Photos: Park Circus/MGM
In the last scene of Billy Wilder’s raucous comedic masterpiece Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon, in drag, reveals that he’s actually a man in his last ditch attempt to dissuade Joe E. Brown’s hapless, love smitten millionaire Oswald Fielding III from marrying him. Oswald’s response:
It's one of the most memorable final lines in a film and an astoundingly profound one when considering the times—1959, the close of the decade that brought us the Korean War, the McCarthy hearings, Brown v Board of Ed, and Christine Jorgensen—and how they were indeed a -changin’. Within three years, Some Like It Hot’s legendary leading lady would be dead. And within ten years, the Stonewall Rebellion would spark the modern fight for LGBTQ civil rights. That's why this month, in celebration of Pride and Marilyn Monroe’s 91st birthday, TCM is bringing Some Like It Hot back to theaters for a whole new generation.
When struggling jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, they hightail it out of Chicago on the tour bus of an all-female band, disguised as Josephine and...Daphne (he never did like the name Geraldine). In Florida, Joe/Josephine sets sights on alcoholic singer/ukulele player Sugar Cane (Monroe), further disguising himself as the Cary Grant-ish playboy millionaire Shell Oil, Jr to seduce her. Meanwhile, Daphne gets caught in the crosshairs of Oswald, who is determined to dine, wine, and wife her. Just as the mob is closing in, Joe and Jerry, with Sugar and Oswald in tow, escape to what one can only assume is a happy ending.
Nearly 60 years later, the brilliance of Some Like Hot lies in how it managed to subvert the rigid gender norms of 1950s post-war America, in a way presaging the sexual revolution of the coming decade. The Motion Picture Production Code, in place since the early-30s, forbade any mention of homosexuality, but with the rise in television’s popularity and the influx of far less prudish foreign films, the Code had been challenged and slackened. Still, it was technically a thing and Some Like It Hot was produced without the Code’s stamp of approval. As if that wasn’t enough to stoke the public imagination, the Catholic League of Decency condemned the film. It was a box office smash, scored six Oscar nominations (including Best Actor for Lemmon), was inducted into the National Film Registry, and was named the greatest comedy of all time by the American Film Institute. Glad to see that condemnation really stuck it to ‘em.
Cross-dressing, the central conceit of the film, was a touchy subject―so touchy in fact it got the film banned in Kansas―and while other films both before and after have used men in drag for comedic effect, Some Like It Hot is in a league of its own. The joke isn’t that they’re boys in dresses, though that’s cause for initial laughter. Rather, the humor derives from their earnest attempts to be women.
Joe and Jerry are dead serious about passing as women, otherwise they're actually dead. And Lemmon and Curtis were equally dedicated to authenticity. When they first got done up, Curtis and Lemmon walked around MGM studios in drag and used the ladies’ room to fix their makeup to see if they could pass. They also insisted on having famed costume designer Orry-Kelly adorn them. At one point, Monroe loved one of Lemmon’s dresses so much she took it for herself, prompting the enraged designer to scream at Lemmon, "She took your dress! The bitch has pinched your dress!"
Everyone was having fun. Well, for the most part. Shooting Some Like It Hot was infamously difficult, thanks to Monroe’s erratic behavior and dependence on pills. But the final product is Marilyn Monroe’s finest moment as a comedic actress and a must-see for fans of Monroe, classic films, brilliant schtick, or just queer shit that snuck its way into America during one of its most conservative and oppressive times. For that, Some Like It Hot is still not only funny as hell, but also relevant AF.
Some Like It Hot returns to theaters Sunday, June 11 and Wednesday, June 14. Click here to find showtimes and a theater near you. And check out some rarely scene behind-the-scenes color stills below―funny story: Monroe had originally wanted the film shot in color, but a screen test revealed that Lemmon and Curtis had a greenish tint from their makeup, so they shot in black and white: