Writer/Director Billy Wilder was known for his innovative films that pushed the boundaries of ‘what was comfortable’ in normative society. Within his extensive and successful career, he challenged substance abuse in The Lost Weekend, Hollywood hypocrisy in Sunset Blvd., murder schemes in Double Indemnity, and even adultery in The Apartment. Wilder’s films are still impactful and beloved because they discreetly function as films that provide social commentary of the era in which they were made. Some Like it Hot is no different in that regard with Wilder now exploring the theme of superficiality. Instead of presenting this theme in a conventional sort of method, Wilder took it a step further and had its two main characters be males in drag. For 1959 this was a potentially disastrous idea, which easily could have had audiences turned off by the visuals. However, due to Wilder’s expert direction, witty script, and the stellar acting, Some Like it Hot is still considered, 56 years later, to be one of the greatest comedies ever made.
Despite some minor flaws in Some Like it Hot, such as a mob subplot that’s never fully resolved or characters that were given initial spotlight and then relegated to the side, the film is still perfectly constructed as a comedy with numerous moments of laughter. Some Like it Hot stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Joe and Jerry, two musicians from a speakeasy who accidentally stumble upon a mob hit. In desperation to escape the city of Chicago, they assume the roles of two ladies and join a females band who are on their way to Florida. Along the way, they immediately are acquainted with the beautiful Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and are both enamored with her. Once in Florida, both Joe and Jerry find themselves with the obstacles of remaining discreet as women, avoiding the advances of men, and fighting for Sugar Kane’s affection.
When viewing this film from a contemporary standpoint, it was necessary to see whether the drag component of the film was made to be laughed with or laughed at. Some Like it Hot was made with the intention of never diminishing or mocking either Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon when they are in drag, but rather the film somewhat celebrates it by never making an issue of it. The film especially avoids any clichés of someone discovering their secret and exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, you’re a man!’ Instead, Some Like it Hot uses their secret simply as part of the plot and never exaggerates or embellishes upon its premise. What makes the scenario funny is it being displayed in a matter-of-fact sort of manner, which gives the film a more realistic feel. The comedy is in the film’s script, not in the visuals of the main characters in drag, which is partly what gives this film a timeless feel to it despite the film being nearly sixty years old.
Outside of Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon is the true scene-stealer from Some Like it Hot, completely pulling the rug from his co-star, Tony Curtis, who had more of the heavy lifting of the two. Nonetheless, the majority of the film’s laughs come from Jack Lemmon, which is partially why he is more acknowledged when discussing the film, but also potentially why the Academy Awards chose to nominate him, over Curtis, in the Leading Actor category at that year’s Oscars and why he also won an Golden Globe in the Lead Actor in a Comedy/Musical category that year.
Jack Lemmon’s performance ranges from starting as a bass player to assuming the role of Daphne, the fiery and sassy of the two males in drag. Rather than maintaining a somewhat refined appearance as a woman, as Tony Curtis strived to do, Lemmon embraced the character with such exuberance that one cannot help but laugh with the scenarios he invites within the film. However, his most memorable scenes are with Joe E. Brown, who starred in the film as the millionaire Osgood Felding III, who is desperately attempting to woo Daphne. This is where the genuine comedy of the film lies with Lemmon and Brown providing some of the film’s most hilarious visuals, such as their tango scene together. What made such scenes effective was Jack Lemmon providing a comedy situation using body language, but also adding subtlety with his acting using facial expressions of discomfort to emphasize his anxiety for being in such a position.
Jack Lemmon offers Some Like it Hot a homerun of a performance with his dual performance as Jerry and Daphne. While Tony Curtis played the role straight and somewhat rigid, Jack Lemmon transformed himself into the desperate Jerry, who is willing to become Daphne in order to escape the mob. Yet Jack Lemmon went further, never making fun of the situation, but rather using it to his acting and comedic advantage. He fully embraced the awkwardness of the character’s situation and channeled it into Daphne by making her confident in words, but then perplexed and unsure of what to do when words became actions. This is what made his performance truly something special and why it was universally acknowledged then and now.