The White Mask: Marilyn Monroe and the Hotel Del Coronado

Even Arthur Miller couldn't make Billy Wilder happy; Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis did their best.

Billy Wilder complained that Monroe often didn’t get to the set until midafternoon.

Billy Wilder complained that Monroe often didn’t get to the set until midafternoon.

Martin dismissed the “glum-looking Miller,” calling him “just part of the incidental scenery.” And “Marilyn,” he continued, “proved herself adept, as always, in answering pert press queries with tactful but somewhat baffling replies, and she managed to reveal a teasing expanse of leg to the cameras.” One wonders whether Martin and other reporters were anything but pert, seldom caring who this beautiful and shy, elusive and provocative woman was. Because, the morning after Martin’s column, a day after Monroe had mailed a panicky letter about her troubles to a friend, and after a long and torturous phone call with Miller, who had returned the previous day to New York, Monroe was found by Paula Strasberg in the Mar Vista Cottage drugged and disoriented. She was flown to Los Angeles and rushed to a hospital in Hollywood. The actress had overdosed on Seconal and champagne.

About halfway through Some Like It Hot, there’s a scene that everything in the film has been driving toward — the seduction of Monroe by Curtis. How the hopes of men stirred once they’d seen Monroe revealed in those diaphanous…well, let’s back up a little. The saxophone-toting glamour-boy Joe, played by Curtis, and his buddy, the bass fiddle–plucking neurotic Jerry, played by Lemmon, are broke and desperate, taking the little money they earn each night and losing it at the track the next day; during a blizzard one night, Joe and Jerry happen to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, an actual event in which Al Capone’s gang gunned down Bugs Moran’s gang; Joe and Jerry are also seen witnessing the massacre; they barely escape a phalanx of tommy-gunning bootleggers led by Spats Columbo, played by George Raft, star of Scarface, in which he epitomized the starch-faced, coin-flipping mobster; since Joe and Jerry had heard a day earlier that Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators were looking for a sax and a bass player, of the female persuasion, the pair decide to dress in drag to elude the gangsters; Joe as Josephine and Jerry as Daphne get the job, just in time to board a train for Florida; on the train Josephine-Joe meets Sugar Kane, a girl ukulelist and singer with the band, whom Joe decides to woo; the band then arrives in Florida at a hotel called the Seminole-Ritz (the Hotel Del), where Josephine-Joe undresses from his flapper outfit and dons the eight-button double-breasted jacket and arrogant abstraction of the millionaire Shell Oil Junior, heir to the Shell fortune; Josephine-Joe also dons a convincing Cary Grant–imitating brogue, a yachting hat, and very thick glasses, because Sugar Kane has told Josephine earlier that in Florida she wants to meet (and marry) a millionaire with glasses since such men are “gentle and sweet and helpless”; Josephine-Joe then proceeds to lie profusely to Sugar Kane, which is all a setup — pass the popcorn, please — for the big seduction.

Junior begins his 1:00 a.m. rendezvous on a yacht he has stolen aboard with Sugar by pretending impotence. He tells her of his failed cures: “My family did everything they could…hired the most beautiful French upstairs maids…imported a whole troupe of Balinese dancers with bells on their ankles and those long fingernails…gave me six months in Vienna with Professor Freud.” Abruptly he kisses Sugar. The seams of her stitched-on gown are poised to pop (the men hope) if (as expected) she gets too excited. She asks, “Was that anything?” Junior shakes his head no. “Thanks just the same.” Sugar feeds him two glasses of champagne, then pushes him onto a couch. Hoping to arouse that which produces The Ardor in a man, she kisses him so torridly that we see his foot, behind her head, slowly and rigidly rise into the air. Again she asks, “Anything this time?” Junior says, “I’m afraid not,” though we know by the hot air balloonlike ascent of his foot that he’s lying so Sugar will do it again. Sugar does, but not before she issues a breathy dose of advice, “You’re not giving yourself a chance. Don’t fight it. Relax.” Victimized by several more squirming kisses and head-cradling embraces, Junior confesses to a “funny sensation in my toes, like somebody was barbecuing them over a slow flame.” Sugar says, knowing she’s buoyed his buoy, “Let’s throw another log on the fire.”

Producer, director, and writer Wilder had already made Monroe the skirt-raising tease of American men in 1955 with The Seven Year Itch. To kindle more flames, he signed Monroe for the part of Sugar Kane in spring 1958. Once the actress inked a deal, Wilder and his screenwriting partner Izzy Diamond crafted Sugar’s endearing and exploitable daffiness expressly for Marilyn. In the yacht scene, they reversed the roles of hound and fox: Monroe became the tongue-lolling pursuer; Curtis, the tongue-biting pursued. Wilder said, “To be subdued, seduced, and screwed by Marilyn Monroe — what could be better? It was just like picking oranges.”

Some Like It Hot still has groves of oranges to pick, judging by the adulation the film has received these past 44 years. Released in 1959, the movie was nominated for five Oscars, winning best costume design for the exquisite see-through gowns that Orry-Kelly created for Monroe. That year, Monroe and Lemmon won Golden Globes for their performances, and the movie won best comedy picture. Wilder and Diamond got a plaque for best comedy script from the Writers Guild of America.

Then, in 2000, came the big award. The American Film Institute named Some Like It Hot the best comedy of the 20th Century. (In second place was the other cross-dressing hit, Tootsie.) In 2002 Tony Curtis, then 77 and the film’s only surviving principal, headlined a touring musical-theater version of Some Like It Hot as Osgood Fielding III, Daphne’s beau. Topping all accolades, however, is the clumsily titled Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot: The Funniest Film Ever Made: The Complete Book by Dan Auiler, edited by Alison Castle, and published by Benedikt Taschen, the German purveyor of pop art and coffee-table books. Retailing at $150, the heavy, 8-inch-tall, 16-inch-wide tome (it’s more like a ship than a book) contains a facsimile of the final script; essays by Auiler and interviews, mostly with Wilder; hundreds of photos; posters from the movie’s international run (in Spanish it was called Una Eva y Dos Adánes); and a reproduction of Monroe’s leather-covered “prompt” book, where her printed lines are annotated with cryptic and revealing notes to herself, such as “My part — it’s not more important than me.”

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