I’m not here to ask the question of whether Some Like It Hot holds up. Of course Some Like It Hot holds up! For crying out loud, what a bad question. Jack Lemmon is whip-smart and ever-watchable. One of the most amiable on-screen presences. Tony Curtis is at once ornery and hot as hell (maybe these two traits are connected). Marilyn Monroe—perhaps the most iconic capital-P Person in movie history—is magnetic. The second you see it, the whole of 20th century history becomes clear. Surely one person could not live up to the hype. Monroe does. Infinite charisma. Rather than be objectified, she is the whirling center of the film. A dummy worthy of salvation. Would that I could say that about any of us. And at the helm is the singular Billy Wilder, whose spark touches the film from tip to toe. Is there a better closing line? I’m not sure there is.
To ask why something so pristine would or wouldn’t hold up is to deny the ineffable talent. Does a giant tree hold up? Does a mountain hold up? [extremely Annette Bening in 20th Century Women voice] Well, yes and no. The artifact is there: its existence is undeniable. But the winds shift, the temperature rises. Shapes transform. Some Like It Hot is a movie, in part, about transformation: the solace and safety in becoming another person. Or becoming more of a person. One and the same. Some Like It Hot doesn’t have the benefit of shirking its skin cells. It remains immortalized. It holds up, to its detriment; to endure is to face years of ongoing critique and reevaluation. In Middlemarch, Eliot describes a long-deceased character as lucky to have been dead for 150 years. How much better is it to die in obscurity than to live on in infamy?
I promise not to make all the film essays I write in 2020 about TikToks—especially if the app is going to one day no longer be accessible—but there is a bizarre “duet” format available that many of its users take advantage of called: “QUESTIONS FOR _____.” In these videos, a person will ask questions directed towards a certain section of the population—e.g. questions for millennials, questions for gay folks, questions for whomever!—and then someone from that section of the population will duet the video and respond to the question in real(ish) time. A frequent use of the QUESTIONS FOR ______ format is, most simply, QUESTIONS FOR BOYS or QUESTIONS FOR GIRLS. These videos are made by teenagers, trying to get into the psychology of another gender. “Do you guys actually like when we take your hoodies?” one girl asks.
Like so much (but not all) short-form web content, it is equal parts trifling and essential. What it grasps at is something altogether tragic: not only are we operating under the assumption that we (the genders, the generations, the whatevers) are not honest with each other, but that there is something performative about our continued misunderstanding of each other. We reward ignorance as much if not more than we do comprehension. Gender essentialist tweets about men making women watch Goodfellas seem to go viral, like clockwork, at least once a financial quarter. It’s not that putting these questions out into the world as a general survey for “the boys” will get at some fundamental mystery that has thus far remained unsolved (do guys actually like it when girls take their hoodies?), it’s that, try as we might, we have no idea what the lived experience of someone else is, and to keep not understanding it is worthy of attention.
To quote the friend with whom I rewatched Some Like It Hot: “Oh god, is this some gender thing?”
It is some gender thing; the thing-ness of gender is the premise. The hook, the bit.
Like all good movies, Some Like It Hot begins in Chicago. It’s 1929, it’s winter. The reign of jazz is waning. Prohibition sweeps the city. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) play with a jazz group at a speakeasy designed as a funeral home. Already: in purgatory. They’re true no-goodniks. Are they good musicians? It doesn’t matter. It’s work, it’s money. It’s whatever keeps them in a bed at night and in coats during the day. Like I said, it’s Chicago. They’re gonna need those coats.
Joe and Jerry are fuckups, but they aren’t catastrophic fuckups. They’re run-of-the-mill fuckups. They are not, strictly speaking, chaotic. They merely have the grand misfortune of living in chaotic times. Their speakeasy is raided and they escape by the hem of their soon-to-be-sold coats. So they’re out of a job. Not their fault, not really. What they’ve fucked up now is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Spats Colombo (George Raft), the pint-sized gangster who once ran their speakeasy, pumps his mob rivals full of bullets, a callback to Chicago’s own St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Joe and Jerry, who happened to be picking up a car in the very garage now painted in mobster blood, make the fatal error of bearing witness.
Now they really have to go—no, seriously, they do. On the threat of death! On the threat of an unaccomplished life cut short! On the threat of a body riddled with bullets! There’s a gig (there’s always a gig) getting the hell out of dodge that evening—the only caveat is that it’s an all-female band. What luck! What horny, unintended luck! Whereas they might have been rat meat, now they’ll have their pick of female musicians in sunny Florida.
So Joe and Jerry perform Josephine and Daphne (Geraldine’s a no-go) and board the train south to Florida. They’re on a one-way trip not only to paradise but to Paradise; they are, in effect, killing off Joe and Jerry. They refuse to hold up, instead shifting into what it will take to live longer, better. All they have to do is, what, not be too outwardly lavacious for maybe 48 hours at most? Easy as pie, until they get a glimpse of Sugar Kane née Kowalczyk, the band’s singer and ukulele-ist and general “Monroe-type” (IYKYK), introduced with the full machismo of a wah-wah-wahing trombone. (Subtlety isn’t everything!) She’s drinking and she’s tempting and she’s an emblem of everything Joe and Jerry are running away from, which is to say, the hot life. “I don’t want you to think I’m a drinker,” she says, “I can stop anytime I want to, only I don’t want to, especially when I’m blue.”
“We understand,” they commiserate, because they do. She is the beacon, the obelisk, the most glowing reminder of everything they’re trying to get away from. The leering, the drinking, the bodies on the floor of some old Chicago garage. Themselves. Why is it so hard to escape what’s no good for them? Why does a flask always glimmer in an hour of need?
Once Sugar’s out of the room, Joe grabs Jerry by some bit of fabric and warns, “No pastry, no butter, no Sugar.”
Men are like this (horny). Women are like this (stupid). No, wait, maybe it’s: men are like this (stupid). Women are like this (upwardly mobile). Some Like It Hot is about gender if you think gender is outfits. No, it’s more complicated than that. It’s about fear, too. Lack of safety and security. It’s about holding up, barreling foolishly into the future.
I spent years of my life working in an ice cream shop, tolerating customers who walked in the door and claimed they just wanted to see what we had. Once you’ve walked through the door, you’ve lost the battle (or won the battle, depending on how you feel about ice cream). I met people performing just about every diet you could think of. Why they crossed the threshold, why they planted their grubby, oily hands on the glass, I know just as well as them. To remain close to our temptations is to remain close to ourselves. I know the close-mouthed smile of a “no, thanks” better than I do a “yes, please.”
All of which is to say: once they’ve boarded the train, Joe and Jerry are on their way. To Hell, to Paradise, maybe a bit of both.
Is it a gender thing? It can’t not be. The men are dressed as women, talking to women about being a woman, while also trying to maintain their identities as men. Some Like It Hot couldn’t be shown in color because of how garish and frightening Curtis and Lemmon looked. At just over 60 years old, however, it escapes the easy binary of “men are like this; women are like this” because Joe and Jerry cannot decide the people they want to be, nor do the women they meet conform in any easy-to-categorize way.
The women of the band are not stupid or shallow. They are Wilder women: smart and playful and frantic and funny. Can anyone imagine a more perfect place than a train car full of female musicians? As they schlep down to Miami, tucked away in their sleeper cots, Sugar sneaks up to Daphne’s bunk. Jerry—who is Daphne, don’t forget—in an act of generosity or horniness or some combination of the two, took the fall for her when her flask slipped out of an unknown part of her dress. Now that lights are out, she’s eager to return the favor and imbibe up in Daphne’s bunk. (A quick drop of the bourbon: “How’s the bottle?” Sugar asks. “Half-full,” Daphne tells her, beaming. She really believes she’s on the other side of things now.)
Poor Jerry, nestled up against a beautiful woman, knowing there’s little he can do besides act the role he’s chosen for himself. This is how he survives, removing every possible temptation he would have previously succumbed to. But then something miraculous happens, not with Jerry or Daphne, and not with Sugar, but with every other woman in the band: they join in. “Is this a private clambake—” perfect beginning to a question “—or can anyone join?” a blonde at the curtain asks. Jerry—not Daphne—tries to boot her—emphasis on tries—but Dolores has vermouth. Someone else has a cocktail shaker. Someone else has a corkscrew. Someone else is grabbing cups! Women can unionize if there’s a party involved. Crackers! There is something magical about the group using not a real cocktail shaker but a hot water bottle: an object I use for my aching back, my cramped abdomen. They make do with what they have. There’s no strain for anything more. (Until, of course, one pokes at Josephine for maraschino cherries. No luck, sadly.)
The scene, albeit short, is perfect. Perfect! Not only because cubed ice is served on a cymbal, but because Wilder knows enough to show us a slice of what can be. It doesn’t have to be bullets and bedlam. What we see is what the band ought to be like. Couldn’t Joe and Jerry just blend in for a couple of days? Do the things they’re supposed to do: play the tunes, make the money, move on with their lives? The fête dissolves, the night stretches on, the train hurdles south—further from Chicago, the men further from themselves.
Years ago I was doing hallucinogenic drugs in the mountains of California. I was safe. I was with friends. If you’re one of my parents, please ignore that you know this about me. While on drugs, I came to a number of realizations ranging, as things do, from trifling to essential. On one hand, I got angry at an aggressive-looking succulent, and on the other hand, I realized that everyone in my life I’ve trusted with my heart has brought me some sense of safety and security. I confessed the latter realization to a friend, expecting some acknowledgement of profundity. She shrugged. “I think that’s everyone.”
Life does tend to be this push and pull—“I don’t understand what’s happening to me?” and “Oh, this is happening to everyone?” and “I did this to myself?” I google how to lower heart rate only to see that I last looked it up a few months ago. In the interim, I made no lifestyle changes to lower my heart rate. But now—now!—now I will make a lifestyle change. How many reinventions of self have occurred this year? How many me’s have I known? Loved? Lost? (I want to distance myself from the me reliant on rhetorical questions, for one.) What I’m saying is I get it, really, beyond gender, the desire to shirk one identity for another in hopes of getting closer to the self and further from harm—internal, external, some combination—transcends cinema. It holds up better than anything. Sometimes I like it when my heart beats a little too fast.
The original iteration of this story is French, a film called Fanfare of Love, which was then adapted into German, a film called Fanfares of Love (this time: more fanfares). Wilder’s 1959 film was a remake, an adaptation, a game of telephone, passed through central Europe and into the hands of a Hollywood director. Does it hold up? Sure: if it’s willing to become something else entirely.
Though a staple of the Hollywood scene, a man responsible for some of the greatest films about films and show business, Billy Wilder was born thousands of miles away from California, and from Hollywood itself, in what the history books refer to as the Austro-Hungarian empire. He grew up writing first in Vienna then to Berlin, first in journalism then to film, until the fate of Europe collided and cascaded with his Jewishness. He went to Paris then to the United States. To Hollywood. His mother, step-father, and grandmother died in the Holocaust.
Unfortunately I think about the Holocaust all the time, in part because I am only alive because some family members of mine escaped it and in part because every year I’ve been alive (especially these recent years) I am reminded of it. There is a stark difference between learning something when you’re a kid and reckoning with it as an adult. I think most people have only done the former. When you reflect and consider this violence, its likeness appears everywhere. This can be, to make a total understatement, totally disorienting and horrible. There are ways to dull this feeling. To distract, to distance. Entertainment is one way to do this.
I am telling you about the Holocaust and Billy Wilder because I am thinking about the adaptive changes made from Fanfares of Love to Some Like It Hot. The former has its two leads joining the all-female band for business purposes. Monetary advancement. Something that does not have anything to do with safety. Joe and Jerry, however, are on the run from the mob. They witness a brutal act of violence, a gunning down of several men, the action of which is made significantly less brutal by the black and white of the film. Regardless of the fact that the film’s villain—a mobster nicknamed Spats for, uh, well, his spats—is short in stature and a caricature of 1920s’ mobsters, his menace is palpable and threatening enough for the viewer to understand that Joe and Jerry need to go and they need to go now. So the cross-dressing is an act of desperation. It’s a reach for safety above all else.
This is the Wilder touch. This is the game of telephone back again. Certainly “running for their lives” is a more direct and dramatic flourish than “monetary advancement” but to view Some Like It Hot as the search for, above all else, safety and security complicates its gender narrative, its political narrative, its socialist narrative. Wilder wanted to direct Schindler’s List. Here, instead, is Some Like It Hot, a film that is about the escape from the self, the escape from the story, about fearing that if you stay where you are, something worse will happen.
That Joe takes on a third personality, one that is not his standard self (Joe) or his feminine self (Josephine) but a rich, white, stupid magnate, the peak of a capitalist patriarchal society, is like choosing to become the villain in your own life. Tony Curtis has that hot sensibility, which is a smart way of saying that he is literally a hot person. He hops over to another identity, leaving Daphne-and-Jerry in the dust. As Junior, Joe is able to curate a self that feels closer to his true identity. We like when a ne’er do well just also happens to be rich. Sugar falls for it too—she’d quit drinking if she wanted to, etc.—because the allure of the safety Junior can provide is too great. He has a boat! Or: he pretends to have a boat! If a train can’t get a person far from themselves, maybe a boat can.
Though I’ve seen it a handful of times, I never remember when in Some Like It Hot someone says “some like it hot.” On the cusp of every rewatch, I would be inclined to tell you that the line isn’t said in the film at all. It’s just a sense of things, a vibe. But the line is said, verbatim, nearly halfway through the film, as Joe sets up a meet-cute between Junior and Sugar. He’s all flustered (fake) and preening (real). He pretends not to know anything about her, squinting through his Coke bottle glasses. When Junior learns she’s playing in a band, he asks, “Does that mean you play that very fast music? Jazz?”
“Yeah,” Sugar purrs. “Real hot.”
Junior shrugs. “I guess some like it hot. I personally prefer classical music.”
It’s a soft, easy joke. Barely a setup and punchline at all. These are opposites: hot and classical music. Shell Oil Junior, a character invented to exist around social class, does not choose jazz. He doesn’t want it hot, though he can see how it might be appealing to some. If given the choice, and perhaps this is true for Joe as well, he would opt for something less hot. More reliable. But the movie isn’t called Some Personally Prefer Classical Music. No—some are anchored to the hot life, the fast life. There are some for whom it’s only natural to run and run and run.
I won’t spoil the final line of the film if you’ve somehow lived this long without having it spoiled for you, but what I can say to you is that the escape from the self is a circle, a loop. It’s impossible to enact. As a train speeds ahead, as a boat jets off into the sea, as two men slip up the icy streets of Chicago, there’s always a glimpse over the shoulder to see if someone is following close behind and if that person is the same as the one running. How long can a thing like this hold up? The movie, sure, but the Monroe of it all, the snappiness of it all, the me that watches and knows knows knows it’s doing something others could never pull off. Maybe it’s worth it to stop, take inventory, slide an ice cube off a cymbal and into a tumbler. To make a toast to what won’t ever be perfect.