Today, Some Like It Hot is considered one of the great classic comedies of all time. Based on an obscure French film about musicians out of work, Billy Wilder and his partner I.A.L. Diamond extracted one section of the story where they are forced to dress as women in order to get work.
The idea seemed a perfect comedic situation (one used again and again in later films, such as 1982’s Tootsie) but Wilder wanted a strong premise for why the two main characters had to impersonate women throughout the story. He hit on the idea of setting the film in the 1920s and having his heroes Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) unwittingly witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Disguised as women, they escape gangsters who want to rub them out by finding work with an all-women band that’s on its way to a gig at a resort in Florida.
As Josephine (Curtis) and Daphne (Lemmon) they are soon captivated by the band’s singer/ukulele player Sugar (Marilyn Monroe). They befriend her as women, while both men plot to seduce her. When he finds out she’s planning to find a rich millionaire in Florida, Joe takes on yet another persona, Junior, the heir to the Shell Oil Empire.
As Daphne, Jerry finds himself with an admirer of his own—a real millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).
Purloining Osgood’s yacht for a date with Sugar, Joe/Junior puts on an act about how he is “washed-up” as far as women are concerned (1950s movie code for “impotent”). Sugar becomes determined to “cure” Junior of his affliction, resulting in Joe/Junior successfully seducing her.
Meanwhile, on a date with Osgood, Daphne/Jerry and Osgood close down the restaurant as they dance the tango long into the night, resulting in a proposal of marriage for Daphne.
Joe is dismayed to find out that he is genuinely falling for Sugar and appalled Jerry has accepted Osgood’s proposal. All of this seems moot when they realize the very gangsters who want them dead have now arrived at their hotel for a convention and will no doubt kill them if they find them.
While there are certainly problematic parts of the movie, it’s amazing how well it still holds up as far as a satire of gender roles.
Yes, Joe and Jerry are a couple of rats when it comes to women—and that’s kind of the point. Like Michael Dorsey in Tootsie, both get a big lesson in what it’s like to live in a woman’s high heels, and it’s not only because the shoes are uncomfortable.
“I’m not even pretty!” cries Jerry when he is pinched in the elevator by one of the gangsters. As women both have to put up with unwanted advances—in Josephine’s case, they come from an obnoxious bell boy who thinks he’s God’s gift to women. All the men seem to think the women have to find them irresistible, no matter their own looks or situation in life. Both guys have a mirror held up to them of their own behavior.
Joe’s seduction of Sugar comes out of 1950s movie screenwriting 101—the impotence/fear of being gay line as a seduction ploy was used a LOT in 1950s movies (especially Doris Day movies) and was still around when the TV show Friends used it in its pilot episode in the early 1990s. While on one level it’s appalling, it’s still a very funny scene, mainly because of Curtis’ hilarious impression of Cary Grant (done to please Wilder, who always wanted to work with Grant) and Monroe’s vulnerability. Even though Monroe was famously difficult during the shoot, her performance is so endearing it’s not hard to buy that Joe would genuinely fall in love with her.
Wilder originally considered Frank Sinatra for the role of Jerry, but the story goes he failed to show up at the audition. He decided to go with Lemmon based on his performance in the movie Operation Mad Ball. Some Like It Hot was the first of several films Lemmon and Wilder would make together.
Certainly, Jerry is more of a supporting role than Joe and Sugar, but Lemmon gets two of the most memorable scenes in the movie, and they are both absolutely iconic:
After Joe returns from his date on the yacht with Sugar, he finds Jerry with a pair of maracas, humming a tango. Jerry announces he is engaged to Osgood.
The maracas were Wilder’s idea. He instructed Lemmon to punctuate his argument with Joe with shakes of the maracas and humming of the tango music. Lemmon was puzzled until Wilder explained that this would allow the audience time to laugh at each joke without missing any of the dialogue.
The comic timing of the scene is impeccable, and Lemmon is perfect as a man who has decided to use one of the few advantages women have over men by marrying a man for his money.
“But there are laws! Conventions!” says Joe.
Not anymore—but it’s still funny today.
The other scene is the last one, with possibly the most famous final line of dialogue in movies:
Escaping from the gangsters on a speed boat with Joe and Sugar, Jerry tries to let Osgood down gently.
Jerry: Osgood, I’m gonna level with you. We can’t get married at all.
Osgood: Why not?
Jerry: Well, in the first place, I’m not a natural blonde.
Osgood: Doesn’t matter.
Jerry: I smoke! I smoke all the time!
Osgood: I don’t care.
Jerry: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I’ve been living with a saxophone player.
Osgood: I forgive you.
Jerry: [tragically] I can never have children!
Osgood: We can adopt some.
Jerry: But you don’t understand, Osgood! Ohh…
[Jerry finally gives up and pulls off his wig]
Jerry: [normal voice] I’m a man!
Osgood: [shrugs] Well, nobody’s perfect!
I would argue it’s not just the dialogue that’s brilliant here, but Lemmon’s reaction to it that makes it such a memorable ending to a great film.
Ironically, Wilder and Diamond were insecure about the ending of the film and the “nobody’s perfect” line. They kept it in because they couldn’t come up with anything else and told themselves they could always change it later.
They changed their minds during a preview, where the audience exploded in laughter.
They simply had no idea they had crafted the best possible line to sum up their story.
Well, nobody’s perfect.