Silver Screen Standards: Transformative Drag in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Transformative Drag in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot (1959) is widely celebrated as one of classic Hollywood’s greatest comedies, even though its cross-dressing plot roused conservative ire and caused the movie to be released without Hays Code approval in 1959. Thanks to the brilliant direction of co-writer and producer Billy Wilder and the outstanding performances of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe, the movie went on to earn six Oscar nominations, which probably infuriated its detractors even more, and its success helped to nail shut the coffin of the waning Motion Picture Production Code. After 65 years, one might expect Some Like It Hot to have lost some of its relevance, especially in its depiction of gender identity, but the movie holds up surprisingly well. I think its continued appeal stems in part from the fact that it doesn’t just play the cross-dressing of its protagonists for laughs. Instead, the film treats the experience as transformative, allowing its male characters to learn and grow as a result of their time inhabiting female identities.

Some Like it Hot Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in garage, witnessing massacre
Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) go on the run after witnessing a gangland massacre.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon star as jazz musicians Joe and Jerry, who find it tough to make a living in Chicago during Prohibition. Living becomes even tougher after the pair accidentally witness a gangland massacre carried out by Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his henchmen, so Joe and Jerry disguise themselves as women in order to leave town with an all-female band. Presenting themselves as Josephine and Daphne, the two make friends with fellow performer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and arrive in sunny Florida, where surprising romances develop for both of them even as Spats and his fellow gangsters arrive at the same hotel for a gathering of organized criminal groups.

Some Like it Hot Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Josephine and Geraldine Closeup
As Josephine and Daphne, Joe and Jerry join an all-female band on a train headed to Florida.

Each of the two men starts out behaving like a stereotypical heterosexual male in the most negative sense. Joe manipulates the women around him for his own benefit; he flatters them and pretends to care until he gets whatever he wants out of them. We see Joe’s success with these tactics at the agent’s office, but we also see the secretary’s resentment of this behavior, which we understand to be habitual. Before their speakeasy gets raided, Jerry mentions that the two have borrowed money from every woman working there, so we know that they have a long history of taking advantage of women (most of whom get arrested during the raid while Joe and Jerry slip away). If Joe is a heel, Jerry turns out to be more of a wolf, a trait we first see after they board the train in Chicago as Josephine and Daphne. Jerry/Daphne gleefully imagines himself enjoying the female bandmates like a kid set loose in a pastry shop, suggestively comparing them to jelly rolls, cream pies, and cherry tarts. Both men are sexually attracted to Sugar Kane but are initially frustrated by their inability to pursue her due to their disguises, which lead Sugar to think of them as sympathetic girlfriends.

Some Like it Hot Marilyn Monroe on the Train
Joe and Jerry both find Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) extremely attractive, but their female identities force them to behave as friends instead of suitors.

Joe and Jerry have unique transformative experiences thanks to their cross-dressing, which introduces them to situations they have never had to consider as men. As Josephine, Joe learns how Sugar has been hurt in the past by men just like him; he transforms himself into a fake millionaire because that’s the kind of man Sugar says she has decided to pursue. Although he lies to her about his background and wealth, Sugar also lies to Joe, and Joe cares enough that he tries to comfort her when it looks like he’ll have to abandon her to avoid being murdered by the gangsters. Instead of trying to sweet talk her out of her money to aid his escape, Joe gives Sugar a valuable diamond bracelet (which doesn’t belong to him, to be fair, but still represents money he and Jerry badly need for themselves). Being Josephine gives Joe the opportunity to form a different kind of relationship with a woman and become a better man as a result.

Some Like It Hot Joe E Brown and Jack Lemmon, Tango
Osgood (Joe E. Brown) wins Daphne over with a night of romantic tango dancing.

While Joe spends a lot of time in his Cary Grant millionaire persona, Jerry commits more fully to his feminine identity as Daphne, which leads to a more dramatic blurring of gender roles. Jerry/Daphne is initially flummoxed by the romantic advances of wealthy wooer Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), but their passionate tango night marks a turning point in the relationship. Daphne accepts Osgood’s marriage proposal and worries more about the details of the wedding and the opinion of Osgood’s mother than the problem of revealing that Daphne is also Jerry. In the memorable finale, even that revelation fails to dissuade Osgood, who merely replies, “Well, nobody’s perfect!” Because the movie ends there, we don’t know how being Daphne will affect Jerry’s life going forward, but it has definitely altered his sense of himself and allowed him to question the very nature of his identity. Neither Jerry nor Joe will ever be perfect, but they both seem much improved as a result of their experiences as Daphne and Josephine.

Some Like It Hot Joe E Brown and Jack Lemmon, Ending
In that famous final scene, Osgood is blissfully unphased by Jerry’s bombshell confession.

Jack Lemmon’s performance as Jerry/Daphne earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and Billy Wilder picked up nominations for both Director and Screenplay, but the film’s only win was for Orry-Kelly’s costume design. For more of Wilder’s transgressive comedy, see The Major and the Minor (1942), in which Ginger Rogers tries to romance Ray Milland while pretending to be under the age of 12. Wilder also directed Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974). If you want to explore the history of drag in classic films, check out any version of Charley’s Aunt (the 1941 version stars Jack Benny), or look at silent and Pre-Code films in comparison with those made after the collapse of the Hays Code. Some of the most memorable Hollywood depictions of drag and cross-dressing include Queen Christina (1933), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Glen or Glenda (1953), Victor/Victoria (1982), Tootsie (1982), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), and The Birdcage (1996), but there are plenty of other noteworthy examples.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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