Renowned costume designer Orry-Kelly knelt at Marilyn Monroe’s feet. His notepad filled up with measurements as he stretched and wrapped his tape around her body. He paused at her posterior. “Tony has a better-looking ass than you do.” She turned to face him, smiled and unbuttoned her blouse: “Yeah, but he doesn’t have tits like these!”
It was true, Tony Curtis did not have tits like Marilyn Monroe. But he and co-star Jack Lemmon were also being measured up for dresses by Orry-Kelly. The year was 1958, and Some Like It Hot was in pre-production…
Voted the greatest American comedy film of all time by the AFI, the road to release for Some Like It Hot was rough with stress and misery – but also moments of humour. The film was the brainchild of legendary director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard), who had already won three Academy Awards and been nominated for 12 when he and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond put pen to paper on Some Like It Hot. Wilder had been inspired by the 1935 French film Fanfares of Love, but as a print of it was unavailable he drew from the 1951 German remake Fanfaren der Liebe for his story of two male musicians who disguise themselves as women. In these versions the men do so in order to get work during the Depression, but in 1950s America the prospect of two young heterosexual men cross-dressing was troubling for some: it had to be a matter of life or death.
Wilder, an Austrian-born Jew, had fled Europe during the rise of the Nazi party and found fame in Hollywood. He was a devoted lover of jazz, and initially learnt English from listening to American jazz records. The inspiration came to him and Diamond to move the setting of the film back to the golden age of jazz, the 1920s – the age of gangsters. They solved their problematic premise through historical allusion: the men witness an event based on the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and become targets for the mob: inclusion in an all-girl jazz band would be their only hope of escaping Chicago alive. The period setting also gave the film its title: many popular songs would be released in two versions, the standard version known as “sweet music” and the raucous jazz version known as “hot” – some like their music sweet, and some like it hot…
With the script underway, casting began. A rising star, Tony Curtis was Wilder’s first choice for one of the musicians while Frank Sinatra was initially lined up to play the other, with Mitzi Gaynor being considered for Sugar, the singer in the band. However, Sinatra lost interest and United Artists wanted a big-name star for the female lead or else they wouldn’t fund the project. Wilder received a letter from Monroe saying how much she’d enjoyed working with him on The Seven Year Itch and would love to do so again, and the producers leapt at the offer: Wilder, however, was more reserved, having sworn that he’d never work with the fragile and unpredictable star again. Curtis also had his own worries, as although now happily married to Janet Leigh he and Monroe had enjoyed a brief affair in 1950: a liaison Curtis described as “my first adult relationship… a beautiful, precious thing.”
But the movie needed a star and Monroe needed the money. She was struggling with depression after suffering a miscarriage in August 1957 which led to her developing insomnia, drinking, putting on weight, and overdosing on barbiturates twice in early 1958. This put strain on her relationship with Arthur Miller, who was also under pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to help in the Communist witch-hunts. Even though Monroe didn’t want to play any more “dumb blondes”, she signed on and Some Like It Hot began production.
While Curtis and Lemmon enjoyed working together and with Wilder, Monroe at times proved stressful for the cast and crew. She was constantly late, shut herself in her dressing room, forgot her lines and was often rude. Lemmon and Curtis had to be perfect in every take as they could only count on Monroe to get it right once; and those takes would make the movie. Wilder commented: “the company pampered her, coddled her, and acceded to all her whims. The only one who showed any lack of consideration was Marilyn, in her treatment of her co-stars and her co-workers … her chronic tardiness and unpreparedness cost us eighteen shooting days, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and countless heartaches.”
During filming Monroe became pregnant and refused to do publicity photos, so Sandra Warner (who plays one of her bandmates) posed for the images while Monroe’s head was added later. However, she suffered another miscarriage and Miller tried to blame this (unsuccessfully) on Wilder and the film. Wilder, too, had become ill at the stress of directing Monroe: the director was quoted in the New York Herald Tribune stating: “Would I direct Marilyn again? I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant. They tell me that I’m too old and too rich to go through it again.”
Nevertheless, these difficulties are not evident in the final film. Some Like It Hot was released in 1959 and went on to be an immense success, standing the test of time. Wilder and Diamond’s script crackles with wit, the direction simple yet effective, and Monroe shines. However, it is ultimately memories of Curtis and Lemmon that endure. Their comic timing, dichotomous performances, and on-screen chemistry is bewitchingly brilliant. As the final line tells us, “Nobody’s perfect” – but Some Like It Hot may just be.
Is Some Like It Hot your favourite Billy Wilder film? Is Monroe a screen goddess or overrated starlet? Let us know below…