Matt Connolly on Some Like It Hot
Listen to the accompanying podcast to this article.
The plan is simple, at least by the standards of Hollywood farce. On the run from the Chicago mob after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Massacre, down-and-out jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) decide to skip town by hastily joining a traveling band; specifically, an all-female band en route to Florida. A little padding here and a dash (or a trowel) of make-up there, and Joe and Jerry will be on a train south, successfully throwing gangsters who are searching for a male saxophonist and bass player off the trail. They even have easy-to-remember yet successfully feminized monikers: Josephine and Geraldine. Of course, one of the pleasures of Some Like It Hot comes from the multiplicity of ways we imagine just how crazily wrong things can go when two men are shoehorned into the skirts they are used to chasing. And from the first moment we see Curtis and Lemmon, valiantly attempting to maneuver a busy train station in high heels and jaunty hats, the scenes of ill-timed ladies’ room visits and fumbling girl talk practically write themselves.
Joe and Jerry makes their way to the train entrance, where they are checked in by simpering band manager Beinstock (Dave Barry) and Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee), the ulcer-bedeviled band leader. We anticipate Curtis and Lemmon comically vamping in their attempt to pass; we eagerly await the looks of narrow-eyed suspicion (or oblivious acceptance) from Sue and Beanstock. But I would bet that, watching Some Like It Hot for the first time, we don’t expect what happens next. Asked for a name, Curtis demurely answers, according to plan, “My name is Josephine.” Lemmon waits half a beat, and then announces in an answer that seems to surprise even himself: “I’m Daphne!”
On paper, it’s a non sequitur, a plot quirk meant to add a moment of giggly suspense to the film’s masquerade. (It also sets up one of the funniest and most sneakily complex justifications in American film comedy: “Well, I never did like the name Geraldine!” Lemmon muses when Curtis furiously asks about the last-second switcheroo). To view it, however, is to witness a comic epiphany. You have to see the way surprise, uncertainty, and a kind of wide-eyed thrill all surge across Lemmon’s features as he re-christens his new female self, not to mention the look on Curtis’s face as he turns to Lemmon with barely suppressed incredulity. Mostly, though, you have to hear Lemmon say the line. The name change isn’t telegraphed by stammering, but bursts forth from Lemmon in a surge of unhinged gusto that’s followed almost instantaneously by disbelief. These twin impulses tumble over one another as the two words escape Lemmon’s lips. First the “I’m,” spoken in a somewhat lower and more hesitant pitch, a question mark never before considered suddenly seeming to appear next to the word. Then the name itself: the first syllable swept up by the warbly honk of Lemmon’s voice, the second making a bumpy return to the deeper register via a priceless vocal half-crack. It’s a gleefully matter-of-fact proclamation, a bewildering subconscious admission, and the gateway through which one really enters Wilder’s role-playing burlesque, where blissfully cracked confusion reigns supreme. That, and it’s pretty damn funny.
When we think of a “line reading,” it’s often in relatively minor terms: a momentary pleasure for the audience, a fleeting flash of inspiration from an actor. To discuss the meat and potatoes of great film performance is to focus on facial and bodily gesture, both often at their most impressive when divorced from dialogue altogether. Such an argument tends to get more traction amongst cineastes than an acknowledgment of the subtle mixture of calculation and spontaneity that imbues a given line of dialogue with wit, sadness, or mystery. This can partially be attributed to how much stock film lovers justifiably put into the medium’s unique visual qualities, reflexively labeling movies that rest too heavily on dialogue as talky (ouch!) or, worse, stagy (say it ain’t so!).
And there’s the weirdly mutable quality of film dialogue itself. “Great lines” are often in greatest danger of being mangled in the gears of pop culture referentiality. A majestic landscape or a mind-melting montage remains ensconced within their original cinematic context. Dialogue, on the other hand, is easily transported out of the theater, and can be over-quoted, reappropriated, and parodied until we no longer can watch—and hear!—the original moment without having to scrape away the thick layers of ancillary meanings that have mossed over it (or, depending upon your temperament, fed off it like leeches).
This is by no means a water-tight argument. At best, an actor and a line of dialogue can connect with such electric force that they produce an iconic moment: DeNiro inquiring just who that invisible man in the mirror is talking to, or Gloria Swanson dreamily hissing to DeMille to ready the camera for her close-up. (How ironic that Norma Desmond, that font of film-geek quotables, longed more than anything to return to the purity of screen silence.) Or, you can find those lines whose content and delivery seem to almost float above their on-screen context, becoming a kind of epigraph for the films in which they exist and even a mission statement for those who make them.
Take Joe E. Brown’s famous final declaration in Some Like It Hot that “nobody’s perfect.” Delivered with such cock-eyed equanimity by Brown, it ends the film with both an exclamation point and a sly ellipsis, and handily summarizes Wilder’s bemused shrug of an attitude toward sexuality, not to mention the human race. Yet every time I watch Some Like It Hot (and that’s got to be somewhere in the double digits by now), I’m always struck by the slightly detached quality of that last line, the way it seems to stand apart and assess the film it concludes with a wry half-smile. I suppose this is not a bad thing for a closing bit of dialogue to do, yet there’s something a touch too general about it. It’s the platonic ideal of a Wilder clincher; ironically, almost too perfect to come from the mouths of one of his characters at any other point than at the very last second. “I’m Daphne,” on the other hand, could only come from the mouth of Daphne/Jerry/Lemmon at just that moment. It’s too nuttily specific in its layered comic delivery to really make sense, much less be funny or meaningful, in any other context. The line handily calls the bluff of anyone who thinks that film acting begins and ends with a tear-streaked close-up. It can, but it can also be richly verbal in the way that an actor can take black lettering on a white page and find within it a hundred shades of gray; or, in Lemmon’s case, all the colors of a gender-bending rainbow.
Yet the moment can also be seen as reflective of the whole film, a kind of Rosetta stone by which we can grasp Some Like It Hot’s comic rhythms. This scene is the first time we’ve seen Lemmon and Curtis interact with others as “women,” and their differences in temperament quickly become apparent: Curtis, the prim lady in pearls; Lemmon, an all-over-the-place gal with a coat decked out in leopard-print trim. Still, it’s their vocal differences that prove the most memorable, and the most illuminating. While Lemmon’s voice wobbles unsteadily between pinched falsettos, squawky outbursts, and slurry purrs, Curtis’ measured warble remains a model of consistency. Joe/Josephine is a smooth schemer, and the control he exhibits over his vocal disguise succinctly reflects his ability to alter himself and manipulate others (most notably Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane Kowalcyzk). Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s script highlights this by giving Curtis a second aural disguise: Junior, the fraudulent millionaire persona that Curtis cooks up to seduce the gold-digging Sugar, by way of a spot-on Cary Grant impersonation that is a parody of moneyed nonchalance. While Curtis flips between his three distinct voices (sometimes in the same scene), Lemmon often seems barely in control of one, sliding between male and female registers with increasing frequency as the two dig themselves ever deeper into romantic complications: Joe with Sugar, Jerry with Brown’s lascivious millionaire, Osgood Fielding III. (The fact that Wilder chose to post-dub Curtis’s Josephine voice while keeping Lemmon’s on-set vocals only enhances this sonic dichotomy, and perhaps helps to explain it.) One only has to listen to these clashing vocal styles bounce off one another in any given scene to think that Some Like It Hot might be that rare thing: a comedy about cross-dressing men that might actually be funny to watch with your eyes closed.
It’s no insult to Curtis, however, to say that Lemmon’s aural instability proves most key to understanding the film’s spirit of spinning-top sexual anarchy. This unexpected act of renaming proves to be only the first two-step that Jerry will perform in matters of gender performance. That night on the train, he seems ready to blow his and Joe’s cover for a chance to bed Sugar, only to burst into a cold sweat when she engages in a bit of sisterly snuggling (“I’m a girl!” he croaks to himself as Sugar innocuously rubs her feet against his). Then there’s his relationship with Osgood, which begins as part of Joe’s scheme—Jerry and Osgood go salsa-dancing on shore so he can use Osgood’s empty yacht to wine-and-dine Sugar—and ends in a marriage proposal that Jerry is ready to accept. Jerry’s zig-zag path to romance can be followed via Lemmon’s voice: the initial yelps of disapproval; the flirtations whose purposeful insincerity suddenly become invested with a hint of sultry growl. That twinge of wild-eyed abandon we detect in Lemmon’s early line delivery comes magnificently to the fore as he describes his would-be matrimonial bliss to an uncomprehending Joe. He is Daphne, madly swept up in what—if he has his way—would literally become the role of a lifetime.
Then again, let’s not get carried away here. So many classical Hollywood films need to have asterisks guiltily placed next to them, with recommendations to friends oscillating between aesthetic praise and political apology. (“Really, The Band Wagon is awesome!... Well, yes, I am aware that Fred Astaire does a dance with a shoe-shining minstrel stereotype, but, um...isn’t the Technicolor ravishing?”) To find a film like Some Like It Hot that still feels sharp and even a bit daring in its take on sexuality and gender feels like a gift from the culturally sensitive gods of cinema. Yet it’s easy to let the seductive pull of these feelings encourage us to wedge this shape-shifter of a film into a somewhat strained queer reading. Wilder provides himself with multiple escape hatches throughout the film, lest we explicitly read Jerry’s head-over-heels engagement with Osgood as anything more than a quirky way to get some lucrative alimony payments. Furthermore, Jerry and Osgood largely play second fiddle to Joe and Sugar’s romance, which remains safely within the province of heterosexual coupling.
But if Lemmon’s journey towards full-on gender ambiguity finds itself curtailed by the constraints of the industry producing it (and, perhaps, the artists creating it), I still never fail to be tickled and touched by the site of him at that train station, proclaiming his new identity with equal parts brio and bafflement. Indeed, I think it’s this hesitant embrace of the transgressive that not only makes Some Like It Hot so endearing, but also enduring. Why did Jerry make the switch? You won’t find the answer per se amidst the cracks and quavers of Lemmon’s kinda female, sorta male, wholly idiosyncratic voice. What you do discover is a moment of human uncertainty that’s rollicking and lovely and a little bit crazed, and that is something special indeed. Who ever did like the name Geraldine?