Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Billy Wilder's Game of Deception...and the Wonderment of Jack Lemmon

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
It can be a challenge to review a classic like Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, because so much has been written about it. So, instead of a traditional review, I want to focus on Wilder's theme of deception and also pay tribute to that marvelous actor known as Jack Lemmon.

For those who have never seen Some Like It Hot (and you should truly rectify that immediately), here's a plot synopsis. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, a couple of speakeasy musicians in Chicago in 1929. After losing their jobs when police raid the joint, they struggle to find employment. They become so desperate that Jerry suggests they pose as women for an available gig in sunny Florida with an all-girls band. When Joe and Jerry inadvertently witness a gangland killing, they need to go on the lam--and what better place than Florida disguised as women in an all-girls band?

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar.
The theme of deception is a favorite for Billy Wilder, who used it for comic effect earlier in The Major and the Minor. That 1942 comedy starred Ginger Rogers as a young woman who poses as a 12-year-old to save on train fare. With Some Like It Hot, Wilder ups the ante by adding several layers of deception. The most obvious one, of course, is Joe and Jerry posing as female musicians Josephine and Daphne. But Wilder delves deeper into deception when Joe decides to woo Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band's attractive blonde singer.

Junior explains the Shell Oil name.
Joe, in the guise of Josephine, befriends Sugar and learns about her perfect man: a gentle, sweet, helpless millionaire with a yacht or train who wears glasses ("they get those weak eyes from reading those long tiny little columns in The Wall Street Journal").  Possessing that knowledge, Joe transforms himself into Junior, the sensitive, glasses-wearing, Wall Street Journal-reading heir to the Shell Oil fortune. It's no wonder that Sugar falls for him immediately.

Of course, Sugar isn't above a few lies herself. When she first meets Junior, she implies that she comes from a wealthy family and even introduces Daphne as a "Vassar girl." Earlier in the film, we also learn that Sugar deceives the band's manager by swearing off her fondness for alcoholic beverages--while keeping a handy flask hidden under her garter belt.

It's no plot spoiler to reveal that, even after the truth comes out, Joe and Sugar wind up together. Still, one has to wonder about the success of a relationship built on deception. Fortunately, this is reel life--not real life--and so a likable cast and a well-written script make us forget about the realities of the situation (just as we do at the end of The Graduate).

Daphne dancing with Osgood.
Reality has nothing to do with the other romantic relationship in Some Like It Hot: Daphne's wooing by a real millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). After a night of dancing, Osgood proposes marriage and Daphne, or rather Jerry, actually considers it because Osgood is a nice guy and provides security. When Joe tries to point out the obvious challenges, Jerry replies: "I'm not stupid. I know there's a problem. His mother. We need her approval. But I'm not worried, because I don't smoke."

Jack Lemmon gives a tour-de-force performance as Jerry/Daphne, transforming from a man who sees women as sex objects to one who can see them as friends. Joe's first remark when he sees Sugar is: "That's just like jello on springs." But later when a man pinches him as Daphne, he's not amused. His growing friendship with Sugar, even though it's in the guise of Daphne, is probably the strongest relationship in the film.

Daphne on the train.
Lemmon has the best scenes in the movie, including my personal favorite. After he covers up for Sugar's drinking on the train ride to Florida, she joins Jerry (as Daphne) in his upper berth. The scantily-clad Sugar snuggles up close to him and, upon discovering his cold feet, begins to rubs them with her feet. Jerry turns away briefly and mutters a reminder to himself: "I'm a girl. I'm a girl."

It's a great line, a classic Wilder situation, and features one of the finest actors of his generation. Who could ask for more?


  1. As fine a piece on this oft-lauded film as I have ever read. Your approach was perfect and your insights true. Sometimes we need that different perspective to renew our appreciation for something that became too familiar.

  2. Love this review! Love Jack Lemmon!

  3. I like that you focused on the deception in this film, and there is a lot of it! I hadn't considered the friendship between "Daphne" and Sugar, but I agree it is the strongest relationship in the film.

    Terrific review, Rick!

  4. Some Like it Hot is one of those movies that I wasn't blown away by at first, but repeat viewings have drastically altered my opinion for the better. When I first saw it, I felt so put off by the deceitful way Joe tries to hook up with Sugar, I think it distracted me from what a great movie it actually is. The second time around, I was able to see that Sugar wasn't so pure and innocent herself, lying to "Junior" about her breeding (though she's still at a disadvantage because she doesn't know that he knows she's lying). Also, I wasn't giving Joe enough credit for trying to do the noble thing once he develops real feelings for Sugar.

    I was lucky enough to see Some Like it Hot in a theater once. When the movie got to the scene where Jerry announces his engagement to Osgood, even though his dialogue was deliberately spaced out by the maraca shaking, a portion of what he said was still drowned out by audience laughter. "Nobody's perfect" is probably one of the most famous final lines of any movie, but it still managed to get a huge laugh over four decades after the movie's original release.