Marilyn and the Wilder Women of ‘Some Like It Hot’

The film-focused e-zine Bright Wall Dark Room has devoted its latest issue (#87) to the films of Billy Wilder, with Fran Hoepfner looking back fondly on Some Like It Hot. (You can read BWDR‘s 2010 review of The Misfits here.)

“I’m not here to ask the question of whether Some Like It Hot holds up. Of course Some Like It Hot holds up! For crying out loud, what a bad question … Marilyn Monroe—perhaps the most iconic capital-P Person in movie history—is magnetic. The second you see it, the whole of 20th century history becomes clear. Surely one person could not live up to the hype. Monroe does. Infinite charisma. Rather than be objectified, she is the whirling center of the film.

So Joe and Jerry perform Josephine and Daphne (Geraldine’s a no-go) and board the train south to Florida. They’re on a one-way trip not only to paradise but to Paradise; they are, in effect, killing off Joe and Jerry … Easy as pie, until they get a glimpse of Sugar Kane née Kowalczyk … She’s drinking and she’s tempting and she’s an emblem of everything Joe and Jerry are running away from, which is to say, the hot life. ‘I don’t want you to think I’m a drinker,’ she says, ‘I can stop anytime I want to, only I don’t want to, especially when I’m blue.’

‘We understand,’ they commiserate, because they do. She is the beacon, the obelisk, the most glowing reminder of everything they’re trying to get away from … Some Like It Hot is about gender if you think gender is outfits. No, it’s more complicated than that. It’s about fear, too. Lack of safety and security. It’s about holding up, barreling foolishly into the future.

The women of the band are not stupid or shallow. They are Wilder women: smart and playful and frantic and funny. Can anyone imagine a more perfect place than a train car full of female musicians? As they schlep down to Miami, tucked away in their sleeper cots, Sugar sneaks up to Daphne’s bunk. Jerry—who is Daphne, don’t forget—in an act of generosity or horniness or some combination of the two, took the fall for her when her flask slipped out of an unknown part of her dress. Now that lights are out, she’s eager to return the favor and imbibe up in Daphne’s bunk. (A quick drop of the bourbon: ‘How’s the bottle?’ Sugar asks. ‘Half-full,’ Daphne tells her, beaming. She really believes she’s on the other side of things now.)

Poor Jerry, nestled up against a beautiful woman, knowing there’s little he can do besides act the role he’s chosen for himself. This is how he survives, removing every possible temptation he would have previously succumbed to. But then something miraculous happens, not with Jerry or Daphne, and not with Sugar, but with every other woman in the band: they join in … There is something magical about the group using not a real cocktail shaker but a hot water bottle: an object I use for my aching back, my cramped abdomen. They make do with what they have. There’s no strain for anything more.

The scene, albeit short, is perfect. Perfect! Not only because cubed ice is served on a cymbal, but because Wilder knows enough to show us a slice of what can be … The fête dissolves, the night stretches on, the train hurdles south—further from Chicago, the men further from themselves.

That Joe takes on a third personality, one that is not his standard self (Joe) or his feminine self (Josephine) but a rich, white, stupid magnate, the peak of a capitalist patriarchal society, is like choosing to become the villain in your own life. Tony Curtis has that hot sensibility, which is a smart way of saying that he is literally a hot person. He hops over to another identity, leaving Daphne-and-Jerry in the dust … Sugar falls for it too—she’d quit drinking if she wanted to, etc.—because the allure of the safety Junior can provide is too great. He has a boat! Or: he pretends to have a boat! If a train can’t get a person far from themselves, maybe a boat can.

I won’t spoil the final line of the film if you’ve somehow lived this long without having it spoiled for you, but what I can say to you is that the escape from the self is a circle, a loop. It’s impossible to enact. As a train speeds ahead, as a boat jets off into the sea, as two men slip up the icy streets of Chicago, there’s always a glimpse over the shoulder to see if someone is following close behind and if that person is the same as the one running. How long can a thing like this hold up? The movie, sure, but the Monroe of it all, the snappiness of it all, the me that watches and knows knows knows it’s doing something others could never pull off. Maybe it’s worth it to stop, take inventory, slide an ice cube off a cymbal and into a tumbler. To make a toast to what won’t ever be perfect.”