The White Mask: Marilyn Monroe and "Some Like It Hot" Print E-mail

20030804(San Diego Reader September 4, 2003)

On Saturday, September 6, 1958, Marilyn Monroe and the 175-person company of Some Like It Hot arrived at the Hotel del Coronado to begin location shots, after filming in Hollywood the previous four weeks. The movie, cowritten and directed by Billy Wilder, is about two musicians, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who, to elude a gang of bootleggers, dress up in drag and join an all-girl band. Tony Curtis falls in love with the band’s lead singer, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Monroe. Wilder set the movie in 1929 Chicago, which was recreated at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood, and at a resort hotel in Miami, Florida, for which the Hotel Del was the stand-in. The San Diego Union’s drama editor, Edwin Martin, noted in a puff piece that Monroe was “still beautiful and still shy.” He said her playwright-husband Arthur Miller was expected, along with Paula Strasberg, her “dramatic mentor, wife of the famous head of the New York Actor’s Studio,” where Monroe, who had not done a Hollywood picture in two years, had been studying.

That Labor Day weekend in San Diego was hot—90 degrees in Balboa Park. The citywide Fiesta del Pacifico held force with numerous events. Parades, carnivals, and street dances dotted the coastal communities. The California Story, a theatrical panorama of the state’s noble ethnic past, was seen over 14 days by 70,000 at the new “million-dollar ball park in Mission Valley.” A “gigantic open house at Convair-San Diego,” the Union said, drew “55,829 visitors,” who “toured Plants 1 and 2 and the Research and Development Center on Harbor Drive.” The pageantry of state legend combined with the drama of the defense industry swelled Southern Californians’ pride about where they came from and where they were going. One future beckoned with this Union advertisement the same day Monroe arrived: “A City Is Born!” boasted the M. Penn Phillips Company, which had sold “on opening weekend $4,377,321 worth of property” on the “Salton Riviera,” a development fronting the Salton Sea.

And, in what would be de rigueur by the end of the century, the press corps inaugurated the late-summer ritual of shark sightings. “Sharks Arrive, Swimmers Leave” rang a Union headline. Hammerheads or blue sharks, eight or nine feet long, “scared 50 swimmers” at La Jolla Shores. A week prior, an eight-foot hammerhead had chased 150 swimmers out of the water at Pacific Beach and a “seven-foot shark off the Casa de Manaña pool in La Jolla” had been killed.

For Union reporter Alfred Jacoby, shark sightings and Monroe on the beach fit hand in glove. The Wednesday, September 10, edition detailed how on the previous day Monroe, escorted by two Coronado police officers, made the “100-yard trek” to the ocean. Arthur Miller “was close at hand when she walked out of her makeup tent; he walked with her to the beach; he met her when she came dripping from the ocean; and he walked back to the tent with her.” The star “cavorted in the ocean for an hour or so. Minutes after [she] scampered ashore . . . a rumor whipped through the crowd of 500 watching . . . that a shark had been spotted.” Someone commented that the shark was trying to see whether a “vintage 1929 bathing suit would hide the famed Monroe figure.” The Evening-Tribune noted that while the “movie girls” are in the water, veteran lifeguard the Duke of Catalina is in charge. “I didn’t see a shark,” the Duke said. “I didn’t even see a sardine.”

Miller had flown in to be with his wife of two years, according to one biographer, “to try to help stabilize” her. For the first month of shooting in Hollywood Monroe had been repeatedly late; she often flubbed her lines, requiring multiple takes and incensing her costars. (One scene asked her to enter a room, open a dresser drawer, and say, “Where’s the bourbon?” It took more than 50 takes for her to get it right.) The probable reason Monroe was having trouble was the baby—she was pregnant, the second time that year. Though having a child was her dream, pregnancies tried her system, sometimes severely. Six months earlier she had suffered an ectopic pregnancy and miscarried. During breaks in filming, Monroe would sit on the Del’s veranda and breath the fresh Pacific air, saying, “This will be great for the baby.”

Les Webb, the Del’s doorman at the time, delivered mail, costumes, and personal things to Monroe at her residence in the Del’s Mar Vista Cottage. Webb, who after 45 years at the hotel now works at City Chevrolet, remembers that “when Marilyn Monroe wasn’t in front of the camera, she seemed like a different person. What little I had to do with her, which was in the morning—she seemed very pleasant.” He said she was up early every day; others, including Billy Wilder, complained that she often didn’t get to the set until mid-afternoon. (Asked about other Monroe stories, Webb declined to comment, saying that whatever happened on the set of Some Like It Hot resembles a fish story. “It just grows and grows.”)

On the first day of shooting, Monroe was upbeat. Onlookers cheered her when she emerged from the cottage or stood around the hotel in her white terrycloth robe. Wilder called Monroe a “show-off” for the fans. When he wanted quiet, he had to ask her to shush them: “They listened to her.” On the beach, with the Del as backdrop, Monroe and Curtis did one of the most comically complicated scenes of the movie—in one take. At the Del, “Marilyn remembered her lines,” Wilder said. “Everything was fine.” The only problem was the jets at North Island, landing and taking off, every fifteen minutes. Because of the jet noise, Wilder projected the beach scene would take three days. With the scene in the can, he was overjoyed and, for once, ahead of schedule.

That Friday Edwin Martin’s Union column was titled, “Marilyn’s Career At Crossroads.” Recalling such hits as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, he wrote, “Fans were delighted by this swivel-hipped blonde whose elaborate bathing and original approach to sex often gave love scenes a humourous flavor.” The pencil-mustached Martin revealed how Monroe watchers saw her at the time—girlishly alluring, in essence, her screen persona. Dubbing her “provocative” and “elusive,” (five days earlier she had been “beautiful” and “shy”), Martin said she made the “culture break” from Hollywood to the Actor’s Studio because “she was determined to play more dramatic types.” As to her current role, he wrote, “she is said to combine tenderness with humor, has moments of sheer pathos, and achieves identification with her character she seldom achieved previously.” Martin seemed unable to understand why she sought roles other than the bimbo: “Audience lines were blocks long at the box-office, yet Mrs. Miller decided to change her style.”

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 half-way 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’s bright idea is to lose the gangsters by dressing in drag as Josephine, with Jerry as Daphne, and by joining an all-girl dance band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, which so happens to need a sax and bass fiddle player; 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 Gary 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 set-up—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 toupe 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 balloon-like 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 in the half-century since its debut. 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.”

Why is this movie so successful as comic art? Let’s first peal off the duplicities. Its cross-dressing hilarity; its risqué dialogue; its deployment of actors like George Raft and Nehemiah Persoff who parody their gangster roles from earlier films; its transvestism and hyperbole and dissembling ironies from verbal to dramatic to cosmic—in short, the number and variety of liberties it takes and the speed with which the impersonations in the story escalate. It’s a film stacked with falsies. Everything is misrepresented, almost always with aplomb. The movie takes place at the zenith of prohibition; saloons and their customers are partners in disguise. The speakeasy is fronted by a funeral parlor; the hearse-carrying coffin is loaded with whiskey bottles; and the sobriquet for a bootleggers’ convention in Miami is “Friends of Italian Opera.” The dialogue pulses with wit; lines fly by like roof shingles in a tornado. When Sweet Sue asks Josephine and Daphne where they learned to play their instruments, Josephine says the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music. Later, when Sugar Kane meets Shell Oil Junior (a disguised Josephine), she co-opts Josephine’s line about attending Sheboygan and adds that Sue’s Syncopators are from “Bryn Mawr, Vassar. We’re only doing this for a lark.” Other jokes mess with gender. Jerry: I’m engaged. Joe: Who’s the lucky girl. Jerry: I am.

“Falsehood is the fuel of this famous movie,” wrote Anthony Lane recently in The New Yorker. But falsehood has always been Hollywood’s octane. Wilder’s “high farce” is so cleverly balanced between gender-bending innuendo and the boy-chasing-girl motif that the good heart of the latter keeps the naughtiness of the former harmless. Indeed, placing the cross-dressers in the Roaring Twenties was the only way for Wilder, during the censorial 1950s, to comment on the intractability of our sexual stereotypes.

But all the cleverness in the world cannot obscure the social critic in the German-born Wilder. To dress up as girls or boys, to pretend we’re millionaires or society mavens, to fake our education or our connections—it’s all in the name of getting what we want. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said he was haunted by his inauthenticity; so, too, he thought were most Americans of any standing. He believed that to get what we want we must inflate ourselves. My Depression-tested, paper-selling father used to say, “Whether you like it not, the only way you’ll get ahead in this world is by selling yourself.” My father’s contemporary, Norma Jean Baker, the woman she was before she was Marilyn Monroe, proved his point—by selling her body, and perhaps her soul, to the leering masses.

Had Monroe’s role been played by another actress, the movie would have likely endured: the script was stellar, Curtis and Lemmon and Joe E. Brown, as Osgood, heavenly. But when you add Monroe’s hot and cold chemistry with the other actors; when you add the awful things Billy Wilder said of her: “breasts like granite that defy gravity and a mind like Swiss cheese, that is, full of holes”; when you add the admirable things he said of her, following her death in 1962: “an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue”; when you add the 41 years since Norma Jean succumbed, during which the ghosts of her psychotic mother and the assassinated Kennedy brothers continue to haunt—Some Like It Hot has become far more than a movie: it stands today like a comic monument to Monroe’s tragic fall.

Graham McCann writes in his 1988 Marilyn Monroe, “The film is so significant for Monroe watchers, for it is the quintessential fiction on Monroe.” The movie invites the audience who has followed her “personal highs and lows for several years” “to tease out the biographical references in Monroe’s character.” This, McCann says, is what gets her fans into the theater.  For the film-makers of the 1950s, the question was always—how can the thrice-married Monroe be reflected to an audience who desperately wants her to find the right man? Answer: have art imitate life. Thus, a shy, bespectacled, unmanly Junior (Arthur Miller) meets a generous, ditzy, confessional Sugar Kane (Marilyn), and their unlikely, mixed-up, marriage-minded romance is the story. One the public knows already.

But there’s a price to pay for this too-complete identification. Since no actor can maintain her screen persona—despite the desires of audience and studio—the star like an animal ensnared in a steel trap begins to chew her foot off in order to get free. This is, essentially, the tragedy depicted in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In fact, Monroe’s troubles during Some Like It Hot trace a similar emotional arc to those of Norma Desmond (played to pugnacious perfection by Gloria Swanson) in Wilder’s great 1950 movie. There, the deluded silent-film star tries to parlay her old glory in a thankless Hollywood and fails utterly. Playing the 24-year-old Sugar Kane, the 32-year-old Marilyn becomes as self-destructive in her life as Swanson’s Norma was in her role.


Before teasing Monroe’s decline any further out of the shadows, it may be wise first to look at the Hotel Del’s role in the film. Wilder made Some Like It Hot by shooting all the interior scenes in Hollywood between early August and early November. To fake Florida for the outdoor shots, Wilder and Diamond selected the Del because, Wilder said, “This was the only place we could find that hasn’t changed in thirty years. People who have never seen this beautiful hotel will never believe we didn’t make these scenes on a movie lot. It’s like the past come to life.” In 1958 the Del was mostly unchanged since it opened 70 years earlier.

What was it about the Hotel Del that brought 1929 to life for Wilder? Practicalities. Good weather, proximity to Los Angeles, a fair business deal to house and feed Wilder’s crew, the grand sweep of porches and vistas, and the millionaires who didn’t just spend the night but rather stayed for weeks or months during winter. Ed Sikov writes in his On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder that the script called for a Miami resort hotel where in 1929 millionaires hunted for brides and brides went to be hunted. But very few of those “magnificent old resorts” in Miami were still standing in 1958. They “had been pulled down to make room for the gaudy, streamline-rococo gloss of postwar beach development. The Coronado, however, was perfect—a grand 1887 heap.”

Christine Donovan is the Hotel Del’s director of heritage programs; the new owner, Loews Corporation, which bought the hotel in 1997, asked her to consolidate the Del’s history. With a background in marketing and historic preservation, Donovan penned synopses of the hotel’s “Hollywood Connection,” a checklist of famous “American Authors” who’ve stayed a night or two, and what she calls “the increasing frenzy of Some Like It Hot.” She characterizes Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story’s design as one of “whimsy and asymmetry, with lots of fun things like cupolas, towers, and turrets, rambling white clapboard and long verandas. It’s a very busy architecture, but it’s also very pleasing. Children are entranced by the hotel. To them it’s magical.” She quotes the writer Edmund Wilson, who described the Del in 1931 as “snowy white and ornate as a wedding cake, clean, polished and trim as a ship.” Donovan says that the structure also fascinates people because it was a “miracle” to build, with workmen and materials coming from elsewhere. Its other claim-to-fame is that the hotel has been a continuously running resort hotel for more than a century, open even during World War II.

Every president from William Howard Taft to William Jefferson Clinton has spent the night at the Del. People are always enquiring, Donovan says, about a wedding that took place on the grounds in 1973 or 1944: Are photos available? (Usually, they’re not, she says.) And, scores of movies and TV shows have been shot at the hotel, not to mention the celebrities who like it as their hideaway, in part, because their stays will be added to Donovan’s list, a kind of Coronado walk of fame.

The architecture, the famous guests, the great wedding cake as movie set—“and Marilyn Monroe,” Donovan boasts. She looks at a poster on her office wall. It’s the Blonde Bombshell in an off-screen pose, wearing a short terrycloth robe that covers her 1920s bathing suit; behind her is the Del’s big red turret and a throng of looky-lous. “It would be hard,” Donovan says, “to think of a more perfect movie than Some Like It Hot for the Del to be associated with.” I wondered whether the hotel was milking its Marilyn connection. Donovan says, “We don’t have to promote that Some Like It Hot was shot here. It’s got a life of its own.”


On Monday, September 15, 1958, the San Diego Evening-Tribune head-lined a small news item on A-13, “Monroe Leaves Coronado Set, Enters Hospital.” The movie was halted by the star’s illness: “She is now under observation at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood.” Monroe’s personal physician refused to answer questions but friends reported her “suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion.’”

The biographies paint a detailed but, by no means, uniform picture. The poet Norman Rosten, one of Monroe’s closest friends, received a letter from Monroe, dated September 11, (the Thursday of her week here) typed on Coronado stationery. Anthony Summers writes in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe that the “hotel notepaper was decorated with a beach scene, to which Marilyn added a little female stick figure in the water, waving its arms and shouting ‘Help.’” The letter reads, “Dear Norman, Don’t give up the ship while we’re sinking. I have a feeling this boat is never going to dock. We are going through the Straits of Dire. It’s rough and choppy but why should I worry I have no phallic symbol to lose.” The P.S., “Love me for my yellow hair alone,” alludes to a poem by W.B. Yeats. (The actual poem “For Anne Gregory” reads “. . . only God my dear, / Could love you for yourself alone / And not your yellow hair.”) At the bottom in Monroe’s script is “I would have written this by hand but it’s trembling.”

Donald Spoto, in his 1993 Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, considered to be the authoritative work on her life, writes that “nervous exhaustion” was a misnomer. He says that Monroe overdosed late Friday evening or early Saturday morning, after a difficult phone call to Miller. Monroe “apparently took one too many sleeping capsules, perhaps with champagne. She was neither dying nor comatose, but, in a reaction typical for one who ingests such a combination, she vomited so violently that Paula [Strasberg] had her admitted to a hospital for the weekend.”

Such entries in The Marilyn Encyclopedia as “Sleep,” “Medical Problems,” and “Suicide Attempts” point to a number of problems she was facing in 1958. For one, there was her pill-taking regimen, especially barbiturates for her insomnia. Several physicians, whom Monroe played off one another, prescribed a steady diet of Benzedrine, Dexedrine, Seconal, and Nembutal. Years of pill-taking meant her tolerance for the sleep aids was very high: Monroe seldom fell asleep before 4 or 5 a.m. Consequently, her next-day scene would be postponed until 4 p.m. (“Waiting for Marilyn” was the game everyone played with the other actors constantly criticizing her.) The worst part of 1958 so far was her March miscarriage. Pregnant again, she was warned by her gynecologist that repeatedly mixing alcohol and pills might kill the fetus.

Some friends said that in addition to her physical problems with sleep and pregnancy, Monroe was despondent about her marriage to Miller. In a letter he wrote to his “Darling Girl” that Friday night after he got off the phone, Miller lamented not supporting her monetarily and being unable to express his emotions; he would, therefore, continue psychoanalysis. Did Monroe feel—as she did with her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, who physically abused her during their nine-month marriage—that she had again chosen a man who was incapable of the affection she craved? Was Miller’s distance grounds to want to end her life? Her self-medicating regimen was probably not a death wish. It was a way to shut down her big-heartedness, to curb her longing for unconditional love, whether from a man or a baby. A lost soul, Monroe was taken care of by friends and boyfriends and husbands, a woman not much different from a pet or an invalid. For Marilyn, Paula Strasberg mixed acting mentor and female-husband. Her presence suggests that Arthur Miller, who feared rather than cherished Marilyn’s fragility and who couldn’t (and didn’t want to) be with her all the time, felt that she could never be alone. Future overdoses would prove him right.

In late September Monroe and company returned to the Hotel Del. The film had been delayed 15 days, by far its longest hiatus. Though Some Like It Hot continued production, Monroe’s overdose at the Del initiated a cycle of breakdown, hospitalization, psychoanalysis, drug-ingestion. Her death, four years later, would be ruled a “probable suicide,” caused by “self-administered sedative drugs.” A few believe it wasn’t self-administered but rather injected via enema—one or more henchmen, working on behalf of, well, the list of possible suspects is a long one and lengthens every year.


Monroe’s statement in her letter to Rosten—“why should I worry I have no phallic symbol to lose”—may signal a psychological break from Hollywood’s female straitjacket. The comment, of course, refers to Joe and Jerry having to lose their “phalluses” in order to “become women.” But she is also reminding herself that she need not be infected by the sex-minded decisions that typify directors, producers, and male actors. For Monroe, it’s not the penis, per se, that she distrusts. Monroe slept with hundreds of men, though seldom with passion, if the testimony of her paramours is to be believed. Rather, it was the sexual merchandising the film barons employed that she despised. The body-revealing costumes, the girl-crazy scripts, the insipid romantic endings, not to mention the contractual authority directors and producers used to cut whatever scene they wanted to when a film was finished (Marilyn’s finest nonsexual performance was excised by director Joshua Logan from the film Bus Stop)—these were the bludgeons of phallic rule.

During the filming of Some Like It Hot, Monroe told herself to fight back. “Don’t take their tone!” she notes in her prompt book. After all, she could exercise some control of her own: she was married to a brilliant playwright; she had a nascent production company; she was the biggest box-office draw in America; and she would soon be a mother, becoming a member of an exclusive female club.

But because Monroe craved the adulation that being a movie star brought, she could not escape Hollywood’s grasp. As a result, Monroe’s view of her profession was split between acquiescence and anger. Some believed she wanted to play Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. Izzy Diamond remembers Monroe writing to Wilder, before they sent her the story, that she hoped to work with him again. In spring 1958, Monroe and Miller received Wilder’s two-page outline and Miller thought right away that a drag comedy would be the perfect toddy for Monroe, after miscarrying. A few of Monroe’s friends recall her never saying a bad word about Sugar Kane.

However, according to Donald H. Wolfe’s The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, Monroe said the script and the character incensed her. “I’ve played dumb blondes before,” she said, “but never that dumb. How couldn’t I recognize that they were men. I won’t do it. Never.” Wolfe describes Miller’s debts as the primary motive for Monroe’s taking part in the film. They needed to pay the huge legal expenses he had accrued fighting the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been probing his left-wing connections. Miller rightly believed the film would make a fortune. Wolfe says that Monroe, while recognizing they needed money, complained bitterly about Miller’s importuning. She told a friend, “All he cares about is money. Not me. I can’t take another one of these parts. This is the dumbest ever. Why doesn’t he try to write something he hates. Then he’d see.” But Monroe agreed to meet with Wilder, Curtis, and Lemmon, who flew to New York City where the Millers lived. Each told her the part would “be a milestone in her career.” Apparently it wasn’t hard to engage the man-pleasing part of Monroe. She said yes, though a buried rage at them for persuading her and at herself for giving in continued.

In a letter to Norman Rosten around this time, she strung the beads of her confusion. “Should I do my next picture or stay home and try to have a baby again? That’s what I want most of all, the baby, I guess, but maybe God is trying to tell me something, I mean with my pregnancy. I’d probably make a kooky mother; I’d love my child to death. I want it, yet I’m scared. Arthur says he wants it, but he’s losing his enthusiasm. He thinks I should do the picture. After all, I’m a movie star, right?”

Donald H. Wolfe says Monroe, after agreeing to the film, tried to eat her way out of it. So does Barbara Leaming in her Marilyn Monroe. “In the dark bedroom on East 57th Street, Marilyn, sitting naked in bed, drank champagne and stuffed herself compulsively. The servants marveled at her ability to cram vast quantities of food down her throat. She devoured lamb chops, steaks, hamburgers, veal cutlets, and home-fried potatoes. She was particularly fond of chocolate pudding. She vowed to make herself so fat that no one would want her to appear in Some Like It Hot.”

Before Monroe got to Coronado, she countered Wilder’s control by being late, flubbing lines, and taking her own “direction” from Strasberg, her attendant. Cursing like a sailor, she told Wilder, “Look, mister. You have Marilyn Monroe in this ridiculous film so use her, don’t fuck her up. And don’t try to fuck with her, either.” Another instance of Monroe’s self-reference, much like Richard Nixon calling himself “the President,” came after seeing the rushes of her entrance. “I’m not going back into the fucking film until Wilder reshoots my opening. When Marilyn Monroe comes into a room nobody’s going to be looking at Tony Curtis playing Joan Crawford. They’re going to be looking at Marilyn Monroe.” Wilder did as he was told.

The film wrapped on November 6, 1958, 29 days overschedule and a half-million dollars overbudget. On December 16, the day the movie premiered in Los Angeles, Monroe miscarried again. In the aftermath, things got ugly. She blamed Wilder. Earl Wilson, after speaking with Monroe, noted in his gossip column that she “wishes that Billy’d remember that Some Like It Hot cost her the baby.” There followed a series of publicly traded barbs between Monroe and Wilder, with Miller also getting snagged. When Monroe read in the paper that Wilder had complained that she aggravated his bad back during filming, she shouted, “I made him sick! I made him sick!” She shredded the paper and ran to Miller’s study, screaming, “It’s your fault. It’s your damn fault. You better damn well do something about it, you bleeding-heart bastard. Now everybody in the world will take me as a fool. A joke. You’ve got to say something. People listen to you. You’ve got respect.”

Lena Pepitone, one of Monroe’s personal assistants at the time, wrote that following the December miscarriage, Monroe was almost catatonically depressed. For weeks, the actress plied her pain with sedatives until one night Pepitone found Monroe “unconscious on the bedroom floor, her face caked with vomit,” her body having disgorged some of the Nembutal invader. A doctor came and pumped her stomach; she was revived again just as she had been in Coronado four months earlier.


And yet Monroe’s August-to-November hardships are never apparent in Some Like It Hot. She simply had any trace of her personal life wiped out on-screen with the requisite drugs and the requisite scene takes: the numbers are legendary—46 takes, 65 takes, 87 takes. Though enraged by her lack of professionalism, Wilder always agreed to another take whenever Monroe insisted, “I know I can do better, Billy.” His preference for Monroe meant that Tony Curtis (and here I’ll steal one of the film’s metaphors) got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Wilder said, “When I come to cut the film, I look at the early takes. Curtis looks good on those and Monroe is weak. On the later takes, she is wonderful and he is weak. As a director, I must disregard his best takes . . . and go with Monroe . . . because when Monroe is on the screen, the audience cannot keep their eyes off her.”

One on-set squabble bears retelling. Tony Curtis, perhaps aware of Wilder’s loyalty to the audience, was asked after viewing the day’s rushes of the yacht scene what it was like to kiss Monroe, that is, to receive her ardor. He replied, “It was like kissing Hitler.” When Paula Strasberg heard the comment, she wept: “How could you say such a thing?” “You try working with her Paula,” Curtis said, “and see how you feel.” When Monroe was told, she was livid: “If I have to do intimate love scenes with somebody who really has that feeling toward me, then my fantasy has to come into play—in other words, out with him, in with my fantasy. He was never there.”

Curtis was being paid $100,000 to impersonate a woman (Josephine) as well as two men (Joe and Shell Oil Junior); Monroe was getting $300,000 to impersonate Marilyn, that is, the “sex bomb,” as Wilder liked to call her. And it’s these impersonations by Curtis and Monroe, as well as Jack Lemmon’s, that summons, in my mind, Picasso’s famous dictum, “art is a lie that tells the truth.” If this picture “lies” in its depiction of a cad chasing a cream puff, what is the truth of this lie? It’s a truth essential to drag comedy, asking the question—which gender is bending which?

Wilder biographer Ed Sikov writes that drag comedy is “all about gender anxiety and sexual panic. It forces people to worry about presence and absence, but the worry is part of the pleasure.” Though Wilder’s drag comedy is very pleasurable, it’s also very one-sided, playing as it does to an American male audience with Marilyn as the lure. Some Like It Hot reveals just how ridiculously disingenuous these (to use Daphne’s line) “rough hairy beasts” can be. To do so, Wilder first turns the beasts into women. He then flips the idea on its head by turning a fake woman (Josephine) into a fake man (Shell Oil Junior), whose bestiality is now refined, cultured. Junior is the worst male liar, worse than a cross-dressing man, because he fakes accent, impotence, generosity, wealth—all of which are meant to steer Sugar’s ship into port. No man with Curtis’s good looks and charm would have stooped to Junior’s level, Wilder seems to say. And yet Wilder stoops to that level, in order to say, oh yes they do, especially the most privileged. Thus, the male, in his many guises, gets a drubbing. But not the female. In fact, Wilder doesn’t know what to do with women, except present us the naive female stereotype—gullible Sugar Kane Kowalczyk from Sandusky, Ohio, dressed as scantily as he can get away with. He can’t reveal her or the perils of her gender. She must be the foil, an uncomplicated reason for a man to stoop.

With men as dough, Wilder and Diamond’s script bends the male gender into a she/he pretzel. The penultimate scene in Some Like It Hot is Hollywood’s first “lesbian kiss.” While Joe, dressed as Josephine, is running from a new set of goons who’ve just rubbed out Spats Columbo and his gang, he hears Sugar Kane singing, “I’m Through With Love.” He rushes on stage and kisses her. He says to Sugar’s astonished face, in neither Josephine’s nor Shell Oil’s voice, but in his own, “No guy’s worth it.” Sugar is incredulous, “Josephine?” She’s been kissed by a woman. But then she recognizes it’s Junior’s kiss. Though Joe must continue fleeing, the moment is all his: “By ‘becoming’ a woman,” as one film historian put it, Joe finally “becomes a mensch.”

That just end is engineered for Curtis’s Joe and, by extension, the male audience. But what does Monroe get out of it? The fuzzy end of the lollipop. What is so great about this film is that by forcing men to become women, the picture shows men how wrong they are about the other sex. What is so trivial about this film is that, in order to convey that message, the movie uses a child-woman to get men into the theater. And then, after they’ve been ogling Marilyn for more than an hour and seen how much fun a guy can have with a simpleton like Sugar, can their addlepated minds receive any of Joe’s lesson about deceitfulness with women?

With Monroe’s character buried by the male soap opera, you might think she could rise no higher than her depiction. But she does because she’s irrepressible. In fact, Monroe emerges as the one who embodies the truth of the lie: love often means putting up with the faults of those we love. “You don’t want me Sugar,” says Curtis, pulling off his wig in the end. “I’m a liar and a phony, a saxophone player, one of those no-goodniks you keep running away from.” “That’s right,” Sugar says, grabbing him. “Pour it on. Talk me out of it.” The Hollywood male fantasy says that men connive forgiveness for idiotically pursuing a beautiful woman—because they can’t help it. Forgiven, the men get off. And putting up with men getting off may have, in part, done in Monroe.

And yet the actress, over time, eventually comprehended how her handlers portrayed her. A few years after the storm over Some Like It Hot had settled, she said, “People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me; they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.” A gaggle of publicists fashioned Marilyn’s persona, knowing that an audience of lustful men and jealous women would gladly trade innocence for lewdness, gravity for shallowness. Sugar Kane was the actress’s fullest impersonation of the male-imagined female, and it was also her final impersonation of Marilyn.


One last Wilder line seems particularly telling. Many years after Monroe’s death, he described her as in life, hell; on film, divine. “There was no connection. No more mystery to it than that. She was not the kind of woman a sex bomb is supposed to be, and it wore her out. She never found anyone who understood her.” Did that include Billy Wilder?

When the pregnant Monroe arrived at the Hotel Del and smelled the sea air, she was content: she and Miller were finally going to have a family, the intact family she was denied as a child. Perhaps the allure of Coronado’s beach and the architectural marvel of the hotel itself compelled her to realize how happy she might be—and, once again, how impossible a wish that was, given her dependence on drugs and directors. Perhaps, she thought she could get through this last dumb-blonde role, make the money, and be done with the joke forever. She may or may not have realized that this role would prove her comedic talents beyond doubt. It was clear, however, that she despised the role of Sugar Kane more than any of her other screen characters. At a premiere of Some Like It Hot (Monroe attended a few around the country), she ran in to Clark Gable. (Gable would eventually co-star with her in The Misfits, the last film either would appear in. Arthur Miller had written the screenplay based on his short story, adding for Marilyn the role of the melancholic, disillusioned Roslyn.) After the premiere, Monroe told Gable, a man whom she had fantasized as her father when she was young and fatherless, “I’m so embarrassed. That fat blond thing up on the screen—that wasn’t me.”