Some Like It Hot probably couldn’t be made today, but 60 years on, it still feels timeless. Even if the situation created by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond tests cultural sensitivity in 2019, the characters within it and their foibles endure, and most of all, the performances by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are simply iconic. In fact, it’s a movie you can watch purely for the acting and it feels completely fresh and exciting and funny and contemporary, which accounts for why we continue to celebrate it six decades on even as the zeitgeist perhaps rightfully questions where the right boundaries should be between funny ideas about people and ones that just plain make fun of them.
I suppose the movie gets away with the idea of two men in drag because it acknowledges from the outset that these two men, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), are already ridiculous in their ordinary clothes. Before they succumb to the decision to stow away with an all-female band, Joe’s already sold their winter coats - in zero-degree Chicago - and gambled away the money to win them back, and Jerry, well, Jerry’s gone along with Joe’s harebrained plans. Their disguise becomes a literal matter of life and death after witnessing the mass murder of a stoolpigeon and his crew by a decidedly unforgiving mob boss, Spats Columbo (George Raft) - elevating the stakes of their deception, even if it provides some nice scenery, and mighty temptation, for the two perennial bachelors.
What resonates today is not the machinery of the plot but the personality of Joe and Jerry, whom Curtis and Lemmon bring to life so vividly that you could plug them into virtually any scenario, no matter how mundane, and they’d bring it to life. Wilder and Diamond’s dialogue sizzles with a speed and ferocity - not quite the dizzying wordplay of, say, the Marx Brothers’ movies, but perfectly suited to two characters who hustle out of sheer desperation if not always the skill to pull their schemes off. Meanwhile, the writing keeps the plot moving while presenting these two doofuses with one painfully identifiable challenge after another, such as during their train ride, when a private conversation Jerry hopes will provide an opportunity to woo the comely Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) escalates into an all-out party with the entire band that not only ruins his romantic overtures but threatens to expose them both before they can reach a safe distance from their pursuers.
What’s remarkable about Curtis is that he was always an actor with grace and dignity, and it makes his portrait of Josephine that much more convincing - well, at least Joe as Josephine: he seems like a guy who’s constantly trying to get through each moment with as little embarrassment as possible, lending his phony female saxophonist a delicacy that sells the fact she’s a woman. By comparison, Lemmon, and Jerry, are shameless hams both of them, and that conciliatory, immersive commitment to getting by is often what gets both the actor and his character into and out of trouble. His efforts to manufacture anecdotes from the first moments they join the band are wonderfully well-intentioned and all hysterical, but there’s something so effortless and likeable about every gesture, every little “improvisation” and reaction that it makes his slow transformation into the woman of Osgood Fielding’s (Joe E. Brown) dreams feel somehow utterly believable.
I don’t want to sell short what Monroe brings to the movie, but even a casual investigation into the making of the film reveals the numerous issues that the actress was dealing with at the time, as well as the tremendous effort that Wilder and her co-stars made to draw out of her the great performance that she ends up giving. Struggling with addiction to pills, Monroe had trouble focusing to the tune of almost half a million dollars in cost overruns during the production just trying to get her to deliver her lines correctly. All was later forgiven when the film came together, but in spite of the obstacles, Monroe manages to sort of perfectly inhabit what the role needs, which is a flightiness and yet a solid core of goodness, wrapped in a bombshell’s body. It’s no wonder that Joe falls head over heels for Sugar, whose true sweetness far transcends her physical attributes.
Ultimately, it’s the whole cast and crew’s commitment to an idea that on its face seem so damn silly that makes it work so well. Jerry is simultaneously horrified to be pursued and deeply flattered that he’s being pursued by a man of the right means. Joe falls so hard for Sugar that he invents a third persona, “Junior,” but finds himself too susceptible to her advances to maintain the ruse that he’s “frigid” - an easy victory for Monroe the actress. And Sugar looks to her two new friends for advice how to win herself a wealthy man after chasing a string of charming losers, only to fall right back into the same habits even after realizing that Joe is just like the rest. Though its language and rhythms were reflective not just of Wilder’s work but the tone and substance of the era, Some Like It Hot nevertheless felt like wonderful, controlled chaos back in 1959; 60 years later, it crackles with the same unpredictable energy - but more than that, the thing the movie continues to do best is make the whole process, from plot to performance, look just unimaginably cool.