It can be difficult to find a classic film whose relevance to today is immediately apparent; more than that, classic comedy sometimes just doesn’t seem funny to us. Our sense of humour has changed a lot in 50 years. This makes Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot an even more exceptional film today than when it was released in 1959.
Some Like It Hot takes an avante-garde approach to the subject of gender performance. Twenty minutes into the film, Joe and Gerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, respectively) have donned dresses and wigs, lipstick and heels, and they don’t drop them until the end of the movie. Each character, in his or her own way, embraces a fluidity of sexuality and identity. This, for the year 1959, is pretty shocking.
But what is this film really doing? The fact that it has been inducted into the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies list causes me some degree of scepticism. You could certainly argue that social and political motivations for each of the films on the list are so inextricably entwined with their artistic merits that the categories become one and the same. So instead of talking about the film’s many artistic merits, let’s think about what this film does socially and politically, and why the American Film Institute thinks that it’s valuable.
Some Like It Hot is a comedy, so it’s safe to say that the film mocks cultural norms (in their 1950s incarnation, that is). But it is surprisingly free of the judgement usually reserved for sexual others in films of this period. The cross-dressing protagonists are mocked gently, not treated with disgust or fear.
Like in Tootsie, the other film on the AFI list about cross-dressing, Gerry and Joe dress like women because they need a job, and they need a disguise; a gig with an all-female band promises safe escape from the mobsters of Chicago, who the pair witnessed perpetrating something like the St. Valentine’s day massacre. The costume transforms Gerry especially; at the start he must repeat to himself, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl,” trying to learn his new gender by rote. But by the end his new mantra is “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy” – something it has taken him about a week to forget.
The romantic dynamics of the film also function in an unexpected way. When Gerry’s millionaire fiancé, Mr. Osgoode Fielding III, finds out that they can’t get married because Gerry’s actually a guy, he quips, “Well, nobody’s perfect;” this line then ends the movie. In contrast, Joe and his girlfriend Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) are doomed from the start. We’ve learned that Joe is not good to his girlfriends, and there’s not much hope that this relationship will be any different. He’s been carrying on a double lie with her, both pretending to be her buddy Josephine and a Cary Grant-esque millionaire with a frigidity problem. We also know that Sugar has bad taste in men, and this seems to prove it. At the end of the film the two couples drive off in a boat. One has a future, the other doesn’t – but who would have guessed that the couple that just might make it is the one comprised of two men?
This scenario is not exactly representative of the ethos of the American 1950s, a time of fairly extreme sexual conservatism. In order to understand the “anything goes” attitude of Some Like it Hot, we need to see the role of sex in the film for what it is: commerce. If we can attribute a laissez-faire attitude to any aspect of late fifties society, it would be the realm of the politico-financial. Capitalism becomes more than a political system – it becomes a way of life, something uniquely American that, when threatened – by communism, specifically – must be tauted and propagated.
In Some Like It Hot, it’s okay to dress like a woman, as long as you’re doing it for the almighty dollar. Joe and Gerry take the job with the all-girl’s band because they’re broke, and they stay because of the paycheque. Why would a man marry another man? “Security,” Gerry answers, without hesitation. At the start of the film we watch Joe seduce a girlfriend in order to get $20 from her, something she is extra angry about because their last date cost her money too.
Sugar has a problem, because her wealth-attraction gauge is broken; instead of falling in love with the rich, she falls in love with the poor. But sexual attraction never falls outside of the context of money. Marilyn Monroe’s kisses have a pecuniary value too, which she and Joe tally up at the end of the night. Sex and desire are so linked with monetary gain that the fluidity of gender identity is nothing more than a keen business sense.
In the end, it’s hard to imagine what this film would have to say about actual transvestites – whether it would sympathize as much with men who are not forced, by circumstance, to don a wig and a dress. What Some Like It Hot does prove is that as long as an action is motivated by fiscal security, anything goes. If sex is money, this film describes capitalism at its best.
Watch the Culture section for more installments of Screen Scrutiny, a Cultural Studies-inspired analysis of classic American films.