Marilyn Turns Suffering Into Magic in ‘Some Like It Hot’

In the latest instalment of his series for Classic Movie Hub, Gary Vitacco Robles looks at the personal struggles behind Marilyn’s comedic triumph in her most enduringly popular movie, Some Like It Hot.

“Usually tardy and unpredictable, Monroe was letter-perfect while filming long, mentally demanding scenes but had trouble remembering three words in shorter scenes. Of course, this fits the profile of a woman battling Bipolar Disorder while struggling with a high-risk pregnancy throughout the production. Chemically, hormonally, and emotionally, Monroe must have been completely unregulated, but in 1958, she was perceived as neurotic, unprofessional, and temperamental.

Monroe and Lemmon completed the hilarious upper birth bed scene on the Pullman train on the first take. Having learned to pace himself with his co-star, Lemmon was prepared to shoot the entire day. At 9:05 in the morning, the day’s work was done. However, the previous day, Monroe required 37 takes for her two lines.

Monroe was determined to combat Wilder’s interpretation of Sugar Kane as a ‘Betty Boop’ cartoon. If she were reduced to playing a dumb blonde role, there would be none of Wilder’s broad gags. Instead, she would create the portrayal of a three-dimensional character with a heart and soul; a textured performance that would provide the glue to make this farce a cohesive film. Her legendary flubbing and freezing were part of Monroe’s exhaustive process until Wilder conceded. By the 20th take, Monroe’s interpretation looked good to the frustrated director.

Lemmon seemed to empathize most with Monroe’s inner torment while honoring her ability to create a characterization separate from the turmoil the actress was experiencing in her personal and professional life. ‘I saw she was suffering,’ he said. ‘Suffering and still producing that magic on film. It was a courageous performance, really courageous. Most actors only occasionally use all their talent, but Marilyn was using hers constantly, giving everything she had till it hurt, struggling to be better. I was really fascinated to watch her work. She had a certain intelligence in and about her work, and she was smart enough to use herself to make Sugar come alive.’

Filming on location at the historic Hotel Del Coronado threatened to replace Monroe as the source of delays and disruption during the production of a scene with lengthy dialogue between Sugar and Joe posing as Junior. Every ten minutes, a jet from nearby Naval Air Station North Island flew over the beach. ‘I thought it would take about four days to shoot that scene,’ Wilder said. ‘I tried to film between take-offs, but then on the second take everything was there; every sentence of two pages. Not one letter, not one comma was left out. We were finished in less than twenty minutes.’

Monroe was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for ‘nervous exhaustion’ before Wilder and Diamond had written the film’s ending. In the final scene, Wilder’s camera focuses on a close-up of Lemmon and Joe E. Brown in the front seat of the motorboat. Monroe and Tony Curtis are not visible behind them, although they were shown kissing in the boat’s rear seat in the previous sequence. This lack of continuity is due to Monroe’s absence during the filming of Lemmon and Brown’s exchange. Monroe was later rushed to Polyclinic Hospital where she lost the baby. Wilder acknowledged Monroe as a trouper: ‘She insisted on going on until we were ready to finish.’ The actress saved the film at the expense of her losing her baby; but her anguish was inconsolable.

Some Like It Hot grossed $20 million upon the initial release and came in third behind Auntie Mame and The Shaggy Dog as biggest films of 1959 — a time when the average admission cost fifty-one cents. In 2014, the average admission price was $8.35; in today’s prices, the film grossed over $327 million.

‘Monroe steals [the film],’ wrote contemporary film critic Roger Ebert, ‘as she walked away with every movie she was in. It is an act of will to watch anyone else.'”