Tag: Marilyn Monroe

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot header
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe make comedy gold in Some Like It Hot

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Marilyn Monroe (Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk), Tony Curtis (Joe/“Josephine/“Shell Oil Jnr”), Jack Lemmon (Jerry/“Daphne”), George Raft (“Spats” Colombo), Pat O’Brien (Agent Mulligan), Joe E Brown (Osgood Fielding III), Nehemiah Persoff (“Little Bonaparte”), Joan Shawlee (Sweet Sue), Dave Berry (Mr Bienstock), Grace Lee Whitney (Rosella), George E Stone (“Toothpick” Charlie)

It’s the funniest comedy that ever started in a hail of bullets. It’s the best chick flick to stare two men. It’s probably Billy Wilder’s sweetest comedy and it’s almost certainly its most beloved. They say Nobody’s Perfect, but you can be pretty sure this film gets as close to it as possible.

In 1929 in Prohibition Chicago, down-on-their-luck musicians saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and double bass Jerry (Jack Lemmon) can’t get a break. First the speakeasy they are playing gets busted by the feds. They’ve lost all their money at the dog track. And, oh yeah, they accidentally witness gangster “Spats” (George Raft) eliminate his competition in a hail of bullets. They’ve got to get out of town incognito and quick – so what better option but joining an all-female band as “Josephine” and “Daphne”? Problem is, playing at a hotel in Florida, Joe and Jerry find themselves in all-sorts of romantic entanglements: Joe is wooing lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) in the guise of heir to an Oil fortune, while Jerry is wooed by smitten millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown). And if that’s not bad enough – guess which hotel the mob are having their annual convention at?

Wilder’s comedy is a fast-moving, brilliantly written (by Wilder and IAL Diamond) buddy comedy with a twist that dives into a whole world of gender and identity concepts that puts it way ahead of its time. Shot in luscious black-and-white (Wilder’s preferred style, and colour exposed all too strikingly the drag act look of Curtis and Lemmon), every scene has at a zinger and our heroes fall into one a string of madcap situation through misfortune and rank incompetence.

But the film’s real interest is in how far ahead of its time its gender awareness was. When they first appear disguised at the train station, the camera pans up their legs and behinds in just the way you would expect it to do (and indeed it does seconds later with Monroe) to ogle the women, only to reveal it’s the men striding their way down the platform. Both of them comment (and complain) on the objectification and unwanted physical attention (from slapped bums upwards) from men – “it’s like a red rag to a bull” Joe describes their feminine appearance, before he and Jerry complain they can’t wait to get back to being the bull again. It’s part of the fine tight-walk the film works, where the men are both men and women, victims and hypocrites, open-minded and conservative.

Dressing as women seems to give both of them a new perspective on things. Lothario Joe seems to gain a new sympathy for women – while at the same time, passing himself off as a millionaire to seduce Sugar with a string of lies – and comes to see himself as exactly the sort of lousy bum he probably has been. For Jerry the whole experience is a revelation. It’s part of as fascinating debate as to how much this film is aware of transgender and homosexual urges, and how much it’s just a very wittily delivered joke that’s so respectfully done it can be embraced by one and all. But for Jerry, the whole experience seems to redefine his own internal perception of himself.

It’s there from when he first glances Monroe at the train station: after tripping in his heels, he’s stunned when she works past, not by her looks, but by the ease she moves, his eyes not starring at her behind with lust (as Joe’s does) but with envious admiration. On the train he takes the blame for Sugar’s illicit bourbon – is it a sense of fellowship, or a bizarre way of making a pass at her? This leads to a slumber party in his bunk with the whole band, all in their nightwear – through which he constantly forces himself to remember he’s a boy (seemingly out of sexual excitement). But we very rarely see Jerry out of some layer of feminine disguise: and later confusion seems to abound during his courtship from Osgood, where he delights in the dancing, the jewels and the engagement and has to disappointingly remind himself that he’s a boy. After initial doubts Jerry finds a sort of freedom in dressing as a woman, that Joe never does.

How much is Some Like It Hot aware that it is playing around with fluid gender perceptions, and how much is it a stunningly well delivered joke? It’s not clear – and I doubt any film-maker in 1959 would even have the vocabulary to begin to conceive the sort of conversation the film provokes today.

But does it really matter when the jokes are this good and the performances so brilliant? Jack Lemmon is superb here, the sort of career-defining performance actors dream about. Anxious, fussy, slightly whiny, Jerry becomes the more playful, sassy Daphne – and what Lemmon does brilliantly is make both personalities fully-formed yet existing consistently within the same character. That’s not mentioning his verbal and physical comedic gifts and consistently perfect timing, his performance comedic but not a broad drag act. He makes Jerry/Daphne a living, breathing person anda comedic character, someone we can never imagine meeting in real life but also would not be surprised to sit down next to on a bus. This is skilful acting on another level.

Which is not to do down Tony Curtis, who is very funny as the lothario Joe uncomfortably squeezed into feminine attire. While Jerry comes to relish some of the accoutrements of ladies clothing, Joe is never as comfortable – for him it is practical solution. That doesn’t change Curtis’ hilarious comic timing – or his wicked Cary Grant impersonation (“No one talks like that!” Jerry complains) when taking on a third disguise as a Shell Oil heir, which also seems like a sly parody of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Curtis’ comic timing is as faultless as Lemmon’s, and the two actors produce such a sparkling double act, it’s a shame they didn’t work together again.

As the third wheel, Monroe was never so radiant, culturally iconic and luminous than she was here. Reports are rife of the troubles she caused on set – the hours waiting for her to turn up, the lines she couldn’t or wouldn’t learn, the dozens and dozens of talks she demanded for the even the simplest scenes (this in particular drove Curtis – an instinctive actor whose performance declined with retakes – up the wall – it’s fun to spot how little they actually share the same shot during the film). Wilder later commented she was a terrible actor to work with – but a God-given talent up on the screen. Can’t argue with that, and she turns a character who, on paper, could be a dumb blonde joke into someone very sweet, endearing and lovable, who we never laugh at (Monroe is a generous enough performer to never worry about making it clear to the audience that she is smarter than her character is, or treat her with contempt).

Wilder brings it all together with his genius behind the camera. He cuts the film with superb comic timing – the intercutting between the seductions of Joe/Sugar and Jerry/Osgood are masterfully done – his sense of the momentum is spot-on and he is as skilled with flat-out farce as sophisticated word-play. That’s not to mention the wonder of the tone – he makes a concept that had the suits sweating in 1959, easy to swallow without ever once treating the idea as a revolting perversion, making it funny but never humiliating. The film’s sweetness is partly why its become so loved.

Possibly the funniest film ever made – and it’s also littered with gags about old-school gangster films, taking advantage of its inclusion in the cast of the likes of Raft and O’Brien enjoyably sending themselves up – it’s won a place in the hearts of film buffs and casual moviegoers for generations. And it’s going to continue to do so. With one of the greatest closing scenes ever, it’s always going to leave you wanting to come back for more.

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A masterplan goes wrong in John Huston’s crime drama The Asphalt Jungle

Director: John Huston

Cast: Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley), Louis Calhern (Alonzo D Emmerich), Jean Hagen (“Doll” Conovan), James Whitmore (Gus Minissi), Sam Jaffe (“Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider), John McIntire (Police Commissioner Hardy), Marc Lawrence (Cobby), Barry Kelley (Lt. Ditrich), Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay), Brad Dexter (Bob Brannom)

“Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is out of the slammer after seven years, and the self-proclaimed “Professor” of criminal plans has a scheme for one final job. But rather than sell it to the highest bidder, Doc approaches crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to fund the crime and then split the proceeds with Doc. To carry out his robbery on a jewellery safe in a bank, he’ll need a gang including get-away driver Gus (James Whitmore) and Gus’ pal and “hooligan” Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). But even the best laid plans of criminals can fall foul of events and the basic untrustworthiness of criminals themselves.

John Huston surprised some by turning his attention – Oscar in hand from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – to noir cops and robber’s thrillers, but that was to forget he had made his name with his masterful adaptation of Dashell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. And in The Asphalt Jungle he created a small scale but almost perfect slice of criminalise noir, a brilliantly paced and acted film beautifully assembled that effortlessly chronicles the disastrous fall out of a robbery where it seemed everything was going perfectly.

Huston’s direction of the piece is, as nearly always, superlative. His painterly framing of scenes is dead on the money here, his framing of the actors within the scene absolutely without fault. Huston has an uncanny scene for arranging his actors in the minimum number of shots necessary, reducing dramatically the need for clumsy cut aways. Instead multiple actors are often artfully arranged in the frame, allowing the performers to react in the moment and the camera itself to capture the complete story in one smooth shot. It also allows for some great character intros, not least a shot of the Police commissioner in the background of the frame while foregrounded are the hands of his subordinate Dietrich, nervously fondling his hat. Straight away we get the mood of the scene.

This is all part of the brilliant noirish construction of a film that largely features sympathetic criminals – and it’s clear that the film’s sympathy is with the robbers here, the cops either incompetent, bureaucrats or corrupt themselves – either turning on each other, crumbling under pressure, making rudimentary errors that wind up getting them caught or failing into tragic fates that are left questioning what the point of it all was. This is all superbly caught in the moody darkness and shadows that soak over the picture, and highlighted further by the superb script, that packs some excellent lines and beautiful thematic points throughout the film.

It’s also helped by some great performances. Sam Jaffe (Oscar-nominated) is terrific as the cunning calm and businesslike “Doc” who seems unable to understand why things are not quite panning out as he planned, but is heartily sorry that it’s the case. He at least has honour among thieves, refusing to abandon his fellow criminals and quietly disappointed when betrayal raises its head. I love as well his screamish apology that the crime will involve one “hooligan” – or heavy – since he’s not the sort of guy who likes to resort to messy crimes (no matter that things quickly slide out of hand). He’s the sort of professional who expects everyone to play by the same rules, but that doesn’t stop him having his own private passions, particularly for the fairer sex, that will wind up catching him out.

He’s especially proved wrong since Sterling Hayden’s ‘hooligan’ Dix turns out to be the moral force of the gang, despite his down-on-his-luck scruffiness. Hitting crime as a way to finance his dream of buying back his family’s horse farm – and sadly losing most of that finance on the horses – Hayden is gloomy faced and gruff but has his own clear moral code in an affectingly gentle performance of vulnerability beneath the toughness. Debts and betrayal are anathema to him, and he winds up far more of the decent crook than any of the rest – he’s also the only one of the lot who can hold down a loving relationship, forging a genuinely sweet relationship with Jean Hagen’s Doll. Huston’s sympathies are clearly with the down-on-his-luck Dix, a decent guy who has just lost at life.

Of course the crook they can’t trust is the lawyer, a fine performance of snivelling weasliness under a veneer of culture from Louis Calhern. Puffed up, arrogant but desperate for the money and fundamentally weak and easily led, Calhern is excellent as the money man who only adds to the gang’s troubles, led on by Brad Dexter’s wonderfully impatient and ruthless hired gun. Calhern’s sad air of corrupted authority is only enhanced by his lecherous delight in his lusciously young mistress, a radiant early performance from Marilyn Monroe (shot like a classic painting by Huston).

Huston’s film throws this gang together flies together into a superbly detailed and gripping drama of the planning, execution and dreadful fall out of a robbery that clearly inspired the (perhaps even better) Rififi (so much so that it practically has the same story and structure), The Asphalt Jungle is a fabulously made and written pleasure, unpretentious but wonderful story telling marshalled expertly by a director at the top of his game.