Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Like It Hot: Farewell, Mr. Curtis

We lost one of the great movie stars of classic Hollywood last week - Tony Curtis. So what better time than now to talk about my favorite film of his, and high on my list of all-time favorite films ever - "Some Like It Hot" (1959).

Directed by the great Billy Wilder and co-written with his frequent partner I.A.L. Diamond, "Some Like It Hot" stars Curtis in probably his most famous role ever.  Starring with him in this comedy classic are Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.  Curtis and Lemmon play two musicians who witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago so they disguise themselves as women to escape to Florida with an all-girls jazz band.  Monroe is, of course, a member of the band, and as Curtis falls for her, their lives get more and more complicated and mixed up.

I remember the first time I saw this film I loved it instantly, not only for the comedy, but for the boundaries it pushed for its time.  I mean, there are men cross-dressing!!  In the 50s!  And so many other underlying subtexts running throughout the film with this...like Lemmon dating a millionaire while he's playing a woman.  Hilarious and so ahead of its time!  And the rest of the world, I feel, pretty much agrees with me.  AFI rated "Some Like It Hot" as #14 of the greatest movies of all time in 1998, and the greatest comedy ever on their "100 Years...100 Laughs" list in 2005.  It was also one of the very first films to be included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry when it was created back in 1989.  And even though it won only one Oscar (for Best Black & White Costume Design), it was nominated for five others, including Best Actor for Jack Lemmon, Best Screenplay, and Best Director.  Funny all the praise, for during filming, everyone warned Curtis and Lemmon not to make it, saying the subject would be a career killer.  Even Kansas banned the film, saying it was "too disturbing for Kansans."

At the time of "Some Like It Hot," Curtis was riding on the success of some of his best dramatic roles - "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) with Burt Lancaster and "The Defiant Ones" (1958) with Sidney Poitier.  However, 1959 marked his true jump into comedy, with "Hot" and "Operation Petticoat" with Cary Grant (his idol from childhood, and the voice he imitated for the millionaire in "Some Like It Hot"). Like so many classic stories of Hollywood then, Curtis was born Bernie Schwartz, a name Hollywood said was too Jewish, so he chose Tony Curtis instead.  He grew up a poor Brooklyn kid who loved going to the movie theater, especially to see his favorite actor, Grant.  So when Curtis suggested imitating Grant for the millionaire he pretends to be in order to seduce Monroe in "Hot," Wilder loved the idea.  Of course, later when Grant saw "Hot," he said, "I don't talk like that."

Curtis and Lemmon are one of the best onscreen pairings in history, but it almost didn't come to pass.  Originally, Wilder had Danny Kaye and Bob Hope in mind for the leads, but after a while, he changed his mind, leaning toward the lesser-known stars.  Then, before production began, Frank Sinatra began to petition for the role of Jerry/Daphne, bumping Lemmon out of the running.  Luckily, Sinatra ultimately decided against the role, and Lemmon was back in.  When the costume tests were being done before filming began, in order to see if Curtis and Lemmon could truly pass as women, the two decided to walk around the lot in full costume and makeup.  They even went into a woman's restroom for a while, but not a single woman in there noticed anything odd about the men.  After that, they knew everything would be a success.  And I'm sure this gave Curtis some much-needed confidence.  After their first dress fitting, Lemmon came sauntering out of the dressing room, completely relaxed.  However, Curtis refused, nervous and uncomfortable, and had to be dragged out by Lemmon.

All the Florida scenes in "Hot" were actually filmed at the famous, beautiful Hotel del Coronado in San Deigo, California.  Wilder chose that hotel for many reasons, but mainly for one major problem "fix" - Monroe.  Monroe, known for her constant lateness and insecurity, was no different during the filming of "Some Like It Hot."  Wilder thought that if she was staying at the same place as the filming, she wouldn't be as much of a problem.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, as she still would show up 2-3 hours late and many times was unable to get the simplest of lines correct.  One of the hardest scenes to get right was one line, "Where's that bourbon."  All Monroe had to do was walk in, rummage through some drawers, and say that line.  After 40 takes, Wilder finally pasted her line in a drawer.  Unfortunately, she got frustrated because she couldn't remember which drawer had the line in it, and still messed up.  So Wilder pasted the line in every drawer, and after 57 takes, they finally wrapped that scene.  However, it's still one of her best performances ever, and hard to notice her troubles off-screen.

"Some Like It Hot" is a masterpiece, and if you're a true movie fan and haven't seen this film yet, you must see it soon, especially in memory of the late, great Tony Curtis.  Have a wonderful week, everyone!  I'll be back Friday with some more Curtis gems as TCM honors him with a 24-hour marathon this Sunday.

(Post-tidbit:  "Some Like It Hot" was made into a Broadway musical in 1972 entitled "Sugar."  In 2002, Curtis starred in a production of the play, playing millionaire Osgood Fielding III this time around.)

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