Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Marilyn in "Some Like It Hot"

Hollywood's reigning sex symbol of the 1950s, until her untimely death in 1962, was Marilyn Monroe.  She still makes headlines.  If today someone found previously unseen home movies of Marilyn Monroe, the network evening news would have a feature on that discovery.  Monroe's sex appeal was magnetic.
Men all over the world wanted a kiss from Marilyn Monroe.  From the guy next door, to your dad, to international world leaders.  Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are Oscar nominees for their portrayals of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn.  The movie covers events in Monroe's life during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl.  That 1957 film was directed by Olivier, Monroe's Oscar-winning British co-star and famed Shakespearean actor.
Monroe's performance in that comedy rates re-appreciation.  It's one of her smartest and sexiest.  She outshines Olivier.  He bellows.  She purrs.  He plays to the balcony.  She plays to the movie camera.  It's not a great film, but very entertaining.  Her next film, a 1959 box office hit, is entertaining and great -- Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot.
As 1920s bandsinger Sugar Kane, she carbonates the hormones of two desperate musicians played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  They're desperate to keep from being killed by gangsters.  They witnessed a gangland slaying in Chicago.  They're so desperate to escape machine guns (phallic symbols) that they change their names, dress in drag...
 ...and join an all-girl jazz band called Sweet Sue's Society Syncopators on a train to Florida. 
This is a comedy of cover-ups, false fronts and sexual innuendo.  The boys pretend to be girls.  Tony Curtis' character pretends to be a girl and another boy in order to woo Sugar.  He pretends to be a shy, bespectacled millionaire.  Sugar pretends to be a society girl so she can hook that rich fish on a yacht and marry a millionaire.  Her fishing attire is made up of dresses that all look like lingerie.
Even the band appears to be something it's not onstage.  During the Florida gig, Sweet Sue's band is booked to play lame Lawrence Welk-type music.  On the train, we discover those girls can really give out with some hot jazz.  They're closer to Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars than they are Lawrence Welk's conservative style.  And in this classic movie gender bender, the logo on the sheet music stands for the girls in the band looks like a long lisp.  SSSS for Sweet Sue's Society Syncopators.  (Notice the left side of this color production still.)
If you've never seen Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, you need to keep in mind what I wrote earlier.  Marilyn Monroe was the reigning Hollywood sex symbol of her day.  Men all over the world dreamed of being with her.  That's why casting her as Sugar Kane is so brilliant.  She deliciously delivered exactly what Wilder needed to drive his comedy and make it work.  She's what makes the sexual tension so funny.  Tony Curtis masquerading as the Shell Oil millionaire in need of sexual therapy...
...and Jack Lemmon as "Daphne" both fulfill the fantasy of just about every straight male moviegoer that time -- they each get to go horizontal alone at night with Marilyn Monroe.
BUT...they can't show an obvious throbbing reaction to her great sexual charisma or else their "covers" will be blown, their true identities discovered and their lives will be in danger.  Jack Lemmon's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  Lemmon and Curtis won critical raves for their work in this Wilder comedy.  The one who got overlooked was Monroe.  But just try to imagine this film without her.  She gave a glowing variation on her done-before theme of dumb blonde out to marry a millionaire ("Real diamonds.  They must be worth their weight in gold.").  Today, it's considered an iconic performance.  Entertainment Weekly magazine felt it was Oscar-nomination worthy in its look back at performances that didn't get nominated.  I was a youngster when Monroe was still alive.  She was constantly in the headlines for being an international Hollywood sex symbol and superstar but she rarely got any respect as an actress.  Monroe was a master at screen comedy.  Her work in How To Marry A Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Prince and the Showgirl and, of course, Some Like It Hot still hold up after all these decades.  But, in her lifetime, her acting skills really weren't appreciated or highlighted by the entertainment press.  That's a shame.  If Monroe-impersonator, Madonna, delivered the kind of raw, wounded dramatic performance that Marilyn did in her last completed film, John Huston's The Misfits, there would probably be Oscar buzz.  Marilyn Monroe made Some Like It Hot even hotter.  When it came to critics' attention for her film acting craft, just like Sugar Kane, Marilyn Monroe always seemed to get "the fuzzy end of the lollipop."  Here's some trivia about a memorable bit player in Billy Wilder's comedy:  Sugar's roommate, Dolores, is the band member who tells the joke about "the one-legged jockey."  Dolores was played by the late Beverly Wills.
Beverly appeared on a 1950s sitcom.  Her mother was movie & radio comedienne Joan Davis.   Davis starred on the sitcom, I Married Joan.  Beverly, along with Jim Backus, co-starred on that TV series.  Joan's daughter in real life, Beverly played Joan's sister.  A casualty of a house fire, Wills passed away in 1963, a year after Marilyn Monroe.

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