The Sheer Joy of Marilyn in ‘Some Like It Hot’

Writing for The Film Experience, Cláudio Alves goes in deep on Marilyn’s most beloved role in Some Like It Hot (1959.)

“There’s no way around it – shooting Some Like It Hot was s a living hell for almost everyone involved, most of all Marilyn Monroe. She came into the project after an 18-month hiatus from Hollywood … Judged as unprofessional by her colleagues, the actress was her unpredictable self. Sometimes, she worked through long scenes without a hitch, getting it done in one take. Then, other times, she floundered to remember a few short lines.

By all accounts, her mental state wasn’t all that stable, made worse by a high-risk pregnancy that Orry-Kelly’s Oscar-winning costumes work overtime to conceal … Monroe suffered but managed to produce movie magic along the way, elevating the role into a full-bodied, three-dimensional character that works as the glue holding the film together. She’s its aching wounded center, wherein mirth and misery swirl into each other, embracing until two become one. She’s so good that some theorise Monroe’s flubbing was intentional.

Maybe it was a way to get fired from a job she didn’t want anymore. Or perhaps it was to wield power away from [Billy] Wilder, ensuring her conception of Sugar ended up on-screen and that Paula Strasberg was allowed on set. Whatever the case, I’d argue none of it is of great importance when considering the merits of Monroe’s performance. What’s crucial is that it works, and boy does it work.

In that spirit, let’s move on to the picture proper before finding more film shoot controversy to unearth … Some Like It Hot tells the story of two musicians on the run … To escape the gangsters, the two disguise themselves as women and go on a trip to Miami as the new members of an all-female band … However, the singer/ukulele player Sugar Kane is a gorgeous temptation who might just blow their cover.

Initially, the part of Sugar was conceived as a supporting presence to Lemmon and Curtis’ crossdressing shtick, intended as a sort of straight man figure amid the madness … Rather than playing up Sugar’s potential stupidity regarding the disguised men, she instead conveys a desire for female friendship, something half-mad but heartfelt that transcends any mean-spirited judgments about the singer’s wits … At times, it’s like the film reimagines itself around her inner depths.

But of course, there’s always darkness lurking beneath the froth, the earnestness. She’s got a rocky past revealed in a negligee-clad monologue that hints at unsurmountable loneliness … There’s longing, a need out of show business-bound existence lived between gigs and heartbreaks, a flask at the ready to soothe the pain.

All that said, Marilyn Monroe’s performance in Some Like It Hot is not primarily an expression of sorrow. More than anything, it’s a celebration of joy, funny and full of warmth, a sense of ebullience that carries you from the movie’s frantic plotting to its quiet interludes. Such marvels relate closely to the star’s unique presence, usually attributed to a singular mixture of vulnerability and provocation. However, to reduce Monroe to that is erroneous. Moreover, it doesn’t begin to explain her comedic triumphs, chief among them Some Like It Hot.

Sugar also exemplifies a strange quality that Monroe always imbued her ‘dumb blonde’ characters with – intelligence. Like Lorelei Lee, Elsie, Miss Caswell, and many others before her, Sugar Kane née Kowalczyk wears naivete as a mask that’s not even skin-deep. See beyond it, and you find pragmatism, broken dreams, an ability to see the world for what it is, and maybe a deliberate choice to look the other way. There’s complex humanity in her portrayals of these women, even if directors and scriptwriters hadn’t intended it to be so, a slight twist that cannily subverts sexist tropes even as it appears to support them.

Hell, the singer calls herself dumb in a moment of performed self-awareness that can’t help but puncture the archetype. The subversion is done in a careful balance, never tipping too far into a betrayal of the film’s ode to those who like it hot and surrender wholly to the pleasure of it all. The ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ performance, for example, represents a pinnacle of Sugar and Marilyn’s sexual objectification within Some Like It Hot, its hedonistic abandon in full bloom.

As far as Charles Lang’s cinematography is concerned, this game of insinuation is underlined by the lighting, a shadow sitting midway through the cleavage like an immaterial coverup. It’s a parody of modesty that only makes the sensuality more acute. Still, despite it all, this scene belongs to Sugar through-and-through rather than a metaphorical male gazer, and not just because she’s the ogled body. Monroe’s breathy delivery both serves as Betty Boop-like titillation and as an underlining of Sugar’s softness, the tender soul existing out of reach and beyond the smokescreen of sex appeal. Indeed, she is sex personified, openly flirting with the camera and thus regaining power from it.

You see, this singer is never being unwittingly turned into sex on stage. She’s performing it with full knowledge, looking around to see if it’s working and if her target is watching. Part of it is the layers of performance implied when an entertainer plays an entertainer. Part of it is this magnetic charge that electrifies the screen whenever Monroe does away with one-dimensional sincerity and playacts putting on a show. Part of it is that the breathy delivery and coquettish mannerisms only appear when Sugar knows she’s before men and recedes whenever it’s just girls. From variation comes modulation comes dimension. Another scene that showcases this comes during the absurd seduction.

Though she made the industry fortunes beyond one’s wildest dreams, Hollywood never had much respect for Marilyn Monroe. So it’s no wonder an Academy Award nomination eluded her to the very end. Still, she came close for her comedic tour-de-force in Some Like It Hot, which earned critical acclaim and won her the Golden Globe along with other honors. Even international film festivals recognized her work, with the Faro Island Film Festival bestowing Monroe with a juried Best Actress prize as well as a trophy voted by its audiences. And yet, that wasn’t enough for AMPAS. Though Some Like It Hot nabbed six nominations, Best Actress wasn’t among them.”