Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Some Like It Hot (1959)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #43 (tied with Pather Panchali, Gertrud, Pierrot le Fou, Close-Up, and Play Time)

Director Billy Wilder made quite the splash when he arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1930s. A screenwriter in Austria-Hungary, he fled his native country to escape the rise of Nazism, and quickly found a home in the filmmaking capital of the world. He made his name working a variety of genres, from film noir (Double Indemnity) to harrowing melodramas (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd.). But he is perhaps best-known for his comedies: screwballs like Ninotchka (a collaboration with fellow expatriate Ernst Lubitsch) and farces such as The Seven-Year Itch. Wilder's sense of humor was markedly darker and more cynical than most Hollywood comedies, which easily made him a critical favorite and a beloved filmmaker for tackling such difficult material.

Some Like It Hot is a terrific example of his talents. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are jazz musicians in 1929 who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, recognized by notorious gangster "Spats" Colombo (George Raft). They make their escape by disguising themselves as women - adopting the names "Josephine" (Joe) and "Daphne" (Jerry) - and joining an all-female band. However, they both end up falling for the band's ditzy, attractive ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe); once they arrive in Miami, Joe takes on another persona, young oil millionaire Junior, to woo Sugar, while Jerry-as-Daphne draws the attention of daffy old millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Brown).

Like many of Wilder's films, the story is built upon a premise that could just as easily work for a thriller or a film noir. However, unlike many of the Hollywood farces of its day, the film doesn't merely set up scenes for hijinks to ensue. Wilder constantly subverts the conventions of the day, and having his main characters in drag for most of the film makes it one of the most transgressively progressive films of the 1950s.

More after the jump.

Now, of course, this isn't to say that the film is 100% progressive by 2015 terms. The film is dominated by the men at the center, with Joe being a carefree womanizer. Sugar is defined almost entirely by her beauty and her cooing voice - essentially, by being Marilyn Monroe - as well as her relationships to both men. Even "Spats" is given more dimension that the majority of the female characters, and he's only involved to move the plot along. On a macro level, the gender politics are very much rooted in the 1950s, which is to be expected.

That being said, Wilder has crafted a film that simultaneously subverts those politics, making it far more interesting and complicated. The foremost aspect of this is having both male characters spend the majority of the film in drag. Obviously, this is mostly played for laughs, with the men ribbing each other through Wilder's and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond's rapid-fire dialogue and tension created by their sexual desires for Sugar conflicting with their performed gender. It was also not unprecedented for male actors to play female characters, intratextually or otherwise. However, Wilder uses this scenario to a much better effect, having the men become the recipients of their own sexist behaviors.

An early example comes when they arrive in Miami, where Daphne is almost immediately harassed by Osgood. Daphne is put off by his advances, but Osgood is relentless, to the point of groping Daphne in the elevator (offscreen, but with the sexually-loaded image of the arrow rising in its place). It's an amusing turn, but it's also found power in exposing these men to the same treatment that women face all the time. Joe makes a remark about it later in the film in their shared hotel room, noting that their lives as women have been much more difficult than when they were openly men.

Similarly, there's an openness to the way that (heavily coded) hints of homosexuality and drag are normalized in the film. This is particularly true in the case of Jerry/Daphne, who's intended to be the wacky one when compared to Joe/Josephine. When Daphne announces her engagement to Osgood after they spend the night dancing together, Joe is quick to point out that it couldn't possibly last, given the circumstances. Yet, humorously, Daphne has a response to every quandary. What will happen on the honeymoon? "He wants to go to the Riviera, but I kinda lean toward Niagara Falls." Why would two men want to get married? "Security!" It's all meant to be funny - and it is - but in the comedy is a nugget of truth: these aren't really all that unusual responses. In fact, this is what the audience expects from Daphne, not from Jerry. Yet by virtue of these lines being read by a male actor playing a male character playing a woman, it goes a long way toward normalizing these actions for the character. Why shouldn't Daphne marry Osgood?

Again, it should be reiterated that these were not likely the intended themes of the film; the goal was likely nothing more than madcap farce, and the film succeeds spectacularly on that front. However, the film's subversion of gender politics of the era is difficult to write off as merely a coincidence, and Wilder was surely aware of this in his direction. It's easy to read the plot almost as a feminist allegory: to live in America as a woman is to feel like you're being pursued relentlessly by looming threats, and that the end result of living under patriarchal oppression is not a pretty thing. To place members of the privileged group - men - into the shoes of the oppressed is to give them an understanding of those conditions and, just maybe, generate empathy. That all of this is played for laughs - and that there are no explicit "lessons learned" at the end - only makes the subversion even more powerful, even if the film is still marked by the gender politics of its time.

But hey, nobody's perfect.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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