It is dangerous to call a film director “your favorite” and foolish to name any “best.”
Nonetheless, Billy Wilder is the prime candidate for me when I make either sweeping generalization. Problematic with Wilder, he attained 18 screen-writing credits (plus uncredited writing), directed 27 movies, and/or produced 14 total. Among this formidable tally, there are a disproportionate number of Screen Classics including Wilder’s Sabrina, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd, and Some Like It Hot …that are all also on my list of All-Time Favorite Movies.
Never one to mince words about his failures and/or regrets, Wilder labeled The Seven Year Itch—his first teaming with Marilyn Monroe—a dud and the production, a disaster. Wilder not only owned up to his displeasure with their legendary rough shoot, but also labeled their movie "a nothing picture…It just didn't come off one bit, and there's nothing I can say about it except I wish I hadn't made it.” Of course, when he made those remarks, Wilder was fully aware The Seven-Year Itch had already been acknowledged a Comedy Classic.
Billy Wilder’s frustration with Marilyn Monroe’s lateness, more than 50 takes for single lines, and ever-present acting coach, Paula Strasberg, on the set of Some Like It Hot is well documented. The shoot was over-budget and the collaboration was cantankerous and spurred Wilder’s hilarious appraisal of ever working with Monroe again: “I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant, and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again." Of course the result of their second collaboration is the movie comedy Gold Standard.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Some Like It Hot, but I remember the first time was on its release date in Chicago. I met my cousin at the United Artists Theater in the Loop—we saw it once—then stayed to see it a second time. Current thinking minimizes sophistication before today: the audience understood the movie well enough, but we laughed so much and so loudly that we missed many of the lines during the first screening.
Today the movie is still funny, but now I admire Some Like It Hot more than I laugh at it—because it is simply a magnificent piece of screen work. Always on lists of Best Hollywood Movies, it usually ranks first on any list of Best Hollywood Comedies.
A loose remake of an obscure 1951 German remake of a 1935 French film, everything is right with Some Like It Hot from the get-go. The first of any list of attributes obviously must be Billy Wilder’s genius. He set his movie in the 1920s and uncharacteristically opens it with the violence of St. Valentine’s Day Massacre because he knew he had to make drag a matter of life-and-death for his cross-dressers to be funny. His screenplay mixes sight gags, one-liners, double entendres, and Hollywood references with perceptive character development. The perfect last line of the film— “Nobody’s Perfect.” —hits comedy pay dirt every time. Wilder’s casting was also on the mark. Tony Curtis provides his best movie performance as well as an amusing impersonation of Cary Grant; Jack Lemon, one of the most gifted screen comedians in history, arguably gives his best comedic performance…and you know where this is heading: Marilyn Monroe. The quintessential Movie Goddess. That body. That face. That voice. That Talent.
When Jane Russell gives flawless support to Monroe as Lorelei Lee, we watch Monroe; when Monroe gives a supporting performance of stars Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, we watch Monroe. We watch Monroe in her scenes with Gable, The King of the Movies, and we watch Monroe while Ethel Merman belts Irving Berlin’s show business anthem somewhere in the same frame. Leading Man Lord Olivier’s Shakespearean theatrics in full throttle or Yves Montand’s Gallic joie-de-vivre on cruise control—we watch Monroe.
In Monroe movies, we are spellbound by her sex appeal, touched by her vulnerability, and awed by her humor, and every Marilyn Monroe scene is galvanized by her star power. So if ever able to work with the uniquely luminous Monroe again, Billy Wilder re-assessed that whatever the stress, he could indeed never be too old, too rich, or too smart not to welcome that opportunity; he concluded, “She was an absolute genius as a comedic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comedic dialogue. It was a God-given gift. Believe me, in the last fifteen years there were ten projects that came to me, and I'd start working on them and I'd think, ‘It’s not going to work, it needs Marilyn Monroe.’ There were actresses and there was Marilyn Monroe. Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”