*Spoilers for a film that turned 60 this year
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) is one of the most joyfully, unapologetically subversive films to emerge from a Hollywood that was, in the middle part of the twentieth century, still chafing against both the constraints of the Hays Code and the often draconian diktats of the MPAA. The film is almost carnivalesque is its chaotic defiance of social mores and sexual norms. According to Georges-Claude Guilbert and Nicholas Magenham, Some Like It Hot is essentially a film about masquerade. Donning the guise of an early Hollywood gangster flick, the film parodies the conventions of that genre while simultaneously shrouding itself in the iconography of a more liberated era. Costume and performance lie at the heart of Some Like It Hot. Its two lead characters are musicians, performers, who eagerly transform their personas and switch identities in order to land paying gigs. Other characters also don absurd disguises, such as in the latter half of the film when a group of gangsters rent a banquet hall by styling themselves as a philanthropic organisation called “Friends of Italian Opera”.
Indeed, Some Like It Hot resembles nothing so much as a Shakespearean comedy with its mistaken identities, elaborate schemes and ubiquitous double entendre. Costuming themselves in garish masquerade, characters cross and re-cross boundaries of class, status and, most significantly, gender. This transgression of gender norms is perhaps the most Shakespearean element of a film whose reliance on confused plotlines and complex word play owe more than a little to the bard’s comedies. In 1959, even the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Geoffrey Shurlock, defended Some Like It Hot against conservative backlash by comparing the film to lighter Shakespearean works, noting that “girls dressed as men, and occasionally men dressed as women for proper plot purposes, has been standard theatrical fare as far back as As You Like It and Twelfth Night”.
The inversion of gender identity sits at the heart of Some Like It Hot. The film’s inciting incident sees our heroes, saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and double-bass player Jerry (Jack Lemmon), accidently witness a fictionalised version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Realising that there is nowhere to hide in cold, snowy Chicago, the pair don wigs and dresses, disguise themselves as female musicians and join an all-girl band headed for balmy Florida. The plot is comparatively simple, at least initially, and the film could easily lean on lazy “man in a dress” humour. However, with a script written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, the humour is smart and the dialogue crackles with wit and innuendo. Some Like It Hot is filled with memorable scenes: Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marylin Monroe) singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You”; Joe telling Sugar that water polo is a dangerous sport because he’s had numerous ponies drown under him; the chaotic train-car sleeping arrangements. My favourite scene, however, is the final one.
At the end of the film, Joe and Jerry’s identities are discovered. They are forced to flee from the mob on a boat belonging to a millionaire named Osgood Fielding III. Joe has come clean to Sugar and decides to bring her with him, while Jerry, in drag, has caught the eye of the wealthy, profligate Osgood. As the four speed away from the dock, Joe and Sugar affirm their love for each other, while Osgood and Jerry have a surprisingly similar conversation. Osgood has fallen in love with Jerry while the latter was disguised as the female musician Daphne. In fact, the pair have even become engaged, much to the excitement of Jerry/Daphne who has to be reminded by Joe that he is, in reality, “a boy”. This slippage of gender identity and, indeed, of sexual orientation recurs throughout the film, and I will return to it later. For now though, I wish to concentrate on the final moments of the film, as Jerry/Daphne and Osgood discuss their relationship in the front seats of the boat. Osgood tells Daphne, who is still in full drag, that his mother called and that she was so happy to hear about Osgood’s upcoming nuptials that she cried. Osgood goes on to tell his fiancée that his mother wants Daphne to wear her wedding gown for the ceremony, to which Jerry/Daphne responds, “I can’t get married in your mother’s dress. She and I … we’re not built the same way”. Jerry/Daphne then lists all of the reason they can’t marry. Jerry/Daphne confesses to Osgood that she has deceived him, that she is not a natural blonde, that’s she’s a heavy smoker, and that she can never have children. Osgood loves the person he knows as Daphne so much that he tells her that none of her confessions will change his feelings for her, and that they can always adopt some children. He even forgives her declaration that she is a loose woman who, for the last few years, has been living with a saxophone player. Exasperated, Jerry/Daphne finally pulls off the blonde wig and announces, “You don’t understand Osgood; I’m a man!” Osgood simply smiles and responds, “Well, nobody’s perfect”. As the screen fades to black, Osgood grins happily while Daphne/Jerry simply stares ahead in disbelief.
I love this scene. I think it is one of the most gleefully subversive moments in mid-century American cinema. If nothing else, it expresses a tacit acceptance of homosexuality and cross-dressing at a time when LGBTQ+ identities were still pathologised as psychological illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Despite this, I do struggle to find the language to describe what is happening and the relationship between Osgood and Jerry/Daphne. Although I am apt to use the pronoun “they” to describe non-binary individuals, in the previous paragraph, I use “she” to describe Daphne because until the moment the wig is ripped off, Osgood thinks of his partner as a woman. I also use “she” because Daphne, as a character, seems like a woman. In contrast to Joe, who is uncomfortable in women’s clothes and chooses the name Josephine because of its similarity to his own name, from the moment he slips into a dress Jerry becomes Daphne. He is not merely a man in disguise, he embraces his female identity. He even selects the name Daphne because he claims that he has always liked it, as if he has thought about the matter in detail. He expresses amazement at Sugar’s bouncy walk not so much because he finds her sexually appealing, but because he is enamoured by how women walk. He is comfortable as a woman in a way Joe never is. Later, Daphne seems ecstatic about her engagement to Osgood. When she tells Jerry she has gotten engaged, Jerry responds, “Congratulations! Who’s is the lucky girl?” Daphne gleeful announces, “I am!”
I’m not sure if the character of Daphne/Jerry is transgender, gender fluid, gay or simply just enjoys performing femininity. I’m not sure it matters. I’m not trying to conflate cross-dressing and trans* identity, nor am I merging gay and trans* identities, but I have no real desire to “out” a fictional character. Nevertheless, the film certainly lends itself to a trans* reading. Medium user, Natasha Troop makes an excellent case for Daphne being a trans woman. Troop is herself trans and a teacher of film, and her analysis of the film suggests that although the character of Joe and his seduction of Sugar may gesture towards transphobic anxieties, Daphne appears in many scenes as akin to a trans woman navigating her identity. As Troop goes on to argue, “Throughout the film, Joe retains a male identity, only using the female disguise as necessary, and never forgets for a moment who he is and why he is wearing the disguise. On the other hand, Daphne emerges as a character in her own right, even going so far as to accept the Osgood’s proposal and not really consider the implications.” One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is watching Daphne grow as a character, and her enthusiasm regarding Osgood’s courtship seems so genuine. Perhaps the most startlingly subversive aspect of the iconic final scene, the culmination of this growth, is the moment when Daphne removes her wig and announces, “I’m a man!” Her fiancée doesn’t reject her, he doesn’t panic, in fact he doesn’t even flinch. He just smiles and remarks, “No, one’s perfect”.
Even if we don’t read Daphne as a transgender woman, this moment and Osgood’s blaise response is highly transgressive in the context of 1950s America. After all, Some Like It Hot was released ten years before Stonewall, at a time when the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare continued to cost LGBTQ+ their livelihoods and homosexuality was still was viewed as a pathological deviation from American norms. LGBTQ+ themes were still taboo, and while the Hays Code has loosened its grip enough to allow films centred around a “moral conflict” to deal with almost any topic, the one theme that remained off-limits was homosexuality. That Osgood responds to Daphne’s exclamation of “I’m a man” with calm acceptance suggests a broader diegetic acceptance of homosexuality. Within the narrative universe of Some Like It Hot two men can be in a relationship. Indeed, the film ends, for all intents and purposes, with two men sailing off into the sunset with plans to marry. Although the film does not announce its queerness, Osgood’s “Nobody’s perfect” suggests an inclusivity and an understanding that is startling considering the time period.
The film undoubtedly startled more conservative viewers and moral guardians. In correspondence from March of 1959, the Very Reverend Monsignor Thomas F. Little from the National Catholic Legion of Decency complained that Some Like It Hot contained
screen material elements that are judged to be seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency. … The subject matter of ‘transvestism’ naturally leads to complications; in this film there seemed to us clear inference of homosexuality and lesbianism. The dialogue was not only ‘double entendre’ but outright smut. The offense in costuming was obvious.
Although the Monsignor’s complaints can, of course, be attributed to changing social mores, and changing definitions of “smut”, his words evince a profound discomfort with the manner in which the film destablises categories of gender and sexuality, implying an acceptance for those who do not fit in with the heteronormative, cisnormative attitudes of the period. Some Like It Hot doesn’t assign categories, we never learn whether Jerry/Daphne is a trans woman, non-binary or a queer man. As a film produced in the 1950s, it had neither the freedom nor the vocabulary to talk about these issues. However, what it succeeds in doing is troubling and undermining the entrenched – and, at the time, powerful – categories of male/female or gay/straight. Guilbert and Magenham argue in their study of Some Like It Hot that by “practicing gender-bending i.e. deconstructing gender norms, Wilder simply applies, in his fiction, [Judith] Butler’s recommendation to parody those norms in order to contest their so-called essential nature” (88).
In some ways, the glorious exchange that draws the film to a close, along with preceding scenes in which Jerry/Daphne transgresses the boundary between masculine and feminine, look forward to the proliferation of “Queer Theory” in the 1990s. Named for a reclaimed slur, Queer Theory is an academic field that is often traced to Teresa de Lauretis’s work in a 1991 special edition of the feminist journal differences. Queer Theory sought to distinguish itself from the existent field of Gay and Lesbian Studies by moving beyond the gay/straight binary to incorporate other sexualities (bi-,pan- or asexuality) and gender identities (trans*, cis, non-binary and gender fluid). Queer Theory refutes the idea that heteronormativity is the default or standard from which other sexualities and gender identities deviate. As an area of academic enquiry, it adopts an intersectional viewpoint, looking at how race in particular shapes the individual’s experience of queerness. Queer Theory also draws heavily on the writings of scholar Judith Butler whose work centres on the notion that gender is not inherent to the sexed body but is instead performed through dress, actions, speech, mannerisms and so on. Butler has also argued that the male/female binary, as well as the hetero/homosexual binary, are cultural constructs that can be resisted or subverted through experimental gender performances like drag.
While I’m not suggesting that a film released in the 1950s is consciously engaging with modern academic theories, Some Like It Hot does aim to unsettle norms of gender and sexuality. Its attitude is undeniably comedic, drawing on a tradition of cross-dressing and mistaken identity that runs all the way back to Shakespearean drama. However, it is also a film in which the transgression of gender boundaries is accepted. Throughout its runtime Some Like It Hot flirts with both homosexual and trans* themes. Although presenting Jerry/Daphne as wholly enthusiastic about femininity, women’s clothes and engagement to a man, the film remains non-committal. It refuses to categorise Jerry/Daphne as gay or straight, trans* or cis. The film’s intentions are clearly subversive, it sets out to unsettle the divisions between classes, sexes and orientations. It is a film suffused with masquerade, costume and disguise. Nevertheless, despite the ambiguity that surrounds both gender and sexuality in the film, Some Like It Hot’s closing scene is delightfully subversive because of its acceptance of Daphne/Jerry, whoever he or she may be. Considering that well into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and The Hangover Part II (2011) have treated the outing of trans* characters as jokes and emphasised the “sickened” response of the men who are attracted to them, Some Like It Hot seems wonderfully accepting. Osgood is not repulsed by Daphne, he doesn’t feel “tricked” or “misled”, he simply accepts her. It is perhaps for this reason, because of the lazy transphobic jokes made by everything from Family Guy (1999 – present) to How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), that Some Like It Hot still feels subversive today. The closing sequence is delightful, quick-witted and fast-paced. It is a truly wonderful final scene not just because of Osgood’s bathetic response, but because that response is one of acceptance.
AFI Catalog, “Some Like It Hot”, AFI <https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/53017>
Georges-Claude Guilbert & Nicholas Magenham, “Gender in Some Like It Hot” in Literary Readings of Billy Wilder, edited by Georges-Claude Guilbert. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.
Illinois Library, “Queer Theory: Background”, Illinois University Library < https://guides.library.illinois.edu/queertheory/background>
Bob Mondello, “Remembering Hollywood’s Hays Code, 40 Years On”, NPR <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93301189>
Natasha Troop, “A Trans Perspective on ‘Some Like It Hot’”, Medium <https://firstname.lastname@example.org/a-trans-perspective-on-some-like-it-hot-ad200e4a7de2>