April 20th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: PM leads Australia down the slippery slope

Urgent action needed to save Australia's sugar industry

The ALP and the embryonic stem cell issue

NSW Euthanasia bill overwhelmingly defeated

Report recommends relaxing controls over violent computer games

Can the Public Service be depoliticised?

Straws in the Wind: Living fossils / Engineers of human souls

Western Australia: MP looks at SA's marijuana laws

Media misrepresentation on stem cell therapy (letter)

Media bias (letter)

Refugees: where do you stand? (letter)

Water and Australia's priorities (letter)

The high price of misplaced idealism

Is the 'war on terrorism' being hijacked?

Peter Singer's utilitarianism

Books: 'The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of Secret Police and their Victims' by Robert Stove

Books: 'Children as Trophies?' by Patricia Morgan

Film: Some Like it Hot - a tribute to Billy Wilder

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Film: Some Like it Hot - a tribute to Billy Wilder

by Dr Susan Moore

News Weekly, April 20, 2002
'Some Like it Hot': a tribute to Billy Wilder

In the late 1950s Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, one of the most sophisticated sexual comedies of all time, played to packed movie houses. Just thinking about it afterwards made people smile. Today, however, despite being widely considered his best film, its reception has been very different. In the wake of revolutionary changes in sexual attitude, many people under 30 have found its jokes un-funny, even reactionary.

Whether Wilder's canniness was fully appreciated in 1959 is hard to say. On the screen and off, old-fashioned ideas about males and females ruled the day. Nobody except himself would have dared to make a film with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, running from the Mafia, or Curtis camping it up as Cary Grant, or Marilyn Monroe (in a size 16) playing the ukulele in an all-girl 'virtuosi' band. Although the rules of the game were well understood, sending them up as he did was unthinkable until it happened.

Sex appeal like Marilyn Monroe's, the film said in effect, doesn't pay. If you're physically gorgeous, emotionally soft, and highly intelligent - but not intelligent enough to run from saxophone players used to leaving women with only a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste - you're in for a lonely old age. If, however, you're a man that women swoon over (Curtis not in drag), you've got it made. Gamble away your winter coat, pursue your exclusive right to happiness, cast a cold eye on everybody in your way, and get all the people in your life to help you.

Not by chance, Tony Curtis succeeds in stealing Wilder's show. Prepared to disguise himself first as a 'Josephine' and then as a tycoon with a yacht, he regards every form of dressing up as a confidence trick basic to survival. So of course he knows when to come out of the closet. Since his underlying identity is not in question, he can ultimately afford to let head and heart rule his life. Never is his gaming so complete that he can't stop.

In this vital respect, Curtis differs from everyone else in the movie except Monroe. As if to illustrate Plato's warning that acting encourages people to become their roles, even the film's most powerful gangster, Slats, and his equally hideous cronies are overwhelmed by the requirements of costume design. Whether the major characters are face to face with a gunman in a birthday cake, a butch band conductor obsessed with possible drunkenness in her 'girls', or a mamma's boy desperate to marry anything that can tango, they insist on playing to a gallery.

Curtis's best mate, Jack Lemmon, is so bamboozled by his own disguises that he succumbs first to helplessness with Monroe and then to ineffectuality with everyone else. Like the shadiest dealers in the film, who are so obsessed with doing people in that they lose the plot, he ends up in No-Man's land. Rapid alterations in his character expressed in macho self-destructiveness or woolly-minded shilly-shallying are grotesquely prominent in the behaviour of everyone else. The Mafia, the cops, the shysters who hire out musicians, and the silly young women in the band have in common an inveterate addiction to cloud-cuckoo land.

Billy Wilder's movie is set in 1929: first in Chicago, then Florida. Thirty years later, when it was made, the late twenties could easily be satirised. Not only that: traits in men and women prominent since the Fall could be ridiculed in ways that almost everybody in the viewing audience would find extremely funny.

In the last section of Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon tells Tony Curtis that he is thinking about marrying the perpetually grinning tango fanatic Joe E. Brown, bumping him off, and living forever on his millions. Curtis, appalled, tries to get him to come to his senses and recall that he is a MAN - since the prospect of two men marrying is, to him, as preposterous as it would have been to most of Wilder's audience. Nobody, then, who laughed aloud at Jack Lemmon's slide into a self-deluded effeminacy like Brown's would have been accused of homophobia.

Recently a young woman in her twenties said to me, in a tone of pained melancholy, that of course Lemmon and Brown marry. Marriage, she implied, is bizarre union; hence the projected wedding of two men is no more laughable than the projected wedding of, say, the leader of Monroe's band and the pathetically weak and unattractive bachelor who acts as her disciplinarian. Happy coupling? Get real!

It is, alas, in such a context that global debates about same-sex marriages and centuries-old definitions of the family are taking place. If we had Billy Wilder's finesse on the subject of sexual comedy, much of what is currently being said in public forums on these topics and sexuality more generally would be laughed out of court.

  • Dr Susan Moore's latest book is an update of her sold-out guide for parents and teachers, What Should My Child Read?

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