03 August 2012

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN: RUNNING WILD

It is frequently proposed that Some Like It Hot is the best movie comedy ever made, and those looking for an iconoclastic opinion on this front will, I am afraid, need to look elsewhere. For it is the best movie comedy of all time, says I, and only partially because it is the funniest. Which is also my opinion, though "funny" is the most notoriously subjective quality of any work of art, far more than something like "sexy" or "scary" even. I can claim that very few lines of dialogue have ever made me laugh harder, at any point in my life, than this exchange:
"Water polo? Isn't that terribly dangerous?"
"I'll say, I had two ponies drown under me."
-but there is certainly nothing I can do to prove to anybody that they had ought to agree with me.

Anyway, funny gets you to a certain point, but it has one fatal flaw: familiarity kills it, and there is very likely no comedy in cinema history that has become more familiar than Some Like It Hot, thanks to decades of critics lustily decreeing it to be the funniest movie ever. "Nobody's perfect" might be, in context, an unimpeachable final line, and the way it is delivered might be beyond improvement, and the pacing of the scene and shot leading up to it might be a sign of the surest comic direction any film has ever enjoyed; but you're just not going to laugh at it the dozenth time you've seen it, in the movie or in clip shows or montages or whatever the hell else. And I, for one, have seen Some Like It Hot a shitload of times, though I was fortunate that prior to watching it for this review, it had been a good seven years or so, and some of the smaller gags had dropped out of my memory, and were thus hilarious again.

And that is why I did not start off by reiterating, "this is the funniest movie ever made", but, "this is the best movie comedy ever made", because those are not exactly. I will never laugh at "Nobody's perfect" again for the rest of my life, and yet re-viewing Some Like It Hot is invariably a rewarding experience, not because it is a great comedy but because it is a great movie, and this true of fewer of the funniest motion pictures than you might think. There aren't many things more reliably hilarious than a Marx Brothers vehicle, but besides arguably Duck Soup, none of them are particularly well made.

Some Like It Hot, though, it's not just well made: it is terrifyingly damn near flawless. It has what might very well be the most structurally perfect screenplay ever turned out of the Hollywood system, adapted by the ace screenwriter Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (the second and, I would say, lesser of Wilder's two most important collaborators; this is his obvious masterpiece) from a story by Michael Logan and Robert Thoren that had previously been filmed in France and Germany; so magnificent solid and sturdy in its form that you would never notice for a second that the film checks in at 121 minutes, a running time that should be absolute death for such a manically insubstantial farce, for you are swept along through the story's massive turns much too quickly to notice how tremendously far the beginning is from the end, since, in the most beautifully sound absurdist logic, every single beat of the plot makes sense according to the beat immediately prior to it, and so the script rushes on through an eternal Now.

I am tempted to dispense with a plot synopsis altogether, and give that sage old critical advice: if you have never seen this movie, do it now. But for all its running time and complications, the plot can be summarised briefly enough, so why not do it for appearances' sake: in 1929, the height of Prohibition, in Chicago, capitol city of illicit booze during that period, two hack musicians, saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and bassist Jerry (Jack Lemmon), accidentally witness a mob killing on St. Valentine's Day. Without any more immediately obvious option to get the hell out of town before the gangsters hunt them down and kill them, the boys jump onto a train disguised as Josephine and Daphne, the newest members of an all-girl jazz band. Once safely in Florida, Joe decides to seduce the band's gorgeous singer, Sugar Kane née Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), which requires him to adopt a second disguise, as the millionaire heir to the Shell Oil fortune, while Jerry, carried along on the tides of farcical necessity ends up dating a dirty old man named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).

There are many - infinite! - reason that Some Like It Hot works, but the most important of them all is that Wilder (who also directed, as I probably needn't mention) and Diamond treat their ridiculous plot with total gravity. Hell, for the first ten minutes, solid, if you didn't know what you were in for (and had missed the brisk opening credits with their jazzy score and dashed-off typeface), you wouldn't have the slightest reason to assume this was anything besides a typical gangster picture: there is humor, but it is strictly of the "comic relief" sort, mostly coming in the form of the two desperate musicians who quip and banter with each other as they suddenly find themselves flat broke and on the run. Of course, the key to any great comedy is that, however ridiculous the audience finds it, the characters never do (nothing strangles a fine gag quicker than a character who knows he's "supposed" to be funny), and by extension the filmmakers cannot either. In Some Like It Hot, this is first evidenced in how the gangster framing narrative is played entirely straight - some winking nods (the mob boss played by George Raft mocks another character for tossing a coin in the air, the quintessentially Raftian gesture; a grapefruit is almost shoved into a goon's face, après The Public Enemy), but never open, outright parody, and there are more than enough deaths played as deaths, not as slapstick, to assure us of the dramatic stakes. It's also evidenced, more importantly, by the way that not one single character, in the entire movie, for so much as a reaction shot, doubts that Josephine and Daphne are actually real women, without which the entire movie would quite probably not hang together. For, by God, Curtis and Lemmon don't look anything like women, nor sound it (Lemmon's voice is more like a shrill male shriek than a falsetto, while Curtis - augmented in post by voice artist Paul Frees - sometimes sounds like a moderately decent drag queen and never better than that), and if the characters within the film start to poke holes at that, then we're invited to do the same, and the whole edifice of the comedy simply breaks, never to be fixed again.

But this does not happen. Instead, by treating the film as a story and a character piece first, Wilder succeeds in making Some Like It Hot nothing shy of a masterpiece, a complex maze of foreshadowing, callbacks, and small details that can play as jokes while also developing character. It is a work of shocking confidence, the sort of film that if were anything less than great would be disgustingly hubristic: the film is much too long, so it is made to feel shorter by breaking it up into several smaller sequences (Chicago, the train, the hotel, escaping the hotel), but it never feels episodic. The scenes are all outlandishly long, the better to let situations and conversations heat up slow and bubble over, and the same trick is used: break them up with different conflicts rolling in and out (and there are a ton of conflicts: Jerry and Joe vs. the gangsters; Jerry and Joe keeping up the illusion that they're women; Joe's pursuit of Sugar; Jerry's avoidance of Osgood; the conflict between the two buddies as everything else starts to get too much to bear) so that it never seems like people are talking for minutes at a time. The edits come slowly, but it never seems stagebound because of the depth of the lighting, and the way that every cut serves a damned specific purpose. It is as airtight as anything made in the classical Hollywood aesthetic - a film to be studied on a purely mechanical level by anyone who's ever wanted to know how you make a perfect movie, not as a work of art as but as a work of craftsmanship.

It is, mind you, great art, though Wilder makes absolutely certain never to step on the comedy in pursuit of everything else. For one thing, it's a three-lead movie that manages to sell all three characters as equally interesting and alive, though Sugar gets far less to do than the boys, owing as she is far more reactive and totally divorced from the gangster plot. Still, it's a triumphant characterisation by Monroe, despite being perhaps the most legendary example of the increasingly common story in her career of pissing off nearly every person on set; the combination of stubbornness, perfectionism, and either a native lack of talent or a sharp desire to be seen that way, depending on your perspective, that drove Laurence Olivier to abandon directing and caused more than one leading man to declare her the most aggravating, unprofessional co-star of his career. This is the film with its infamous 50+ takes required to nail the daunting line, "Where's that bourbon?", the anecdote most often used to demonstrate whatever any given aspect of Monroe's career one wishes to elucidate at that time.

Thing is, however fun anecdotes are, it doesn't matter and you can't tell. Sugar Kane is a brilliant damn performance, particularly in her first big scene, telling her life story to Joe(sephine) in the bathroom on the train: the best acting in Monroe's career, and probably the most unintentionally revealing. For here we have a sexpot letting herself be relaxed, since there are no men around (it's telling that all of the breathy Marilynisms come when the character is onstage, or lying to "Shell Oil Junior" about her past), discussing her history of mistakes with the most casual sort of self-loathing, as Sugar describes with eerie detachment how she doesn't mind being an alcoholic since she's not valuable enough as a person to behave otherwise; an uncomfortably autobiographical moment, we might suspect, for a star who would self-medicate herself to death three years after the movie came out. The film's subsequent exploration of how the character fluctuates between optimism and hurt never gets quite that unexpectedly affecting again, but there's not a single wrong moment in all of it, though there's not very much she can do with the yacht-bound scene where "Junior" sells her an insane line about being impotent.

Monroe's star power (and top billing) notwithstanding, the two boys are given all of the really interesting stuff: the meatier dramatic arc is handed to Curtis, who has to show how a charming but genuinely vicious lothario (the trick he plays on one of his many girlfriends early in the film to borrow her car is too mean to be funny, and even Lemmon's performance in that scene reflects this) is softened by experiencing a woman's point of view from the inside-out, and not given an easy crutch like the Tootsie line about being a better man as a women &c. But this is frivolous cliché next to Lemmon's Jerry/Daphne, one of the most complicated, weird, and damned funny explorations of gender roles that has ever been filmed - in a film from 1959, when they didn't even have things like "explorations of gender roles" in mainstream movies. The film has just enough awareness of Eisenhower era social mores to make a point of hitting the "Gays? I don't see any gays" button a little bit heavily, but not in a way that feels out of character; anyway, sexuality is hardly the interesting part of what makes Daphne tick, though it is used as a marvelous punchline at several points (the drunken slumber party on the train has some downright filthy double innuendos). It's the unmixed joy that Jerry exhibits at getting to play a woman, starting when he enthusiastically introduces himself as "Daphne", and circulating through all of Lemmon's loudly, cheerily barked line deliveries (it is by a great margin the most unhinged and energetic - and for these reasons, I would say best - performance of the actor's career), genuine excitement that has nothing to do with gender identity or sexual arousal, but with the limitless possibilities of getting to be an entirely created person - Jerry would have thrived in the age of Second Life, one thinks.

Regardless, psychological issues, and the film's formal construction alike are both ultimately secondary to one overriding goal: to create a perfect, breathtaking farce. Everything that goes into making Some Like It Hot a great movie before it is simply a great rat-a-tat gag machine (a trap that Wilder's later One, Two, Three just barely falls into, though it's still very much worth watching) paradoxically ends up serving primarily to make it funnier; for comedy grounded in specific observation is almost always better - more complex and thus more rewarding - than aimless joke-telling, and there's a great deal of specificity to Some Like It Hot indeed, which is perhaps why it is the most perfect pure comedy of Wilder's career, the one time when he's not ultimately cutting into the humor with satire, or romance, or irony, but doing everything in his power to create an environment where the humor will be allowed to reach its fullest potential. And that is awfully damn full, when all is said and done.

3 comments:

McAlisterGrant said...

"carried along on the tides of farcical necessity"

God, what a fucking great phrase.

StephenM said...

Just gotta say I've always found this one a little overrated. It's extremely well-made, of course, but I don't laugh very much and I just find it weighed down by the Masterpiece label when it's mostly just cleverly constructed.

Not Fenimore said...

David Greenwood on Strangelove reminded me of this: while we're talking about flaws-in-otherwise-unimpeachable-movies, the bit at the climax where "Spats" gets offed just before the detective shows up and arrests everyone is just wrong. Spats is our villain, the guy whom we've been afraid of the whole movie (well, the guy whom our protagonists have been afraid of; this isn't exactly a thriller). He should make it to the end alive and then get arrested at his moment of triumph, not get offed by some dude we've never seen before who then gets arrested. I know the mob subplot is basically there to kick the plot off and provide for some hijinks at the end, but it still irks me every time I see this movie.