In “Some Like It Hot”, the joke is masculinity

As the Criterion Collection reissues a 4K restoration of the classic film on Blu-ray, Ben Rylan considers the underlying sexual politics that have kept the film relevant.

In March, 1959, what would become one of the most beloved comedies of all time quietly arrived at the newly refurbished Loew’s State Theatre in New York. “Some Like it Hot”, wrote the New York Times’ A.H. Weiler, is an overlong, occasionally labored but often outrageously funny series of variations on an ancient gag.

That ancient gag is drag. And, given the film was released nearly 60 years ago, it’s astonishing to consider just how well its play on gender stereotypes has aged.

Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play a couple of musicians who, in true screwball style, just happen to bear witness to the St Valentine’s Day massacre. Fearing that they’ll be hunted down by gangsters, they do what anyone in such a situation would – pop on a dress and join an all-women’s orchestra en route to Florida.

Their plot, however, threatens to boil over when they strike up a friendship with the band’s singer, Sugar Kane, played to perfection by Marilyn Monroe.

some-like-it-hot-trio

Scenes of two leading men dressed as women probably wouldn’t have provoked questions over their sexuality the way they might today. The word “gay” only started to take on its modern definition in the decade that followed. It’s this freedom from assumptions that, in part, makes the film work. It’s not about whether Lemmon and Curtis are gay, and by donning a dress, they’re not poking fun at femininity either.

Like the film “Tootsie” from 1982, starring Dustin Hoffman as a soap opera actress who’s secretly a man, “Some Like it Hot” derives its situation comedy from scenes of demonstrably heterosexual men forced to cope with the removal of their masculine identity. Both Lemmon and Curtis spend considerable time lusting after Marilyn Monroe – the ultimate personification of man’s perfect woman, straight or gay – while also dealing with the awkwardness of knowing that, in a wig and a dress, they make the kind of women to whom they’d never give a second look.

It is indeed an ancient gag. Even “RuPaul’s Drag Race” struts it out on occasion when the contestants, all of them gay men who are also professional drag performers, are given the challenge of turning straight men into fabulous queens. No matter what decade you’re in, watching straight men fumble with a bra and high heels is funny.

Of course, “RuPaul”, “Tootsie”, and “Some Like it Hot” are ultimately about living your truth and, for Curtis and Lemmon, that can’t happen until the wigs come off. In a comedy as fizzy as this one, that moment is suitably uproarious. Proof that, like a little black dress, some ancient gags are timeless.

“Some Like It Hot” is out now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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