jerry, an early version of the odd couple Lemmon later played with Matthau, are fretting and sniping at one another when they get to the station, but the moment they spot Sugar, all else is forgotten. Their luck has changed—and so has the movie’s center of gravity.

Monroe’s exaggerated, Betty Boop sensuality finds perhaps its most comfortable home in this comedy of sexual manners. So does her crack comic timing. (“I don’t want you to think I’m a drinker. I can stop any time I want to,” she says, before the briefest of pauses and the whispery kicker: “Only I don’t want to.”) But the biggest gift she brings to Some Like It Hot is her heart-melting vulnerability and apparent sincerity, which turned what could easily have been just another cross-dressing farce into the American Film Institute’s best movie comedy of all time and one of Out magazine’s 50 essential gay films.

Some Like It Hot is too madcap to bother with motivation, or much of anything else resembling normal human behavior. The women in the band behave like tweens on their first sleepover, and all the men in the Florida resort where the band is playing go for Jerry’s comically klutzy Daphne or Joe’s purse-lipped Josephine, ignoring the radiant Sugar even after she purrs a torch song in that dress that makes her look naked from the waist up. Even more improbably, Jerry helps Joe land Sugar even though he wants her for himself, and even though Joe is a womanizer who plays the poor girl like a piano. And Joe does a 180 at the end, actually becoming the white knight he was pretending to be.

Yet Monroe is so magnetic you buy whatever Wilder is selling. After all, we think, who wouldn’t change course if they got into her orbit?