Why is this movie so successful as comic art? Let’s first peel off the duplicities. Its cross-dressing hilarity; its risqué dialogue; its deployment of actors like George Raft and Nehemiah Persoff, who parody their gangster roles from earlier films; its transvestism and hyperbole and dissembling ironies from verbal to dramatic to cosmic — in short, the number and variety of liberties it takes and the speed with which the impersonations in the story escalate. It’s a film stacked with falsies. Everything is misrepresented, almost always with aplomb. The movie takes place at the zenith of Prohibition; saloons and their customers are partners in disguise. The speakeasy is fronted by a funeral parlor; the hearse-carrying coffin is loaded with whiskey bottles; and the sobriquet for a bootleggers’ convention in Miami is “Friends of Italian Opera.” The dialogue pulses with wit; lines fly by like roof shingles in a tornado. When Sweet Sue asks Josephine and Daphne where they learned to play their instruments, Josephine says the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music. Later, when Sugar Kane meets Shell Oil Junior (a disguised Josephine), she co-opts Josephine’s line about attending Sheboygan and adds that Sue’s Syncopators are from “Bryn Mawr, Vassar. We’re only doing this for a lark.” Other jokes mess with gender. Jerry: I’m engaged. Joe: Who’s the lucky girl? Jerry: I am.
“Falsehood is the fuel of this famous movie,” wrote Anthony Lane recently in the New Yorker. But falsehood has always been Hollywood’s octane. Wilder’s “high farce” is so cleverly balanced between gender-bending innuendo and the boy-chasing-girl motif that the good heart of the latter keeps the naughtiness of the former harmless. Indeed, placing the cross-dressers in the Roaring Twenties was the only way for Wilder, during the censorial 1950s, to comment on the intractability of our sexual stereotypes.
But all the cleverness in the world cannot obscure the social critic in the German-born Wilder. To dress up as girls or boys, to pretend we’re millionaires or society mavens, to fake our education or our connections — it’s all in the name of getting what we want. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said he was haunted by his inauthenticity; so, too, he thought were most Americans of any standing. He believed that to get what we want we must inflate ourselves. My Depression-tested, paper-selling father used to say, “Whether you like it or not, the only way you’ll get ahead in this world is by selling yourself.” My father’s contemporary, Norma Jean Baker, the woman she was before she was Marilyn Monroe, proved his point — by selling her body, and perhaps her soul, to the leering masses.
Had Monroe’s role been played by another actress, the movie likely would have endured: the script was stellar, Curtis and Lemmon and Joe E. Brown as Osgood, heavenly. But when you add Monroe’s hot and cold chemistry with the other actors; when you add the awful things Billy Wilder said of her: “breasts like granite that defy gravity and a mind like Swiss cheese, that is, full of holes”; when you add the admirable things he said of her following her death in 1962: “an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue”; when you add the 41 years since Norma Jean succumbed, during which the ghosts of her psychotic mother and the assassinated Kennedy brothers continue to haunt — Some Like It Hot has become far more than a movie: it stands today like a comic monument to Monroe’s tragic fall.
Graham McCann writes in his 1988 Marilyn Monroe, “The film is so significant for Monroe watchers, for it is the quintessential fiction on Monroe.” The movie invites the audience who has followed her “personal highs and lows for several years” “to tease out the biographical references in Monroe’s character.” This, McCann says, is what gets her fans into the theater. For the filmmakers of the 1950s, the question was always, How can the thrice-married Monroe be reflected to an audience who desperately wants her to find the right man? Answer: have art imitate life. Thus, a shy, bespectacled, unmanly Junior (Arthur Miller) meets a generous, ditzy, confessional Sugar Kane (Marilyn), and their unlikely, mixed-up, marriage-minded romance is the story. One the public knows already.
But there’s a price to pay for this too-complete identification. Since no actor can maintain her screen persona — despite the desires of audience and studio — the star like an animal ensnared in a steel trap begins to chew her foot off in order to get free. This is, essentially, the tragedy depicted in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In fact, Monroe’s troubles during Some Like It Hot trace a similar emotional arc to those of Norma Desmond (played to pugnacious perfection by Gloria Swanson) in Wilder’s great 1950 movie. There, the deluded silent-film star tries to parlay her old glory in a thankless Hollywood and fails utterly. Playing the 24-year-old Sugar Kane, the 32-year-old Marilyn becomes as self-destructive in her life as Swanson’s Norma was in her role.
Before teasing Monroe’s decline any further out of the shadows, it may be wise first to look at the Hotel Del’s role in the film. Wilder made Some Like It Hot by shooting all the interior scenes in Hollywood between early August and early November. To fake Florida for the outdoor shots, Wilder and Diamond selected the Del because, Wilder said, “This was the only place we could find that hasn’t changed in 30 years. People who have never seen this beautiful hotel will never believe we didn’t make these scenes on a movie lot. It’s like the past come to life.” In 1958 the Del was mostly unchanged since it had opened 70 years earlier.
What was it about the Hotel Del that brought 1929 to life for Wilder? Practicalities. Good weather, proximity to Los Angeles, a fair business deal to house and feed Wilder’s crew, the grand sweep of porches and vistas, and the millionaires who didn’t just spend the night but rather stayed for weeks or months during winter. Ed Sikov writes in his On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder that the script called for a Miami resort hotel where in 1929 millionaires hunted for brides and brides went to be hunted. But very few of those “magnificent old resorts” in Miami were still standing in 1958. They “had been pulled down to make room for the gaudy, streamline-rococo gloss of postwar beach development. The Coronado, however, was perfect — a grand 1887 heap.”