In 1945, Billy Wilder was still becoming himself, but he wasn’t a Hollywood newbie. The Lost Weekend, would win him two Academy Awards for writing and for directing (he would win again for writing in 1950 for Sunset Boulevard and become the first person to win separate Oscars for writing, directing, and producing in the same year with 1960’s The Apartment). It would firmly plant him in the big leagues of Hollywood, but the picture was made on the back of his supremely successful hard-boiled exercise in nihilism, Double Indemnity, from the year before. In this light, had it not been for Double Indemnity, it would be easy to claim that The Lost Weekend just wasn’t quite there yet, or that it was still the product of a director and a writer identifying their place in Hollywood. But then, Double Indemnity burns with Wilder’s patented fiery brand of ice, and The Lost Weekend is merely a sharp noir in full-on potboiler mode. Good Wilder, surely, but not Wilder at his best. Continue reading
Update late 2018:
Watching again four holiday-seasons later, Some Like it Hot is such a prickly affair, so spirited and yet so suspicious of society, so generous and joyous and yet so acrid and jarring, so innocent and compassionate and yet loaded so deviously with subterfuge. And, in some ways, so much less and more transgressive than some critics make it out to be, with so much less to say about gender in the traditional sense – it doesn’t really dispell any stereotypes or even advocate for fluidity per-se – and yet so much more to say about the intersection between social identity and achievement, and the intersection of desire, gender, and capital, more broadly, insofar as the two protagonists perform alternative genders to fill a role in society when their existing roles are questioned or eliminated.
But Some Like it Hot confounds expectations at every turn. It’s practically baked into the film’s structure, beginning with a gorgeous prologue which rather seditiously feigns full-on gangster drama, and even though the protagonists escape that genre, the film never gets out of dodge: its always nervous, always serious, and never dethrones its characters or their anxieties for the sake of a joke. The famous final line, so hilarious in the moment, intimates a full history of tragedy and dashed expectations. Other scenes presage the vicious ecstasy of Wilder’s later One, Two, Three, but this film stages a truly mordant drama that always makes its empathy legible, frustrating any desire to mock the males’ foolishness for wanting to dress up or believing they can easily pass off as women without any understanding of the social codes of gender which until that point in their lives had been essentially preordained or written-off as “natural”.
Worthy of absurdity though their fumbling attempts to realize the performative nature of gender may be, the film never sabotages or demeans their inexpressible desires which are veiled in rhetoric and miscommunicated encounters. Instead, it frustrates their ability to express them clearly and cleanly. Thriving in the pragmatic space between internal dreams and external manifestations of those dreams, Some Like it Hot explores both the tragic and absurdist dimension of the fact that we must mediate desires through social roles which cannot fully explain or express those desires.
No one did Old Hollywood like Billy Wilder. And by did, I mean toyed with. He made Old Hollywood film stylings his pet. And if Billy Wilder was your owner, you were liable to succumb quite quickly to his oppressive, cynical charm. You’d grow up an ass, but you’d have a lot of fun in the meantime. He perfected perhaps the most Old Hollywood genre of all, film noir, in 1944 with his nihilist fable Double Indemnity, sent Old Hollywood off in fine style with his late period The Apartment, and generally dived deep into Old Hollywood and ripped it into little pieces from the inside out with his masterpiece among masterpieces, Sunset Blvd. But America never loved a Billy Wilder film like Some Like it Hot, and it’s easy to see why. Never before, and probably never since, has a comedy been so carefully assembled to walk a thin line between sauce and sweetness, between bouncy, lascivious swagger and prim-and-proper airs. And perhaps never before was Wilder so gosh-darned fun. Continue reading
Billy Wilder began the 1950s with a masterpiece, Sunset Blvd., and he ended it with one, 1959’s Some Like it Hot. It’s tempting to call The Apartment, astonishingly released only one year later, a victory lap. It’s tempting, but Wilder won’t let us. The Apartment is often considered his most sentimental film, but merely seeing the sentiment does a disservice to a film clearly assembled with love and care, an indomitable spirit, and best of all, a real humanity mixed up in Wilder’s customary bitter humor and acid tongue. There are films that may be more telling about the human condition, but for pure cinematic entertainment that knows just how far to push the envelope and to leave to suggestion, few films match The Apartment. Continue reading