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Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Undisputed Queen of Drag Comedies (originally published 3/02)

Of all the formulas for making a successful movie, one of the most fascinating is to put one or more heterosexual male characters in a dress. From "Charley's Aunt" to Uncle Miltie to "Tootsie," audience appeal is virtually a foregone conclusion. I wouldn't dare to speculate on the sociological implications of this fact. I merely point it out by way of suggesting that the recently released "Sorority Boys" will in all likelihood make a nice profit.

Even so, all drag comedies from the last forty-odd years have shared one nagging problem: they are all standing in the shadow of a giant. His name is Billy Wilder, the writer/director of the all-time champion drag comedy, "Some Like It Hot" (1959). This is not, by the way, the only film category in which Wilder set the benchmark for later generations to aim at. His "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) remains the yardstick against which all movies about Hollywood are measured.

Wilder, who was born in Austria, was one of the many talented people who fled to America when the Nazi party came to power. His early success came as a scriptwriter, mostly in collaboration with Charles Brackett. Their scripts were filled with sparkling, clever dialogue and were textbook examples of careful craftsmanship. Like all screenwriters, they quickly discovered that writers in the film industry get less respect than the studio's janitorial staff. But unlike so many others, they did something about it. Playing off their sterling box office track record as writers, they became a producer/director team. Thereafter, when they co-wrote a script, Brackett would produce and Wilder would direct.

Thus, they became the most dangerous thing on wheels: writers with clout. When they wrote a brilliant script, there was no danger that a dim-witted producer would dumb it down or that a ham-handed director would drop the ball, because the writers themselves were the producer and director. What a concept.

By the time he made "Some Like It Hot," Wilder was no longer working with Brackett. He wrote the script with his new collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond. The film is set in the late 1920s, at the height of Prohibition, when speakeasies raked in money and gangsters collected the rent. Two jazz musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), inadvertently witness a Chicago gangland execution. To elude the mobsters who are pursuing them, they dress as women and join an all-female band that is headed for a gig in Florida. Joe passes himself off as "Josephine," while Jerry calls himself "Daphne."

Both of them immediately fall for the band's singer, a stunner named Sugar. In a shrewd casting move, Wilder signed Marilyn Monroe to play the part of Sugar. As if the two counterfeit women don't look ridiculous enough, Wilder places them next to Hollywood's ultimate icon of femininity for contrast. As they arrive in Florida, Sugar announces her intent to look for a vacationing millionaire to marry. Seeing an opportunity, Joe sheds his Josephine identity to adopt yet another alias. He appears on the beach as the heir to an oil fortune, affecting an upper crust accent. The accent is actually a devastating parody of Cary Grant's distinctive speech patterns. Sugar is taken in by Joe's masquerade, and there is little that Jerry/Daphne can do about it without exposing his own duplicity as well.

Meanwhile, "Daphne" has attracted the amorous attention of a genuine millionaire named Osgood, hysterically played by Joe E. Brown. Lemmon is a joy to watch as he progresses from revulsion at these advances to being flattered, then to elation at being showered with expensive gifts, and finally to guilt over not marrying Osgood.

To further complicate matters, the gangsters who are after the boys happen to show up at the same hotel where their band is playing. Wilder and Diamond juggle all these plot elements with apparent ease while milking the gender role reversal premise for its rich comedy potential without crossing the line into poor taste. Building on the foundation of an outstanding script, the excellent cast rises to the occasion with virtuoso performances all around. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

If you went to see "Sorority Boys" because the idea of a drag comedy tickled your fancy, I can't recommend "Some Like It Hot" highly enough. Let Billy Wilder show you what a brilliant writer - with the clout to carry his ideas through intact - can do with such a premise.

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