Films are a visual medium. The act of looking in film is unavoidable. In a comedy; we are encouraged to look and to laugh at what we see. One of the issues which Some Like it Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder) deals with is that of looking; of being a witness to something which we shouldn’t have seen, of seeing a side or a truth about a character that other characters have not, of watching the spectacle of men in drag, or of gazing (and I use that word deliberately for Laura Mulvey fans) at a woman who is a delight on the eyes.
The main driving force behind the plot of the film is that male jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemon) are witnesses to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They disguise themselves as women so that they can’t be identified and killed for what they have seen. When in drag, the act of seeing is suddenly presented to the audience as something flexible; ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’ are both clearly men dressed as women, and yet none of the other characters can see this. Seeing becomes about seeing only what you want to see, or only what you expect to see; until the audience also starts to suspend their disbelief and see the same thing.
Women are looked at in two different ways in this film. Firstly; ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’ are spectacles because they are men; we see the humour in their pretence and they also enjoy playing along with the illusion. Secondly, Marilyn Monroe, playing Sugar Kane, is depicted throughout the film as an isolated sexual object. Some Like It Hot was marketed on its release as, “the movie too HOT for words”, suggesting that Marilyn’s sex appeal is integral to the film. The word “hot” referring to Monroe’s skimpy costumes, augmented by sexual intrigue and syncopated jazz music.
The reveal of Joe and Jerry’s female personas takes place at the railway station from which they plan to make their escape to a warmer climate. The camera starts by following the men’s legs from behind as they walk down the platform, so that the audience is invited to objectify them as if they were leering at two females. When Marilyn Monroe’s character Sugar walks past, the camera performs this sequence again, following her from behind but from a slightly higher angle, in order to emphasise her long legs. The station announcer’s voice fades away as the camera pans down to her posterior; swanky saxophone music plays, her heels clunking as she goes and the men look on in awe. However, they almost seem more impressed by her talent at walking in heels than the way she is built, as Jerry exclaims, “Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something…” Their own attempts at traversing the railway platform have given them an odd kind of respect for her.
During Monroe’s performance of “I wanna be loved by you” the camera draws in slowly. From a distance her near-transparent dress almost makes it look as if she is not wearing anything. Marilyn Monroe’s soft, quavering voice and the way she moves enhances her femininity even further. We are encouraged to see Sugar’s femininity as an elegant contrast to ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’.
In the yacht/dance floor sequence when Joe woos Sugar in the guise of a millionaire and Joe wins over millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Brown) in the guise of a woman, the comedy lies in the exploitation. It is not centrally women who are being exploited, however. Joe may be pretending to be the heir to the Shell oil company to win over Sugar, but she is also pretending to be something she is not. Osgood may be getting fresh with ‘Daphne’, but ‘Daphne’ isn’t an eligible female. She/he is not even female. Every character is being exploited in one way or another; is being used and is used by others, and I suppose that makes it fair. Even Joe uses Jerry for his access to Osgood’s yacht. The fact that, as an audience, we can see all of this simultaneously is half of the fun.
Comedy films in particular have a tendency to rely on stereotypes as a form of shorthand. Arguably, the characters in Some Like it Hot are all well-drawn stereotypes, (the mob leader, the randy old millionaire, the cougar looking for a rich man to marry.) Ultimately, these gender stereotypes seem to balance each other out; women may be heavily sexualised, but this only backfires on the characters of Joe and Jerry when they too become exploited as sexual objects, albeit only when they are dressed as women. Sugar might fall for Joe and Jerry’s ridiculous costumes, but then so does everyone else. We assume that with stereotypes, what we see will be exactly what we get, but the audience constantly has the rug pulled out from under them – this is part of what makes us laugh in Some Like it Hot.
Marilyn Monroe, as chief sexual object in the film, is never really the subject of a joke, and certainly the humour never revolves around her sexuality. Most of the comedy in the film lies in pushing the boundaries of acceptable humour; with themes like cross-dressing and possible (semi-accidental!) homosexuality, death and impotence. As a film which deals with taboos, I would refer to Some Like it Hot as ‘Taboo Lite’, but – let’s put it this way – it probably goes about as far as it could go in the fifties. Billy Wilder uses his film to raise issues of seeing, sex and sexiness in the safest possible way – through the medium of comedy. We are encouraged to see sex and gender issues from different perspectives and through the eyes of different characters. Questions are posed and scenarios are explored which are still just as relevant in this millennium than the last. Plus, it’s funny.