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.

“Suspiria” and the horror of being disbelieved

 

With a splash of high concept art, director Luca Guadagnino updates this Italian horror classic in spectacular style.

In 1977, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento launched a 98 minute long kaleidoscopic art-horror trip upon unsuspecting cinemagoers. “Suspiria” was quite unlike the genre counterparts of its time: Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976), William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973), or Richard Donner’s “The Omen” (1976). Among the many differences: while those films all had their roots planted firmly in “our world”, Argento’s film transported its viewers to a place confusingly colourful yet oddly terrifying. Officially, it’s the German city of Freiburg, but the visual cues tell us we’re “somewhere else”.

Dripping with art nouveau set pieces and a colour palette that could have been taken from the swatches of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, the first “Suspiria” was a visual spectacle without the slightest hint of a plot.

Remakes are a tricky business. Regardless of how adamantly a filmmaker might signal that their version stands independent of its predecessor, comparisons are inevitable – even if the similarities are largely limited to a shared title. In 2001, Alejandro Amenábar avoided such fuss by opting for a new title: “The Others”, which is a very good ghost story, is a remake of “The Innocents”, a 1961 masterpiece from director Jack Clayton. There are clear differences between the two – indeed, the remake takes several major plot deviations – but Amenábar’s film was as much a remake as this new version of “Suspiria”. We demand originality from cinema but, when it comes wrapped in the packaging of a remake, originality can be easy to overlook.

Suspiria PosterLuca Guadagnino’s take on “Suspiria” begins in the bleak rain-soaked Berlin of 1977 (the year Argento’s film was released) as Patricia, an apparently hysterical young woman, rushes to her therapist’s office for an emergency session. She’s convinced that a coven of witches are haunting her, watching her, through the eyes of every face she sees. Her therapist is, naturally, unconvinced by her ramblings.

Meanwhile, Susie, a young American woman from Ohio, is the freshest arrival at the Markos Dance Academy. The students and teachers are still feeling the absence of Patricia, a former student who recently fled the school and has vanished without a trace. The highly respected (and feared) dance instructor, Madame Blanc, dismisses concern among students for Patricia’s wellbeing. She had strong political beliefs, they’re told, and if she wants to spend her days filling petrol bottles in a basement, that’s her choice.

The real events of the “German Autumn” in 1977 make intermittent appearances via news reports: glimpses of a kidnapping and the hijacking of a plane occasionally interrupt rising tensions. Shortly after a bomb explodes a few steps from the academy, a fellow student accuses the young American Susie of having little grasp of what’s really happening in Berlin. Later, during a particularly frightening exchange, another character is scolded for refusing to believe women when they report that something terrible is taking place. The events of this “Suspiria” might be from another world but they’re happening here – whether we choose to notice the clues that reality gives us is of no consequence to the terrifying truth.

Guadagnino is an audacious filmmaker. “Call Me By Your Name” is, by its very existence, an audacious film – who else would dare treat a gay love story with a considerable age gap at its core with such emotional honesty? His approach to “Suspiria” is, while less controversial, similarly audacious with its scattering of real life politics and institutional abuse as the seeds (or at least a symptom) of modern ignorance and complacency.

His credentials as a designer also prove their worth; the film effortlessly blends scenes of grey bleakness with eye-popping eccentricity without ever jarring the senses. Plenty of filmmakers make entertainment. Guadagnino creates art – the kind destined to provoke eyerolls from some of the more cynically minded in the audience. But his grasp of cinema as a language gives him auteur status. His visuals, blending fact and fiction, are never there for the wow. Colours, textures, movements – everything is telling us something. Whether we pay attention to what we see is the choice we make.