Boys Will Be Girls

The making of Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.”


One morning in the summer of 1950, Billy Wilder was sitting alone, eating breakfast and reading the Hollywood Reporter. His wife, Audrey, came into the room and asked:

“Do you know what day this is, dear?”

“June 30th.”

“It’s our anniversary.”

“Please,” Wilder said, “not while I’m eating.”

And there you have him. Like most Wilder anecdotes, this tale has been told many times, and we have gone beyond the point of being able to ascertain whether it might actually be true. I guess you could ask the man himself, who is still alive at the age of ninety-five, but that would be no help; when it comes to spinning webs of Wilder mythology, he is by far the worst and most enjoyable offender. (Who else, reliving his career as a cub reporter in Vienna, would claim to have interviewed Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnitzler, and Sigmund Freud on a single day?) Still, if the facts don’t fit the legend, print the legend and to hell with it; what matters about the breakfast story is that it sounds right—the wisecrack zipping across the room and drowning the crunch of toast.

And so the rumors accrue, hardening the image of Wilder the cynic, Wilder the man-hater and woman-scorner. Who else would bother to assert that his bad back, which has plagued him throughout his career, was brought on by an urge to make love in Viennese doorways, standing up? More to the point, who else would say so in front of his wife? Wilder was one of those steely souls, forged in the Hollywood of the thirties and forties, who were even tougher than the actors they were slated to direct. In 1960, the year of “The Apartment,” he looked back on the duties of his chosen profession: “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant, and a bastard.” It’s not affection that Wilder minds, I would imagine, but the fuss that is made of it—the anniversaries, the flowers, the song and dance. “Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you,” Jack Lemmon says, soft as a puppy, in the closing moments of “The Apartment.” But Shirley MacLaine is having none of it: “Shut up and deal,” she replies, addressing herself to the more pressing matter of gin rummy. She adores the guy, of course, and she has just run uptown to tell him so, but, still, there are limits. You have to keep the puppy on a leash.

There is only one catch in the Wilder world—not even a catch, perhaps, but an irony that is strong enough to crack his cool. People love his movies. Needless to say, Wilder himself had an explanation for this, as he did for everything else. “You know how it is,” he told reporters in London in 1961. “You hate your dentist while he’s pulling your teeth out, but the next week you’re playing golf with him.” Over and over, Wilder shows us mankind behaving badly, or using one another as props and pawns, or racing into follies from which there is no escape, and still, like sheep to the shearer, we come back for more. “Double Indemnity,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment”: these are part of the basic lexicon of moviegoing. One picture, in particular, has become an icon. Last year, the American Film Institute invited its members to vote on the hundred best comedies ever made. The top spot went to Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” (1959).

Everyone knows that these hundred-best lists are a bore. Not a fix, exactly, although the film crowd, like all social groups who are presented with a questionnaire, tends to repeat the conventional wisdom without troubling to think it through. Still, it would take a brave critic to dispute the status of “Some Like It Hot,” just as it would take a historian of the highest subtlety and resourcefulness to explain, before a tribunal of his peers, why the most entertaining cultural spectacle of the last hundred years has been, by common consent, a pair of full-grown American males wearing falsies.

Falsehood, it must be said, is the fuel of this famous movie. It is rabid with deception, and all attempts to summarize the plot tend to skip one of the changes of costume, or of heart; not until I saw the film again recently, perhaps for the tenth time, did I notice that Jack Lemmon turns briefly into a bellhop. The roughest of outlines would go as follows: A pair of small-time jazz musicians—Joe, a tenor-sax player (Tony Curtis), and Jerry, a bassist (Lemmon)—are accidental witnesses to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Pursued by a big-time gangster (George Raft) and his hoods, they dress as women and join an allgirl band on a train to Florida. There Joe, who has become Josephine, makes one more switch, pretending to be an oil baron in order to woo the band’s singer, Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe), née Kowalczyk. And Jerry, who has become Daphne, draws the attention of the insatiable Osgood (Joe E. Brown), a bona-fide millionaire with a mouth like a mailbox. It all ends well, with both couples heading for a moonlit yacht.

What more is there to say? Many filmgoers can recite lines from this picture more fluently than they can tell a story from their own past. The closing zinger—Daphne yanking off her wig and declaring herself to be a man, and Osgood replying, “Nobody’s perfect,” his beatific randiness intact—is the kind of thing that compilers of movie quotations slap on the covers of their books. Meanwhile, the traditional Wilder mischief has calcified into received opinion; when he said that Marilyn Monroe had breasts like granite and a brain like Swiss cheese, he must have realized that the line—one part idolatry to three parts slur—was here to stay, and it is true that Monroe’s bosom, thrust in and out of the spotlight as she sings “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love,” has become as proud a feature of the American landscape as Mt. Rushmore. In fact, the whole film is a national treasure; you can look at it, but you can’t touch.

Click here to read the full article on The New Yorker


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