Tony Curtis and Some Like it Hot

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"Some people say that Some Like it Hot is the funniest movie ever made. I don't know. All I know is that it gave me a chance to work with four comic geniuses: I.A.L. Diamond, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, and Marilyn Monroe."

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon


In Tony Curtis's memoir, The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie the well-known Hollywood actor tells his version of what went on behind-the-scenes of one of the funniest movies ever made. Written with the assistance of film historian Mark Vieira, the book is packed full of great color and black and white photos from the set.

Curtis, who died in 2010, had already written two memoirs, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (1994) and American Prince: A Memoir (2008). So why write a third? Two reasons. Some Like it Hot's recent heralding as the #1 American comedy of all time by The American Film Institute (AFI).  And cashing in on the enduring popularity of Marilyn Monroe, which would certainly guarantee book sales.

While Curtis is always an entertaining read, his never-ending ego does grow tiresome after a while. He tries to sound humble, but can't help pondering that he was possibly "the handsomest" actor in Hollywood: "Some Like it Hot did a lot for my development as an actor. It was enough for me to be a handsome actor, maybe the handsomest in town. It wasn't enough to learn the lines and show up. Being around artists like Jack and Billy and Marilyn affected me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to get closer to the source of the art. I wanted to know how to create that magic, like stars did in the pictures I'd seen when I was a kid."

Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and director Billy Wilder


He complains endlessly about the "special treatment" that Marilyn received. "I looked at the film and I thought that in the beginning of it I was weaker than I really was. Everything was done to keep Marilyn happy. She was chosen, favored over Jack and me. That's what colored my perception of the film for a long time. Too long. But I finally got past that." He may have gotten past those feelings, but that didn't stop him from writing about them, repeatedly. He clearly felt that Lemmon was director Billy Wilder's favorite and that Marilyn's difficult behavior earned her special privileges. But for all of the stories about Marilyn's reputation for keeping people waiting or blowing lines, Curtis has just as many instances where she was letter-perfect or got a scene in one take. The scene where Sugar meets Shell Oil, Jr. on the beach had to be filmed quickly, as noisy jets from a nearby naval base were taking off every ten minutes. Marilyn got everything right on the first take.

Marilyn seemed to flub her lines more often when the camera shot was a close-up, when the pressure was on her and her alone. There are numerous accounts of how well she did in group scenes, getting everything right, and right away. As Curtis recounts, "I had seen her last picture, The Prince and the Showgirl. She did long scenes where the camera kept moving and there were no cuts. She was excellent, holding her own against the great Laurence Olivier. We saw the same thing in our film. She did well in uninterrupted scenes, yet when it came to two-shots or close-ups, she suddenly lost confidence." Billy Wilder observed, "I've noticed that if she gets past the first two or three lines she sometimes can go on and on, even if it's a long speech. She doesn't seem to get tired. She'll do take after take. She poops out the other actors, but she blooms as the day goes on. She's at her best in the late afternoon, when the other actors are dropping like flies."

Jack Lemmon had a different perspective on why Marilyn needed multiple takes to get a scene right: "Marilyn had a kind of built-in alarm system. It would go off in the middle of a scene if it wasn't right for her, and she would stop. It would look like she was doing exactly what she'd done in the previous take. But for her, something wasn't clicking. She knew she was limited. She knew what was right for Marilyn. She wasn't about to do anything else. So would stand there with her eyes closed, biting her lip, and wringing her hands until she had worked it out."

Curtis repeats the now-infamous anecdotes of the "Where's the bourbon?" scene which took 59 takes; and how the studio wanted a "big name" like Frank Sinatra to star (who didn't seem at all interested). What I hadn't heard before was that Danny Kaye wanted to be in the film, but that Wilder turned him down and requested Jack Lemmon. Curtis comes up with an elaborate explanation for his "like kissing Hitler" quote; and is still smarting from jokes about his line reading, "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah," from an early film, Son of Ali Baba.

Even with all of his grand-standing, Curtis can't help but be interesting on how Hollywood shaped his life. He describes how intense ambition for Hollywood success was the cornerstone of his marriage to Janet Leigh, "Our marriage changed that [feeling like he was a long way from stardom]. The explosion of publicity pushed both of us much farther than we would have gone in the same amount of time if we hadn't gotten married." He is unapologetic about his countless affairs — he had a reputation for having affairs with his leading ladies, and wife Leigh was used to it — it was part of the territory.

But he always comes back to Marilyn, which does make for the most interesting stories in the book. He claims to have had an affair with her, when they were both just starting out in Hollywood. That seems possible, but all such claims are suspect when they appear so long after the other party has died. What doesn't ring true at all are his claims that later he had a one-night stand with her on the set of Some Like it Hot,which resulted in her becoming pregnant, complete with a show-down scene with her husband Arthur Miller.

Curtis signing autographs


Curtis clearly had no love lost with the famous playwright. He repeats a wicked quote from Wilder about Miller, "In meeting him, I had at last met someone who resented Marilyn more than I did." Ouch, but observant. Curtis can't wait to share another story which shines an unflattering light on Miller. At at a pre-movie Hollywood party he witnessed Miller being pretentious to Billy Wilder and co-writer I. A. L. "Izzy" Diamond, pontificating on comedy and tragedy. "Billy and Izzy just stood there, with faces down, listening to this bullshit. Finally Billy rolled his eyes and shifted his weight. Arthur backed off. I could see Marilyn. She was standing off to the side, watching. She looked uneasy. She knew that her husband had made a fool of himself and had insulted Billy's intelligence. It was not a happy scene. It was not a happy way to start a picture."

He's alternately full of praise for Marilyn and knocking her down, saying she had hips "like a Polish washerwoman" and "an incredible, unique body." Like so many, he couldn't understand why she found some things so difficult. "She was the most important star in movies, she didn't really understand that. She had so much power. She could have used it in so many ways, become so great. … So much of Some Like it Hot rested on her. If only she used her power to bolster her self-confidence. But she didn't. Even if she was turning in this miraculous performance, she was losing her sense of self."

Fun facts he includes about Marilyn:

Marilyn "stole" one of Jack Lemmon's black dresses from wardrobe for herself to wear in the film. 

She recorded her songs for the picture and then, unsatisfied, re-recorded them, "A picture has to be great to be good." 

She posed for countless publicity stills but only approved a few, as she was self-conscious about her weight gain — of which the press was unremittingly unkind. Marilyn had to put up with a lot of crap during filming about her weight. Wilder asked if she would consider losing a few pounds. She used humor to deflect the insult. "You want your audience to be able to distinguish me from Tony and Jack, don't you? And besides, my husband likes me plump." She was pregnant at the time. 

She traveled with an entourage — secretary May Reis, acting coach Paula Strasberg, dance director Jack Cole, and hair designer Sidney Guilaroff. 

Marilyn was unsatisfied with her first scene in the film, which consisted of just walking past the train, and complained to Wilder. He and Diamond then came up with the burst of steam that gooses her — and makes a much funnier, more memorable entrance. 

Everyone came to see Marilyn on set, from extras to Montgomery Clift and Maureen Stapleton — they all were enthralled with her.

Possibly the most important thing that Curtis reminds us of is that the two guys being in drag for most of the picture was quite daring and unusual for its time. That edge is exactly what makes Some Like it Hot still so brilliant, so entertaining, so funny today. But Curtis can't just end his story there. His ego demands additional soothing. He quotes a review of the film by Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times: "'Curtis is good enough … But his Cary Grant accent (not his doing) annoyed the hell out of me.' Some actors never read reviews. I do. Mr. Scheuer's review annoyed the hell out of me. To make myself feel better, I bought the rights to the autobiography of the Italian poet Gabriel d'Annunzio, a wild, sexy artist not unlike myself."


Photos from Some Like it Hot

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