Some Like It Hot (1959) was a film Marilyn Monroe hated making, but you’d never know it. This comic gem of a picture was Monroe’s all-time top-grossing crowd pleaser, and contains one of her most memorable performances. As the dizzy Sugar Kane, Marilyn cavorts gleefully with two horsey girlfriends who turn out to be guys in Billy Wilder’s frenetically funny Jazz Age farce.
She had to be talked into doing the film in the first place. There was no completed script when Billy Wilder started placing pleading calls to Monroe, semi-retired in New York City and unenthusiastic about playing yet another not-very-bright blonde bombshell. But husband Arthur Miller persuaded her to take the part. “I think he secretly likes dumb blondes,” she joked to a friend, but the truth was that with Miller suffering from writer’s block and Marilyn also not working, the Miller household needed the income. So Marilyn relented and took the role, but was then determined to make it her own.
A Method actor who drove her director and costars to distraction as she struggled to “make contact with the character” and breathe life into the role of the bubble-headed ukelele player, Marilyn took her work very seriously. Determined to achieve perfection despite a near-neurotic lack of confidence, she relied heavily on her drama coach Paula Strasberg (wife of Actors Studio director Lee) for support, inspiration and guidance. This irked director Wilder, an old-school chauvinist who liked to run his movie sets as a benevolent dictator but could not control his female star. Costars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon suffered too, in uncomfortable drag and heavy makeup, waiting for the perpetually tardy Marilyn to show up on the set. Yet together, the creative team succeeded in creating a movie classic.
Looking at the film today, it’s Marilyn who shines brightest of all. Her souffle-light characterization has unexpected depth and dimension: Sugar is an alcoholic who has always been unlucky in love; a giggling girl who always looks on the bright side but ends up “with the fuzzy end of the lollipop;” a seductive satin doll spouting rapid-fire quips and wisecracks at director Billy Wilder’s preferred lightning speed. What could have been a flat, one-dimensional character becomes the sparkling apex of the film, elevating a potentially hackneyed cross-dressing farce to a new level of wit and adding some much-needed heart—and that indescribable Monroe magic.
I don’t think Marilyn could have crafted this role with nearly as much tragicomic nuance without the training the Actors Studio gave her...true, dumb blondes had been her stock in trade for a decade, but with each successive part she played, Marilyn added layers of eccentric detail that brought each character into more vivid focus. For her performance in Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe won the Best Actress in a Comedy Golden Globe Award.
True, Marilyn did not endear herself to the cast and crew of Some Like It Hot, but they paid her back with plenty of well-publicized vitriol themselves, accusing her of unprofessional behavior verging on madness—refusing to learn her lines, ruining take after take, showing up hours late. Wilder, Curtis and even the ordinarily menschy Jack Lemmon publicly questioned not only her discipline and professionalism but her talent as well, dismissing her gifts and contributions to the film. Tony Curtis went so far as to say kissing Marilyn had been akin to “kissing Hitler.” (Even years after Monroe’s death, they continued to repeat the same unkind remarks about their most famous costar.)
The public criticism devastated Marilyn, and husband Miller gallantly defended her. But ever since becoming a star, Marilyn had been the target of vicious attacks on her talent, her character and her unconventional approach to life. She was a free spirit and a feminist long before the women’s movement, and she always marched to the beat of her own inner drum. It’s interesting that some of the harshest criticisms leveled at her came from the men she worked with--directors, producers and studio heads. Men of the 1950s were obviously threatened by a woman with as much potential power and influence as a Marilyn Monroe. So they brushed off her contributions by labeling her as difficult, impossible, or just plain crazy.