Armchair Oscars – 1959

Best Picture

Ben-Hur (Directed by William Wyler)
The Nominees: Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story, Room at the Top

Some Like It Hot (Directed by Billy Wilder)
My Nominees: 
North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock), Suddenly Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewitz)


Everything about William Wyler’s adaptation of Ben-Hur was super-sized. You can’t overlook the bravura of the sea battles, the chariot race, or the over-the-top performances by Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins. Yet, I can’t overlook the fact that outside of a few memorable scenes, the screenplay drags. Ben-Hur broke a record by winning 11 Oscars at the 31st Annual Academy Awards and it was fitting that the screenplay wasn’t even nominated.

Frustratingly, I find that Ben-Hur routinely winds up on lists of the greatest movies of all time, and I think that stature may come from the film’s epic sweep – it is a glorious film to behold. Yet, for me, the movie is a bit like a plate of broccoli – I know that it is good for me and on that basis I kind of reject it. I have a suspicion that the film’s epic sweep and glorious production values, unconciously give people the license to canonize it.

Ben-Hur is one of those movies that people instinctively have to like.  The proof is how routinely it winds up on lists of the greatest movies of all time, and I think that stature may come from the film’s epic sweep – it is a glorious film to behold.  Yet, for me, the movie is a bit like a plate of broccoli – I know that it is good for me and on that basis my heart rejects it.  I have a suspicion that the film’s epic sweep and glorious production values, unconsciously give people the license to canonize it.  I will never say that it is a bad movie, but I won’t say that I’m likely to spend an evening with it anytime soon.

In a way, I feel sort of guilty in taking away the Best Picture prize from a movie that boasted that it was “The Tale of the Christ”, and giving it to a comedy that wallows in sinful carnal decadence.  However, in the case of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, I am much more willing to spend an evening watching the sinners over the saints.

Some Like It Hot is one of those miracle movies in which every element fell right into place.  I think it is a great film, and I am happy to give the film my Armchair Oscar first because it is a great film and second because of the consistent efforts by the academy to devalue comedy.  Some Like It Hot earned six Oscar nominations for it’s Art Direction, Cinematography, Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Lemmon) and the screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.  It received only one Oscar for the costumes by the legendary Orry-Kelly, who had previously designed the costumes for Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon and An American in Paris.  No nominations for Best Picture or for Marilyn Monroe’s brilliant performance (I took care of that in my Best Actress category.

The story is comic legend.  It takes place in 1929, a time when the country was wallowing in decadence, and booze flowed despite the fact that it was against the law.  In gang-ruled Chicago we meet Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), a pair of down-on-their-luck jazz musicians who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  They are spotted briefly by the mobster Spats Columbo (George Raft) and make a break for it.

On the run from the mob, they realize that Spats and his gang will be looking for them in every male band in Chicago, so they decide to get out of town fast . . . as girls.  Boarding a train for Florida, Joe and Jerry now assume the identity of Josephine and Daphne and hook up with an all-girl band.  Almost immediately their sexual desires come unhinged when they get a gander at the band’s curvaceous hard-drinking ukelele player Suger Kane (Monroe). “Look at that!” Jerry says ogling her hourglass form, “She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex!”

Jerry/Daphne nearly flies apart in a scene where Sugar breaks into the song “Running Wild,” bouncing and jiggling up and down the train aisles.  He’s overjoyed on the train to Florida, that Sugar has decided to spend the night sleeping next to him.  Sugar later confides to Joe (as Josephine) that her desire is to marry a millionaire because she is tired of chasing her lust for saxophone players (which Joe just happens to play).  In Florida, he disguises himself as a millionaire named Junior who is the heir to the Shell Oil fortune but claims to be romantically frigid.  Sugar naturally offers her services in the romance department to try and thaw his frozen libido.  In a classic, beautifully directed scene, Joe secretly borrows a yacht from a millionaire to try and trick Sugar into seducing him.  Prone on the couch, Sugar passionately kisses Joe/Junior while his foot rises into the shot.  The scene should be required viewing for anyone aspiring to be a comedy writer, especially for the use of timing.  Note the double entendre: “I’ve got a funny sensation in my toes like someone was barbecuing them over a slow flame.” and Monroe without missing a beat: “Let’s throw another log on the fire.” All heating up to a moment of comic brilliance, Sugar kisses Joe and them moves to reveal that his glasses have steamed up.

Meanwhile, Jerry (as Daphne) is romanced by a dunder-headed millionaire Osgood Fielding III (played by chimp-faced comedian Joe E. Brown), veteran of a doting mother and seven previous wives.  Sex-mad Osgood is determined to romance Daphne with champagne and an all-night tango (this is how Joe gets access to his yacht.  That leads to a brilliant sight gag in which we see Jerry dancing the tango with Osgood with a rose between his teeth.  There’s the turn-around and we see that it is Osgood who now has the rose.  This night is so magical, that Jerry, who was reluctant about dressing in women’s clothing, announces rapturously that she’s engaged – to Osgood!

Some Like It Hot is one of those comedies in which all the pieces worked. It had the right cast, the right premise, the right director and a brilliant pace. No small part of that effect came in the casting of Marilyn Monroe. I think the idea of pairing Monroe with a mad comic genius like Billy Wilder was a masterstroke. Wilder was always able to see the full potential in his actors and he sees the comic potential in a woman whose every move, every breath, every blink is an erotic dance.

Marilyn Monroe was, of course, the most prolific star in the business and often worked effectively in comic and dramatic roles but she always seemed pigeon-holed in the role of the standard sexy blonde and in most of her early films she wasn’t given much to do. I think she suffered the same problem that plagued people like W.C. Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all possessed an odd physical appearance that wasn’t suited for realism. The only way out was to kid their own image and each in their own way succeeded. Monroe’s over-developed form seemed perfect for the kind of lusty palette that Wilder was looking for in Some Like It Hot and he used that form in every possibly leering manner while never exploiting or cheapening.

Because Billy Wilder makes such brilliant use of Marilyn Monroe’s curves, a certain steaminess hangs over Some Like It Hot. Freud would have eaten this movie for breakfast with its themes of transvestitism and sexual identities and its buried themes of homosexuality, lesbianism, oral sex (Sugar complains about always getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop”), impotence and gender politics. Yet, although the movie is purely about sex, it comes out of a plot about other carnal lusts like greed, money and crime.

Lemmon meanwhile has to fight off the advances of the millionaire, and seven-time divorcee, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), whose odd face looks like he was born from the pen of Tex Avery. It is this subplot that leads to one of the best dance sequences in movies in which Osgood and “Daphne” tango the night away to a dance that is so perfectly timed that the rose between Lemmon’s teeth ends up between Brown’s.

This is, of course, all just happy deception. Joe deceives Sugar because of her lusty passion for millionaires. Dressing in thick glasses and yachting togs (and sporting a wicked imitation of Cary Grant), he takes her aboard Osgood’s boat and convinces her that his sex drive is at a standstill; It is a smart choice that she admits from the start that she isn’t very bright.

What makes the comedy work here is Billy Wilder’s volume of jokes of every size and shape. There are set-up gags, short gags, one liners and double entendres. He packs the frame with wall to wall jokes that sometimes overlap. Most writers would be content with the men in drag plot and the standard jokes that follow but if you follow the story threads and the layers, you can see that this is an idea that stretched as far as Wilder’s imagination would take it. Note how Osgood’s midnight tango sends Jerry into an early morning rapture. He lays horizontally on the hotel bed shaking the castanets and happily announcing to Curtis that he intends to except Osgood’s proposal of marriage. “You’re a guy!” Joe reasons, “and why would a guy want to marry a guy?” “Security!” Jerry tells him. How can this work? Jerry has that figured out too.

All these elements are brilliant but the movie would be nothing without Monroe who brings a teddy bear quality to Sugar Kane that doesn’t make you pity her but simply want her to find what she’s looking for. Monroe’s timing is perfect. Notice how she lands perfectly on little throw-away lines like a happy accident. Never a great singer, Monroe carries two musical performances in the movie with a happy breathlessness. Note how she winks and smirks as she bounds up and down the train aisle to “Running Wild,” and how she manages to bring everything to a standstill with “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” accompanied by a generous evening gown that offer her breasts in a way that make us praise the art of black and white photography.

Monroe sells the performance with such a breathy seduction that it must have driven the censors quite mad. Billy Wilder makes full use of Monroe’s form and exploits it as far as he can. Note the casual manner in which he makes full use of her bosom in a low-cut nightie as she talks to “Josephine” about her passion for saxophone players (Curtis’ character plays . . . what else?). The Oscar-winning costume design by Orry-Kelly must have come from the gown that Monroe wears later in the film which seems to be see-through and is indeed a treat for the eyes. The gown, I’m told, was pink but utilized with Charles Lang’s black and white photography looks flesh-colored and one could mistake her for wearing nothing at all. At times, in fact, it is hard to tell where Marilyn ends and the gown begins.

Just as the movie dodges the censors scissors so too does it dodge breaking its colorful con games and leaving broken hearts. Both Sugar and Osgood have been duped but neither is left in the dark at the end. Sugar learns of Joe’s deception and despite her history decides to love another sax player. Osgood, well, in the movie’s legendary closing sequence, he just won’t be swayed. In a closing line that is going to live forever in movie history, he lets Jerry know that even though he’s been duped. “Well, nobody’s perfect”.

Best Actor

Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur)
The Nominees: Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top), Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot), Paul Muni (The Last Angry Man), James Stewart (Anatomy of a Murder)

Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot
My Nominees:
Cary Grant (North by Northwest), James Stewart (Anatomy of a Murder)


When Charlton Heston died in April of 2008, the CNN website announced his death and featured a picture, not of the aged actor, but of Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments standing on that mountain holding the stone tablets over his head. It was the most appropriate tribute to an actor who was larger than life, who had a screen presence that was as big as the epics that featured him.

Yet, while Heston had a commanding screen presence, he was not a great actor.  He knew how to work grand gestures, but he didn’t have the skill to convincingly play the smaller, more intimate moments. That’s my problem with his performance in the title role of Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who reunites with his childhood friend Messala, then finds himself at odds with him politically and vows revenge when his so-called friend puts him into slavery.  What bothers me is that out of all of these dramatic developments, Heston never seems to take this material very seriously.  It pales when one remembers the passion and intensity of his performance as Moses in The Ten Commandments.

Charlton Heston was every inch a movie star, he was solidly built, ruggedly handsome and had a chiseled jaw.  He had the looks that most of us wish we had.  On the other hand, Jack Lemmon represented us guys who weren’t born with movie star looks, who didn’t have extraordinary luck with women and who had to learn how to duck when life throws its many tomatoes at us.

That describes most of the characters he played – a mid-level schlemiel for whom life was a long, slow climb to the middle.  Most of the characters that Jack Lemmon played were sad sacks who never got what they wanted.  In the case of Jerry in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, he thinks he has gotten what he wants but it is a delusion that comes in the middle of a strange sexual identity crisis.

As the movie opens, he and his best pal Joe (Tony Curtis) are musicians who are chased by mobsters after accidentally witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.  Boarding a train with an all-girl band, Joe and Jerry disguise themselves as girls, calling themselves Josephine and Daphne.  Safely in female numbers, Jerry’s voracious sexual appetites flare up, especially in the presence of the band’s ukelele player, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe).

Joe pines for Sugar but Jerry finds himself wooed by a millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who gets married and divorced with alarming regularity.  He makes no bones about the fact that he would like to make “Daphne” the next Mrs. Osgood Fielding.  Something during Jerry’s time in a dress crosses over, and he ends up stuck in a half-pipe of gender confusion.   When Osgood proposes, it is not about sex but about money, about the prospect of being married to a millionaire, about the plan to marry and divorce Osgood and then live comfortably off a hefty alimony.

The interesting thing about Jerry is that he is driven by two obsessions: sex and money.  At the beginning, when he first sees Sugar, it’s all about sex.  You can practically see his libido (and his disguise) coming unglued when she climbs into his berth wearing a sexy, low-cut nightie.  What does he expect to happen?  Does he know that spending time with her will blow his cover?  We can sense from this scene that he probably hasn’t thought that far ahead.  In the presence of this knock-out, what man would?

Later, when Jerry (as Daphne) spends time being courted by millionaire Osgood Fielding III, it’s all about the money.  Osgood proposes and Jerry is giddy with joy.  Having spent time in a woman’s shoes, he seems to have no interest in sex but is bewildered by the prospect of material goods and having a bozo millionaire for a husband.  After a night in which he is wined and dined, he meets up with Joe again (the date was a ruse so Joe could spend time with Sugar). He is giddy with delight and happily tells him “I’m engaged.” “Congratulations, who’s the lucky girl?” Joe asks. “I am,” Jerry says.  Outraged, Joe tries to reason with him “But, you’re not a girl! You’re a guy and why would a guy wanna marry a guy?”  “Security!” Jerry says.

What we come to understand from this bizarre situation is that Jerry has seen how the other half lives and finds that it suits him just fine.  When we first meet him, he is all libido but once he understands what beasts men are, he understands that what is fun about being a woman (at least in his mind) isn’t sex but the ability to bilk a man into being at his beck and call.  He is flattered by Osgood, who introduces himself “I’m Osgood Fielding . . . the third.” “I’m Cinderella . . . the second”, Jerry says.

Some Like It Hot is generally considered to be Marilyn Monroe’s film, but personally I think it’s more fun watching Jerry’s strange journey as he begins with complete humiliation at his predicament at having to dress like a woman, then the near explosion of his libido when he meets Sugar, then the pure joy of the prospect of Osgood’s proposal and then back around to the shame of scamming the man for an ill-gotten alimony payment.  Yet, Osgood doesn’t seem to mind. The film’s closing is one of the most famous, and certainly the funniest.  Jerry tries to convince Osgood that he isn’t worth marrying by making excuses about the color of his hair and his smoking habit.  “Ehhh, I’m a man,” Jerry fesses up, pulling off his wig. “Well,” Oswald concludes, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Best Actress

Simone Signoret (Room at the Top)
The Nominees: Doris Day (Pillow Talk), Audrey Hepburn (The Nun’s Story), Katharine Hepburn (Suddenly, Last Summer), Elizabeth Taylor (Suddenly, Last Summer)

Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot)
y Nominees: Doris Day (Pillow Talk), Katharine Hepburn (Suddenly, Last Summer), Eva Marie Saint (North By Northwest), Elizabeth Taylor (Suddenly, Last Summer)


Some Like It Hot was my introduction to Marilyn Monroe as an actress. I saw the film on a Sunday night and I was so dazzled by her performance that by the end of the week I had seen her in Bus Stop, All About Eve, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch. There is something magical about Marilyn’s screen presence; something about her just seemed to vibrate. She had a kind of electricity in her screen presence that I associate with Mae West or Dolly Parton or Bette Midler. What they have in common is that they don’t need to perform because there is a relaxed manner in which they approach a scene that they don’t need anything extra.

Monroe never received an Oscar nomination (though she received three Golden Globe awards) and that probably has more to do with her public image than with her performance. The voters simply didn’t see beneath the blond bombshell persona and didn’t realize what a valuable comic talent she was. Plus I think they were punishing her for her off-screen battles over contracts and money.

As a result, the last actress of the decade to receive the Best Actress award was Simone Signoret in Jack Clayton’s dreary, and at times creepy, melodrama Room at the Top. This is the story of a social climber (Laurence Harvey) who wants to climb out of his middle-class factory worker life and marry a wealthy woman so he can have her money. While tearing his way through several affairs, he joins a theater group where he begins a torrid affair with Alice Aisgail (Signoret), a married older woman. As you can guess, the film is a sad, depressing experience.

That movie is actually just the opposite of Some Like It Hot, which is jolly and happy and a lot of fun. It comes packaged as a buddy film involving Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), two musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and go on the run from the killers on a Florida-bound train disguised as girls. The film is loaded with funny character actors but the jolly treat is Monroe. She could have been just needless eye candy, but Billy Wilder knew what he had, he knew the comic potential of having two guys dressed in drag, who have to keep their cover, then throws a temptation like Monroe right in their path. Imagine the frustration of trying to keep a man’s composure when watching Marilyn’s Sugar Kane Kowalczyk on the train jiggling up and down the aisle as she plays “Runnin’ Wild” on her ukulele.

The addition of Monroe was a brilliant comic device. Her hourglass figure, her over-developed bosom, her boundless sexual energy, seems cosmically determined to break Joe and Jerry’s cover. But what impresses me most is that her character is allowed to have ravenous hungers of her own. In most sex comedies, the women are objects who never seem to have desires but here Sugar admits that she gets turned on by saxophone players and that her most fervent desire is to marry a millionaire.

That’s where we get a classic scene aboard a yacht where Joe dresses in thick glasses and yachting togs and pretends to be the heir to the Shell Oil fortune (and models his mock accent after Cary Grant). As Sugar attempts to seduce him, you can practically see the steam coming out of his ears. They lie on a couch and as she kisses him, it ends in a perfectly modulated moment as his leg rises just to the right of the screen.

Most of Marilyn’s gifts are borne from nature. She was a jolly male fantasy, a breathtaking beauty who was blessed by God and trapped within a physical design that made her the helpless object of lust. She didn’t have a lithe form but was full-figured with an hourglass shape, a jiggly walk, kewpie-doll lips and a voice that was a breathless whisper. Watching Marilyn move in Some Like It Hot, your eyes are inevitable drawn to her generous bosom. When she walked in, they arrived first. She was so striking that when she occupied a scene crowded with other actors, your eye roves unconsciously in her direction.

I’m not being cute, I think by design Marilyn had such an unusually perfect physical form that many objectified her as being only a perfect physical form. Long before she came to the public eye, she appeared in the Best Picture winner of 1950, All About Eve. She has a moment when she sits on the bottom step of a staircase with nine other actors, on the bottom to the right. All of the other actors are dressed in dark clothing – Marilyn is dressed exquisitely in white with diamonds and her platinum blond hair. Was the studio grooming her in that scene?

It was a brilliant idea to cast her in comedies. Marilyn Monroe, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Groucho Marx, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Dolly Parton, had looks and a persona that seemed so exaggerated that she seemed like her own caricature. She could act, she could flow into a scene and make it look effortless. She couldn’t sing very well, but she had the ability to sell the lyrics as if she believed what she was saying. I never bought any of her performances in dramas, especially her last film The Misfits. She was such a bright, vibrant force of nature that watching her as a dour character makes you feel as if the director was missing the point of her.

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