Marilyn: Behind the Icon –
A Comedic and Pregnant Monroe Triumphs in
Some Like It Hot and Wins the Golden Globe
In 2000, the American Film Institute honored Some Like It Hot as the “Best Comedy of All Time.” In the six decades after its release, the film achieved acclaim worldwide as one of the greatest movie comedies ever made, ranking number fourteen on the America Film Institute’s list of the 100 Best American Films of All Time. It has also been deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. However, the road to such greatness was paved with pain and frustration. Leading lady Marilyn Monroe struggled with mental illness and a high-risk pregnancy throughout the production.
To avoid censorship, collaborators Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond scripted the two unemployed jazz musicians in drag out of necessity rather than choice. Chased by mobsters after witnessing a gangster massacre in Prohibition-era Chicago, the characters join an all-female band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, and escape to Florida.
Wilder and Diamond’s fast-paced, satirical story romanticized the Mack Sennett and Marx Brothers screwball comedies of the 1920s and ‘30s. Rich in double-entendre and risqué dialogue, the script bravely and precariously wobbled from a cliff with the censors. Because the male leading characters masquerade as women, their sexualized dialogue passed Production Code censorship. The brilliant script’s complex, multiple layers included witty sexual innuendo and themes of homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, androgyny, and impotence. Amid all the outrageous humor, the underlying plot addressed serious issues of alcoholism, gangland murder, and sexual harassment of women.
Some Like It Hot satirizes the stereotyping of female and male roles by reversing them throughout the plot, a radical statement during the conservative 1950s, an era of rigid gender roles. Joe (Tony Curtis), a saxophone-playing womanizer, becomes attracted to the band’s lead singer, Sugar Kane (Monroe), and devises a way to court her while out of his female disguise and in the disguise of a male millionaire. He creates a male identity, Junior, based on Sugar’s ideal, by employing a vocal imitation of actor Cary Grant, a male sex symbol.
Junior, an intellectual millionaire who wears corrective lenses, complies with Sugar’s theory that “men who wear glasses are so much more gentle and sweet and helpless.” As Junior, Joe fakes impotence to lower Sugar’s defenses and further his romance with her. He takes a passive role — literally on his back — in the seduction scene, and Sugar becomes the dominant aggressor to “cure” his bogus sexual dysfunction.
Both Joe and his sidekick, Jerry (Jack Lemmon), transform during the gender-reversal. Moved by Sugar, after he becomes her friend and confidante as Josephine, Joe eventually commits to her, shedding his pattern of notorious womanizing. Jerry enjoys being feminine to the point of accepting the proposal of a rich, old millionaire. Having originally re-named himself Geraldine, bass-fiddle-player Jerry changes the name of his drag identity from Geraldine to Daphne as he begins to identify with his new feminine persona. For Jerry, his feminine side deserves humanity because as he experiences it, he sees it as more than a mere disguise. As Jerry befriends Sugar, he acquires many of her qualities and grows interested in her as more than a sexual object. This blending of male and female roles and perspectives would not occur in the culture until the last decades of the 20th century.
Jack Lemmon was always Wilder’s first choice for the role of Jerry, but the Mirisch Company desired a bigger name such as Frank Sinatra or Danny Kaye. Frank Sinatra lost his opportunity to participate in the project when he failed to meet Wilder for a scheduled lunch date. Wilder turned to Tony Curtis who thirsted to work with one of the industry’s best and most talented directors.
Mitzi Gaynor was originally considered as the leading lady, a supporting role as “straight man” to Lemmon and Curtis’s wild comic antics, but Gaynor was completing the musical film South Pacific. The script describes the female lead, Sugar Kane, as “the dream girl of every red-blooded American male who ever read College Humor.” It was the weakest part, according to Wilder, so the trick was to give it the strongest casting. For Wilder, only Marilyn Monroe projected the mixture of innocence and provocation crucial for the film’s success. Monroe’s involvement would also assure the fiscally focused producers of star power.
Joe E. Brown came out of retirement to work with Monroe and to dance on the screen in the role of the aging millionaire, Osgood Fielding III. Known for his infectious grin and cavernous mouth, Brown delivers the film’s final, hilarious line, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Wilder paid tribute to the great gangster movies of the 1930s with subtle gags in the movie’s script and the casting of the Mobsters. The name of the crime lord, Little Bonaparte, is borrowed from Little Caesar (1931). George Raft, cast as Spats Columbo, threatens to smash a grapefruit in the face of one of his henchmen, a reference to James Cagney’s famous scene in The Public Enemy (1931). He later grabs a coin from the air when another gangster repeatedly flips it, a gesture from the actor’s role in Scarface (1932). The cast also included Edward G. Robinson Jr. (whose father portrayed gangsters in the 1930s and 40’s), Pat O’Brien as the Irish Police Sergeant, and George E. Stone as Toothpick Charlie.
Monroe accepted the role to offset her husband Arthur Miller’s mounting legal expenses incurred from his contempt charges for not naming names in his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her initial reluctance stemmed from confusion about her character’s motivation. “I’ve got a real problem, Lee,” Monroe confided to her mentor Lee Strasberg. “I just can’t believe in the central situation. I’m supposed to be real cozy with these two newcomers, who are really men in drag. How can I possibly feel a thing like that without just being too stupid? After all, I know the two men.”
Strasberg offered Monroe an insight into her own life to apply to the role. He reminded her of her challenges in having relationships with other women because of their jealousy over the attention men gave her. “You’ve never really had a girlfriend,” Strasberg said. “Now here suddenly are two women and they want to be your friend. They like you. For the first time in your life, you have two girlfriends.” Monroe discovered the motivation for her character.
Monroe shimmers in cinematographer Charles Lang Jr.’s textured black & white photography. Lang may have used a double Obie lighting technique to halo Monroe who virtually glows on film in her glittering Jazz Age costumes by Jack Orry-Kelly. Orry-Kelly would win his third Oscar for Some Like It Hot.
Monroe’s most luminous costume was a cocktail dress of tulle adorned with sequins and silver fringing with a heart shape embroidered on the derrière. It clung to her breasts, appearing diaphanous if not for strategically placed sequins. A similar frock in black tulle was spotlighted at the end of the film. Monroe’s other Orry-Kelly creations included a long-sleeve, V-neck black silk dress with fringe at the hemline (now displayed in a museum in London, it shows evidence of having been altered to accommodate the bulge of Monroe’s pregnancy).
The film also highlights Monroe singing three 1920s songs: “Runnin’ Wild,” “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” and “I’m Through With Love.” She also recorded an original piece, “Some Like It Hot,” intended for the main titles, but the number was deleted and replaced with a snappy instrumental medley. “I Wanna Be Loved By You” was first performed by Helen Kane, dubbed the “Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl” who inspired the Betty Boop animated character.
“[Monroe] had a tremendous sense of a joke, as good a delivery as Judy Holliday, and that’s saying a lot,” said Wilder. “She had a kind of inner sense of what will play, what will work. She called me after the first daily rushes because she did not like her introductory scene.”
In the revision, at Monroe’s suggestion, Sugar clips down the train platform, carrying a valise and a ukulele case and accompanied by the soundtrack’s raucous jazz tune played by a muted trumpet. As she wiggles on her high-heeled pumps past the two men in drag, the train emits a puff of steam toward Sugar’s swinging buttocks. She quickens her pace. Lemmon’s character turns to Curtis’ and observes that she moves like “Jell-O on springs.” With its allusion to the subway breeze lifting her skirt in The Seven Year Itch, this reworked scene is one of Monroe’s most memorable entrances.
Usually tardy and unpredictable, Monroe was letter-perfect while filming long, mentally demanding scenes but had trouble remembering three words in shorter scenes. Of course, this fits the profile of a woman battling Bipolar Disorder while struggling with a high-risk pregnancy throughout the production. Chemically, hormonally, and emotionally, Monroe must have been completely unregulated, but in 1958, she was perceived as neurotic, unprofessional, and temperamental.
Monroe and Lemmon completed the hilarious upper berth bed scene on the Pullman train on the first take. Having learned to pace himself with his co-star, Lemmon was prepared to shoot the entire day. At 9:05 in the morning, the day’s work was done. However, the previous day, Monroe required 37 takes for her two lines.
Monroe was determined to combat Wilder’s interpretation of Sugar Kane as a “Betty Boop” cartoon. If she were reduced to playing a dumb blonde role, there would be none of Wilder’s broad gags. Instead, she would create the portrayal of a three-dimensional character with a heart and soul; a textured performance that would provide the glue to make this farce a cohesive film. Her legendary flubbing and freezing were part of Monroe’s exhaustive process until Wilder conceded. By the 20th take, Monroe’s interpretation looked good to the frustrated director.
Lemmon seemed to empathize most with Monroe’s inner torment while honoring her ability to create a characterization separate from the turmoil the actress was experiencing in her personal and professional life. “I saw she was suffering,” he said. “Suffering and still producing that magic on film. It was a courageous performance, really courageous. Most actors only occasionally use all their talent, but Marilyn was using hers constantly, giving everything she had till it hurt, struggling to be better. I was really fascinated to watch her work. She had a certain intelligence in and about her work, and she was smart enough to use herself to make Sugar come alive.”
Tony Curtis also experienced considerable difficulty in his performance, but his challenges remained secret. Curtis could not reach a high registered voice as Josephine. Paul Frees, known as the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” dubbed all of Curtis’ feminine lines as Josephine, most of his performance.
Filming on location at the historic Hotel Del Coronado threatened to replace Monroe as the source of delays and disruption during the production of a scene with lengthy dialogue between Sugar and Joe posing as Junior. Every ten minutes, a jet from nearby Naval Air Station North Island flew over the beach. “I thought it would take about four days to shoot that scene,” Wilder said. “I tried to film between take-offs, but then on the second take everything was there; every sentence of two pages. Not one letter, not one comma was left out. We were finished in less than twenty minutes.”
“[Monroe] has become a better actress, even a deeper actress, since Strasberg,” Wilder said .“But I still believe she was developing herself naturally and would have become greater as she matured, even without him….Before, she was like a tightrope walker who doesn’t know there’s a big pit down there she could fall into. Now she knows about the pit and she’s more careful on the tightrope. She’s more self-conscious. The greatest thing about Monroe is not her chest, it is her ear. She is a master of delivery. She can read comedy better than anyone else in the world.”
Stories about the film’s production rose to a mythic level and have become folklore in Hollywood history and apocrypha in the Monroe legend. One anecdote surrounds the scene in which a jilted Sugar enters Daphne and Geraldine’s hotel room and searches the dresser drawers for the liquor she had sworn off in happier times. “Where’s the bourbon?” is her famous line. Its delivery, depending upon the source, took Monroe anywhere from 30, 47, 59 or even 83 takes. Wilder pasted the line in each of the dresser drawers to compensate for Monroe memory and concentration deficits.
The scene was filmed with Monroe’s back to the camera, enabling her to easily dub the line in postproduction. Wilder’s demand for repeated takes suggests an overt power struggle between director and star. Allegedly, Monroe staged the repeated takes to control the interpretation of her character and to defy Wilder’s direction.
Monroe was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for “nervous exhaustion” before Wilder and Diamond had written the film’s ending. In the final scene, Wilder’s camera focuses on a close-up of Lemmon and Brown in the front seat of the motorboat. Monroe and Curtis are not visible behind them, although they were shown kissing in the boat’s rear seat in the previous sequence. This lack of continuity is due to Monroe’s absence during the filming of Lemmon and Brown’s exchange. Monroe was later rushed to Polyclinic Hospital where she lost the baby. Wilder acknowledged Monroe as a trouper: “She insisted on going on until we were ready to finish.” The actress saved the film at the expense of her losing her baby; but her anguish was inconsolable.
In her last interview for LIFE, Monroe expressed lingering hurt over Curtis’s insult. “You’ve read there was some actor that once said about me that kissing me was like kissing Hitler?” Monroe asked with a sad laugh. “If I have to do intimate love scenes with somebody who really has these kinds of feelings toward me, then my fantasy can come into play. In other words, out with him, in with my fantasy. He was never there.”
Perhaps critic Roger Ebert said it best when commenting about Curtis’s remark: “When you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.”
“Never a week passes when I don’t wish she was still around,” Wilder said after Monroe’s death. “Because that whole category of films is lost. Her kind of genius is a lost art.” The celebrated director’s definitive analysis of Monroe is a loving tribute: “She was an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue. It was a God-given gift. Believe me, in the last fifteen years there were ten projects that came to me, and I’d start working on them and I’d think, ‘It’s not going to work, it needs Marilyn Monroe.’ Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”
The critics unanimously praised Monroe’s performance. “To get down to cases, Marilyn does herself proud,” announced the New York Post, “giving a performance of such intrinsic quality that you begin to believe she’s only being herself and it is herself who fits into that distant period and this picture so well.”
“As the band’s somewhat simple singer-ukulele player, Miss Monroe, contributes more assets than the obvious ones to this mad-cap romp,” opined the New York Times. “As a pushover for gin and the tonic effect of saxophone players, she sings a couple of whispery old numbers…and also proves to be the epitome of a dumb blonde and a talented comedienne.” Persnickety critic Bosley Crowther referred to Monroe as “superb.”
Some Like It Hot grossed $20 million upon the initial release and came in third behind Auntie Mame and The Shaggy Dog as biggest films of 1959 — a time when the average admission cost fifty-one cents. In 2014, the average admission price was $8.35; in today’s prices, the film grossed over $327 million.
“Monroe steals [the film],” wrote contemporary film critic Roger Ebert, “as she walked away with every movie she was in. It is an act of will to watch anyone else.”
Some Like It Hot garnered six nominations by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the categories of Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond), Best Black & White Cinematography (Charles Lang, Jr.), Best Black & White Art Direction/Set Decoration (Ted Haworth), and Best Black & White Costume Design (Orry-Kelly). It would win only one for its costumes. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association honored the film with three Golden Globe Awards in all the categories in which it was nominated: Best Comedy Film, Best Actor (Lemmon), & Best Actress (Monroe).
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.