Disruptive Influence: The Enduring Appeal of Some Like It Hot – Suzanne Woodward


There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, Some Like It Hot. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses and its undiminished popular appeal. In many ways it is prototypical of the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, but at the same time offers an unusual level of resistance to heteronormative reinstatement by allowing each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction.

Mainstream gender-bending film comedies function as a form of sanctioned disruption of the heteronormative order, revealing slippages in the dominant cultural discourse by examining its logic and effects. This disruptive ambiguity is a key element of the act of transgression, which “involves hybridization, the mixing of categories and the questioning of the boundaries that separate categories” (Jervis 1999, 4). Under the aegis of humour, these films can explore the rules and limits of gender intelligibility, for example, by foregrounding assumptions about the clothing, accessories, demeanour, and gestures deemed appropriate for men and women within a naturalised gender binary. By exposing and unsettling hegemonic heteronormative beliefs, they can produce what Marjorie Garber describes as a ‘category crisis’ in received wisdom, “disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (1992, 16). Garber explains the ‘category crisis’ as “a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits border-crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another,” which impacts not only gender, but other social categories, such as race, class, and religion (ibid). Gender-bending comedies engage, to varying degrees, in a complication of the categories and hierarchy of gender, introducing ambiguity, revelling in the interstitial spaces that they create, and highlighting the permeability of constructed and constricting gender conventions. As these temporary, ritualised rebellions occur within the conventional cultural medium of mainstream film, it is perhaps inevitable that they usually attempt to re-establish the heteronormative status quo. In this regard the narrative resolution is often an important, even over-determined gesture, but disruption cannot necessarily be so neatly contained. It is therefore valuable to consider these comedic transgressions not only as temporarily disrupting the dominant social order, but also revealing its very existence, and it may be difficult to re-cover the boundaries once they have been made visible in such a popular cultural form. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) is notable for the ways in which it renders these traditional gender and sexual boundaries visible, but in addition, it stands out from other gender-bending comedies because it refuses the conventional reinstatement of a heteronormative status quo.

Gender-bending comedies exploit heteronormative assumptions and conventions to create humour through sex/gender disjuncture and sexual misdirection, and can therefore be interpreted as providing a carnivalesque inversion of gender hierarchies and access to socially taboo experiences and pleasures. Carnivalesque is a concept primarily derived from Bakhtin’s study of Rabelais, which provided “the broad development of the ‘carnivalesque’ into a potent, populist, critical inversion of all official words and hierarchies” (Stallybrass and White 1986, 7). It is an artistic mode in which the transgression and subversive celebration of Medieval carnivals, centred on ritual spectacle, laughter, and the grotesque body, have survived. Stallybrass and White identify the carnivalesque as a resilient, populist, and subversive celebration of the elements of society that are marginalised or suppressed (ibid., 15). In Bakhtin’s analysis, he argues that “carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (1984, 10). Although Bakhtin’s work is concerned almost exclusively with class hierarchies, his description could equally be seen as applying to heteronormative hierarchies identified by feminist and queer theorists.

Carnivalesque also offers a useful point of intersection between social practice and artistic form, and the “carnival becomes the literary ‘carnivalesque’ through a partial subordination to an ordering discourse” (Hall 1985, 128). In the case of gender-bending films as carnivalesque, the ordering discourse is most noticeable in the well-established and recognised genre conventions that structure and attempt to contain these representations. As genre texts produced predominantly by mainstream Hollywood, these structured subversions have tended to be denigrated as essentially conservative texts that use temporary transgression as a means of re-establishing heteronormative authority. This bears a marked similarity to critiques levelled at the carnivalesque and, as Stallybrass and White have observed, the “most politically thoughtful commentators wonder… whether the ‘licensed release’ of carnival is not simply a form of social control of the low by the high and therefore serves the interests of that very official culture which it apparently opposes” (1986, 13). However, they argue decisively that “it actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves false essentialising of carnivalesque transgression.” (ibid., 14). This argument applies equally well to prevailing critiques of mainstream trans films as licensed complicity, as they reveal a similar tendency to make definitive judgements that rely on reading the films as ideologically monovalent and monolithic. Yet, as Julian Wolfreys argues,

carnival is both transgressive and authorized, it is both critical of social order and complicit with it… [but] the ambiguity of the carnivalesque renders a single reading of it undecidable… We must comprehend carnival not as a form of universal political response to conditions of political oppression and containment, but instead as an ongoing strategic interruption in social norms, in ideological containment, and in corporeal order and propriety” (2002, 28-29).

Using a similar approach to understand gender-bending films allows for an investigation of the multiple ways in which they can construct and deconstruct meaning, and both contain and fail to contain transgression.

The ambiguity and duality of the carnivalesque, as something simultaneously disruptive and contained, transgressive and conventional, can be seen as parallel in many ways to the internal contradictions of what Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni (1971) describe as ‘category e’ films. Comolli and Narboni argue that although “every film is political,” some films provide “free and unhampered passage” to ideology while others present an ideological “dislocation” despite their apparently conventional generic form (ibid., 29-30). ‘Category e’ films “seem at first sight to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner” (ibid., 32).These ideological cracks, which Comolli and Narboni situate in the dislocation between form and content, are arguably present in mainstream gender-bending films because of their combination of formulaic generic structure and disruptive gender politics in terms of content.  Some Like It Hot, however, fits more obviously into Comolli and Narboni’s category of the ‘e’ film, as an example of what Barbara Klinger calls a “progressive text” (1984, 33). It is a film which, “while fully integrated within dominant cinema, ‘ends up by partially dismantling the system from within’” (ibid.). As will be explored below, many aspects of the narrative form could be classified as standard genre conventions, and the content undoubtedly disrupts traditional gender boundaries, but the textual politics of Some Like It Hot are also complicated by its deviation from generic norms, primarily in its refusal to recuperate the disruption in accordance with the traditions of the persistently popular gender-bending comedy film.

When the American Film Institute released its list of the hundred funniest films ever made, the top two places were both held by gender-bending comedies – Some Like It Hot in first place, and Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) in second place. This is a striking illustration of the enduring influence of these films as generic templates for gender-bending comedy films, but also indicates the immense popular appeal of gender transgression as a comedic device. These films exploit heteronormative assumptions and conventions to create humour through sex/gender disjuncture and sexual misdirection. Gender constraints, like all systems of social power, place pressure upon those who are subject to them, and the ubiquity of heteronormative regulation means that no-one is exempt from that pressure. Humour has long served as a way to relieve the strain of normative conformity and it is unsurprising that this social ‘safety valve’ should have found its way into the popular cultural medium of film, providing a temporary and contained escape. In so doing, such films function in many instances to facilitate the preservation of the dominant ideologies regarding sex, gender and sexuality, but at the same time expose cracks in the ideological surface.

Gender-bending comedies employ an established set of iconographic, thematic, and narrative conventions, almost always concluding with an overt affirmation of heteronormativity. The gender transgression is usually represented as resulting from circumstantial necessity rather than from a sense of dissonant identity. The gender disguise is permitted only out of absolute necessity and only as long as the need or threat persists, a common plot device that Marjorie Garber describes as “the progress narrative” (1992, 8), and Chris Straayer as “the temporary transvestite film” (1996, 42). As Annette Kuhn points out, “sexual disguise must usually be accounted for” (Kuhn 1985, 57). Straayer recognises, as does Garber, that the transvestism is only considered acceptable because of the narrative framework in which it is presented. Male characters usually cross the gender boundary in a desperate attempt to hide from something (most commonly the law, dangerous criminals, or shrewish wives), as a consequence of public disgrace that has caused them to be ostracized from their ‘rightful’ male position, or as a cunning ploy to trap the villain. Such cross-dressing comedy narratives invariably end with the revelation – forced or voluntary – of the protagonist’s ‘true’ sex, a return to the ‘natural’ heteronormative position, and often with a heterosexual coupling that underscores the ‘proper’ gender identity of that character.

The cross-dressing comedies constitute a genre in their own right, or at least a recognised sub-genre of comedy. As is necessary for generic constitution, there are specific “expectations, categories, labels and names, discourses, texts and groups or corpuses of texts, and the conventions that govern them all” (Neale 2000, 3). The pivotal position Some Like It Hot occupies, historically and structurally, in the cross-dressing comedy corpus has profound significance for understanding the specific conventions that are manifested or disrupted. It highlights the conventions of cross-dressing comedy, established over several decades through films representing the cross-dressed image, as they are defined and defied through Some Like It Hot. These films share certain conventions; the evocation and subsequent affirmation or rejection of these conventions in Some Like It Hot may suggest a typical structure and illustrate the ways in which this film defies convention. On the surface, the cross-dressing comedies have conventionally functioned as affirmations of masculine and feminine gender roles, and the importance of those roles within the heterosexual framework evoked by the use of romantic coupling to resolve a film. As the film that is arguably most famous in the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, Some Like It Hot is also the one that most overtly refuses this heterosexual convention, at the same time that it accedes to it.

There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, with theorists and critics firmly placed in one of two camps. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. While a range of justifications are provided for both interpretations, for the most part there is a tendency to see only those examples from the film that fit with the chosen interpretation, and to focus on the ending of the film as providing definitive proof. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses, including auteurism, genre theory, queer theory and feminist theory. It also enjoys an undiminished popular appeal. While most other cross-dressing comedies fade rapidly from public memory, Some Like It Hot’s story of two musicians on the run from the mob in the 1920s is remarkably well-known considering that it is almost fifty years old. Several factors have contributed to the sustained interest in the film: the sexual innuendos are still risqué even by today’s standards, the jokes are still funny, and the quality of direction and performance is still greatly admired.[1] The most intriguing factor, in relation to this discussion, is the power of the film’s ending still to surprise and perplex viewers.

The category disruptions at work in the film make it inevitably difficult to choose terms with which to describe the characters. Despite performing on stage as women, Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne are not drag queens. They adopt feminine attire out of necessity, as the only way to avoid being ‘eliminated’ by Spats and his mobsters after witnessing the Valentine’s Day Massacre. This use of cross-dressing is a functional device with clear narrative motivation, a circumstantial gender illusion that is carefully dissociated – at least, initially – from any suggestion of an internal transgender identification. Jerry and Joe do not turn into Daphne and Josephine by choice, which differentiates them from cross-dressers or transvestites in the conventional sense of these terms as designating a sense of gendered self. Nonetheless, as male characters in women’s clothes, they are literally cross-dressers, transgressing the accepted sartorial protocols of gender. More importantly, audiences recognise them as such, through the familiar conventions of cross-dressing comedy.

Despite the originating reasons for their enforced adoption of feminine appearances, Joe and Jerry are not portrayed in the typical way, as merely enduring their gender disguises; Joe takes his performance as Josephine very seriously, and Jerry enthusiastically embraces his new persona as Daphne, becoming increasingly committed to his cross-dressed identity. Josephine and Daphne are both able to ‘pass’ within the diegetic world, to such a degree that Daphne elicits a marriage proposal from a self-confessed womanizer. Nevertheless, when the threat of death by tommy gun has been neutralized, both characters ‘out’ themselves, albeit with substantially different consequences. However convincing Daphne and Josephine may have been within the diegesis, the audience has not forgotten their initial identities, and their continued disguises are diegetically justified by the reappearance of the mob. The dramatic irony in the spectators’ awareness of their original identities, and the compulsive reasons for their gender disguise, functions in conjunction with their believability within the diegesis to evoke humour and transform a period gangster film into a comedy.

The mise-en-scene in the opening scene of the film is not that of a conventional comedy.  Rather it establishes the dark, masculine underworld of Chicago in the 1920s – the wet, dark streets, the tension of the car chase, tommy guns and coffins, mobsters and cops. These images appear to situate Some Like It Hot clearly in the genre of the gangster film, a classification reinforced by the appearance of George Raft in one of his “most memorable gangster roles” (McCarty 2004, 146). This is just one of several categories that Wilder will disrupt; by the end the film will have become a multi-layered illustration of category crises at work. The setting is also noteworthy in that the cold, dark streets of Chicago are starkly contrasted with the sunny wonderland of Florida. More importantly, the journey that the characters undergo in their identity transformation is mirrored, as in so many other cross-dressing films, by a physical journey. The physical journey creates a liminal space where the transition from one identity to another is facilitated by a physical departure from the ‘old’ life of the character and an adventure into something new, transporting and transgressing at the same time.

The historical setting of the film is highly significant, allowing for many narrative parallels to be drawn between Prohibition, “the film’s encompassing metaphor,” and gender transgression (Lieberfeld & Sanders 1998, 130). As Lieberfeld and Sanders argue, “Prohibition serves to make transgression commonplace, privileging gratification and necessitating pretense, blurring the lines between normality and deviance for ‘ordinary citizens’” (ibid.). The criminalisation of alcohol, something that many Western adults now take for granted as a social right, functions as an interesting illustration of how easily an activity of pleasure and personal choice can be subsumed under institutionalised morality. In addition, the historical setting provides crucial reassurance to the potentially transphobic viewer, by creating a safe distance from the site of transgression. As co-writer I.A.L. Diamond points out, “when everybody’s dress looks eccentric, somebody in drag looks no more peculiar than anyone else” (in Sikov 1998, 409). From a technical point of view, it provides a useful justification for filming in black and white, which serves to hide many of the flaws in the feminine disguises of the two protagonists, making Daphne and Josephine look more passable than they would have done in colour. The success of this aesthetic choice becomes apparent when black and white stills are compared to colour photographs from the set:

Figure 1. Tony Curtis as Josephine and Jack Lemmon as Daphne in Some Like It Hot (MGM/UA, 1959)

Figure 2: Marilyn Monroe as Sugar and Jack Lemmon as Josephine.

Daphne and Josephine’s ability to pass diegetically is crucial because, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau points out,

What distinguishes Hot from the British and American products of the previous twenty odd years, however, is the fact that Lemmon and Curtis (in particular) make rather attractive women who are obviously young and available. This peculiar situation of having male characters with feminine appeal offers a singular threat to heterosexual male audience members, but the theme has nevertheless struck a responsive chord (1993, 64).

To have young and relatively attractive cross-dressed protagonists re-introduces an element of sexualisation into the cross-dressing comedy, after its noticeable absence under the Production Code.

Stella Bruzzi (1997) identifies the desexualisation of ‘the transvestite’ as the defining difference between ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘androgyny’ as disparate manifestations of transvestism in film. She argues that “whereas in cinema cross-dressing is used to desexualise the transvestite and deflect the potential subversiveness of the image through comedy, androgyny sexualises the transvestite by increasing the eroticism of their ambiguous image” (ibid., 147). Bruzzi privileges androgyny[2] as the only genuine form of transgression, although she singles out Some Like It Hot as a rarity among cross-dressing comedies for its awareness of its own “potential deviancy” and exultant “perversity” (ibid., 158). Unlike Bell-Metereau she does not link this to, or recognize, the sexual element in Some Like It Hot, despite the obvious pleasure that Daphne begins to take in her flirtation with Osgood. Lieberfeld and Sanders argue that Daphne and Josephine are only attractive to “odd little buffoons” (1998, 130), but while their suitors may not be conventional Hollywood heartthrobs, it seems noteworthy that these “brand new girls” are convincingly attractive to a number of men within the diegesis. This sexual appeal adds a different dimension to the cross-dressing comedy, creating another level of transgression in terms of a testing of boundaries, by introducing implied homosexual encounters. It is the category crisis at work again.

The sexualisation of the two cross-dressed protagonists that has sometimes been ignored or misread by critics is explicitly indicated by the very first shot of them in their feminine disguises. It is juxtaposed almost immediately with the hyper-eroticised revelation of Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe), and the framing of Monroe has often drawn attention away from the crucial framing of Josephine and Daphne:

Figure 3. Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe)

Lieberfeld and Sanders, for example, identify this shot of Monroe as a perfect example of Laura Mulvey’s argument about the “fragmentation” of female characters by the camera and how the gaze “feminizes its object” (1998, 134). John Phillips also refers to this scene as a key moment in the signification of consistent heterosexuality:

From beginning to end, the norms of heterosexuality and gender fixity are constantly re-emphasised and sustained, principally by the pursuit, initially by Jerry and then by Joe, of the delectable Sugar to whom they are instantly and powerfully attracted. ‘It’s like Jell-O on springs!’ an enraptured Jerry tells Joe as the two men gaze lustfully at Sugar’s hip-swaying and bottom-wiggling movements for the first time. (2006, 61)

Because the shot of Monroe’s undulating bottom fits so well into Mulvey’s tripartite schema of the voyeuristic gaze – camera, character, spectator – these critics read Joe and Jerry as fulfilling this conventional masculine role. As Sugar hurries past, the camera leaves her to linger on the expressions of Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne as they gaze after her, after which there is a cut to a point-of-view shot of Sugar’s backside, as she is suddenly startled by a well-aimed blast of steam. However, the shots of and dialogue between Daphne and Josephine suggest that the gaze is not actually so straightforwardly heterocentric.

The scene opens with a medium long shot of two pairs of legs in heels and skirts. While Wilder and/or Lang (the cinematographer) is very effectively reproducing the fragmentary shot identified by Mulvey sixteen years later, it is both a self-aware joke that may fool the unsuspecting viewer into looking with desire at these legs, and a way of persuading the viewer used to these cinematographic conventions to accept these two characters as women. While the audience is aware in the rest of the film that Josephine and Daphne are males, they need to believe that others within the diegesis could be fooled and at this introductory shot both strikingly denies privileged spectator knowledge and provides compelling proof of their believability.

Figure 4. Daphne and Josephine

Their identity is soon revealed to the audience, as Jerry stumbles in his heels. The film then offers a mocking comment on the way the audience’s gaze has been manipulated with Jerry complaining that he “feels so naked. Like everybody’s looking at me.” To which Joe replies, “With those legs? Are you crazy?” Jerry/ Daphne’s awkwardness makes it hard to view him/her as an erotic spectacle, but Josephine is already executing a passable feminine performance. This deliberate and self-aware use of a cinematographic convention makes it almost impossible to view the same shot of Monroe as straightforward reinforcement of the patriarchal cinematic process described by Mulvey. It should instead be read as a confirmation of Wilder’s desire to play with conventional iconography, and as again opening up the potential sexualisation of the male-to-female cross-dresser.

What is also noteworthy about the first shot of Josephine and Daphne at the train station is that we don’t see any of the physical process of transformation such as the shaving of legs, applying of make-up or donning of wigs. In most cross-dressing comedies this process is carefully displayed so that we can never forget that the characters are actually male underneath, as was the case with the German precursor to Some Like It Hot, Fanfaren der Liebe (Kurt Hoffman, 1951). “As I.A.L. Diamond later recalled, Fanfaren das (sic) Liebe was ‘heavy-handed and Germanic. There was a lot of shaving of chests and trying on of wigs’” (Sikov 1998, 409). Some Like It Hot, on the other hand, through this narrative ellipsis, offers an almost magical transformation that makes it easier for us to believe in the masquerade, largely because it appears to be so effortless: “Wilder called this the power of omission” (Chandler 2002, 219). The only indicator of the process of transition, Jerry’s initial awkwardness in heels and discomfort in her ‘drafty’ dress, rapidly disappear as soon as she introduces herself to Sweet Sue, the band leader, and decides in the moment that he opens his mouth to become Daphne rather than Geraldine as originally intended. The choice of name suggests that Daphne is more than Jerry in a feminine disguise, but an entirely separate personality. As Charles Taylor points out in his review of the film,

When he first enters in drag, all he can do is complain about how drafty his dress is and how tough it is to walk in heels. By the end of the movie he’s so comfortable in heels that he wears them without thinking, giving himself away. But his transition starts long before then. Jerry introduces himself as “Daphne,” instead of the agreed-upon “Geraldine.” And there’s a crestfallen look on his face when Sugar tells him that she envies him being “so flat-chested” (2002).

Joe and Jerry engage in different forms of deception: while Joe uses his disguises as dissimulation, to hide his real identity from Sugar and the mob, Jerry fabricates a convincing new personality, a simulation that becomes as believable as his original identity, as illustrated by ‘her’ exuberant delight in ‘her’ engagement.

Although Joe’s transformation is less comprehensive than Jerry’s, both characters find the feminine world a welcoming alternative to the violent mob world from which they have just escaped. Bell-Metereau argues that, “Hot sets up two realms – the frightening, masculine underworld of the city, and the comforting, feminine refuge of the all-girl band – and it is clear that any sane person would choose the latter” (1993, 56). But this interpretation unfortunately serves to reinforce a very conventional gender dichotomy, one which the film itself refuses to accept. At the end of the film, the two couples escape from both worlds, sailing off into an undetermined and undefined future on Osgood’s luxury yacht. It is the ending which has perhaps provoked the most debate regarding the transgressiveness of the film. Some critics, such as Lieberfeld and Sanders and Phillips, see the ending as a reconstitution of the gender and sexual status quo through the heterosexual coupling of Joe and Sugar, and the relationship between Osgood and Daphne as nothing more than a doomed joke, reading Osgood’s famous last line, “Well, nobody’s perfect” as entirely flippant. These critics point to the castration anxiety evident in Jerry’s horror at the idea of being ‘altered’ as justification for this reading. Other critics see the ending as open-ended, as “replete with possibility” (Bell-Metereau 1993, 59) and as a rare instance where “perversity wins over legitimacy” (Bruzzi 1997, 158), although Straayer acknowledges that despite ending with gender transgression, the film also “provide(s) the requisite heterosexual closure through other characters” (1996, 419).

Significantly, in terms of the identity politics of the film, while Joe clearly demonstrates his heterosexual desire for Sugar, Daphne’s initial response is portrayed as envious admiration rather than the lust that he later displays in the bunk scene. The look on Joe’s face is contemplative and highly focused – suggesting that his devious pursuit of Sugar is sparked at this very first moment. The difference in the way Joe and Jerry gaze after Sugar is highlighted by the use of a medium two-shot that enables a direct comparison of their responses through their facial expressions. Jerry’s fascination is reinforced by his next lines, “Look at that! Look at how she moves! It’s just like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell ya it’s a whole different sex!” This initial desire to understand the way in which the mysterious Other works, is quickly abandoned as Jerry’s exuberant alter ego, Daphne, makes her first appearance. Daphne cannot emulate the hyper-femininity of Sugar, so doesn’t try, but seems to revel in being a confident, extroverted woman, a marked shift from Jerry’s diffident acquiescence to Joe’s whims.

The moment where the protagonists board the train marks a crucial turning point in the identity of Jerry and the point of divergence between him and Josephine. While Joe switches identities several times throughout the rest of the film, the spectator sees Jerry as Daphne for almost the rest of the film. These differing approaches to cross-dressing are signalled by the wigs Joe and Jerry have chosen. Their agent, Poliakoff, has explained to Joe and Jerry that you have to be blonde to be part of the band and Daphne’s blond wig suggests that she will be more fully integrated into the band than Josephine in her brunette wig. The importance of names is also made clear in this scene where Jerry, who has exhibited some initial resistance to the female disguise, despite it being his idea, decides to embrace it with flamboyant enthusiasm by choosing the name Daphne instead of Geraldine. It is a moment of self-revelation that seems to take him by surprise as much as it does Joe. It suggests that Jerry is not going to be merely a man in a dress, which is what Joe is, however convincingly. While Jerry’s heterosexuality is initially affirmed by his delight in all the ‘butter and sugar’, his heterosexual attentions diminish with noticeable rapidity as he revels in being one of the girls, so that by the time they reach Florida and the physical journey is complete, so it seems is his identity transformation, and he makes only a brief protest against their continued masquerade, before submitting once again to Joe’s dominance. Joe, on the other hand, makes his heterosexual interest in Sugar clear to the audience throughout the film. He uses Josephine to elicit useful seduction information, which he then utilises by exchanging his gender disguise for a class disguise, indicated through both his clothes and his Cary Grant-inspired manner of speaking. He adopts the persona of Junior, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in order to exploit Sugar’s desire to escape her working-class life but inadvertently develops genuine feelings for her in the midst of his manipulation and lies. Ironically for a 1950s mainstream comedy, Daphne and Osgood’s queer relationship seems much more sincere in comparison.

In the predominantly conservative United States of the 1950s, the public response to this shift was marked by both enthusiasm and revulsion. “Upon its original release, Kansas banned the film from being shown in the state, explaining that cross-dressing was ‘too disturbing for Kansans’” (IMDB, 2008). Even in 1967, Judith Christ was disturbed by the humorous treatment of gender disguise, observing in a moralistic condemnation of the film that

It is in Some Like It Hot, made in 1959, that the smut starts to show… you start to notice that for every raucous and/or ribald masquerade joke there is another that involves a transvestite leer, a homosexual ‘in’ joke or a perverse gag. Here is the prurience, the perversion, the sexual sickness that is obsessing the characters and plots of our films. (in Bell-Metereau 1993, 24)

This suggests that the transgressive nature of gender disguise had the useful effect of bringing into sharp relief the exact location and nature of normalized gender and sexual categories of the time. Questioning these established categories serves both to test their durability and to announce the existence of alternative identities. A.H. Weiler’s New York Times review in 1959 was far more open-minded: “Who gets whom is not particularly important,” although Weiler does allow that some viewers might “question the taste of a few of the lines, situations and prolonged masquerade” (1959, np). It is interesting that he perceives the audience as more likely to question the sustained masquerade than to worry about who gets whom. It suggests that everything within the progress narrative is indeed excusable, as long as there is regular relief for the audience from the apparently uncomfortable sight of a man in a dress.

The genre blending of the film evidently concerned some reviewers as much, if not more, than the gender bending. The Sight and Sound review, while aware of the potentially provocative nature of the film’s sexual transgression, seems primarily concerned by the “painfully accurate re-creations of gangland slaughter” rendering the film’s “opportunities for offence… considerable” (Dyer 1959, 173). Dyer responds positively to Lemmon’s “extravagant” performance, although he finds Curtis “a shade too real for comfort” (ibid). It would seem that Daphne escapes judgement, and therefore heteronormative resistance, because her boisterous representation of femininity fails to arouse the reviewer sexually, with her “husky squeaks and girlish dormitory confidences” (ibid.). In another generally positive response, the Variety reviewer states, “On this plot skeleton, Wilder has put the flesh of farce. He has done this so deftly that the ridiculous somehow appears possible, and the shocking turns into laughter” (Variety 1959, np). This response illustrates the power of the cross-dressing comedy to violate normative boundaries in a way that is perceived to be non-threatening but still leaves the viewer with an awareness that transgression has occurred. “But the momentum of this madcap comedy is such that it just keeps rolling along, a gay romp that knows just when to draw back before crossing the line to the vulgar” (ibid). The Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer similarly identifies the dangerous balancing act of the film as “how to be funny as well as vulgar” (P.H. 1959, 69). To stray too far in either direction would render the film either unacceptable to mainstream audiences, or too generically bland to elicit any critical appreciation.

This contemporary perception of the film’s vulgarity was probably prompted in part by the trailer for the film, which foregrounds Monroe as its star, and emphasizes the film as a comedy. But it also showcases the violence and highlights the sexual nature of the comedy, with plenty of attention focused on Monroe’s breasts, claiming “You’ve never laughed more at sex, or a picture about it,” featuring Monroe and “her bosom companions.” Monroe’s costumes are clearly designed to highlight her sexuality; they are extremely revealing, a fact the trailer makes the most of in exploiting Monroe’s status as a sexual icon.  While the ‘vulgarity’ may be inconsequential for audiences today, the transgressive elements of the film have endured: Osgood’s response to Daphne’s revelation, his acceptance of Jerry’s biology as well as Daphne’s personality still has the power to surprise an audience well-versed in representations of the desexualised cross-dresser.

These visible disruptions and moments of comedy and moral anxiety are emphasised when they are situated in the physical spaces that are traditionally both the most rigidly gender-regulated and the most taboo in mainstream representations, such as bathrooms. Jerry heads automatically for the men’s room on the train and is forcefully pulled back by Joe, detaching one of his fake breasts in the process. On entering the taboo space of the women’s toilet, both are awestruck and delighted by the visual feast that awaits them behind the curtain – Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) displaying her beautifully stockinged thigh. Jerry compares this sudden, unlimited access to the forbidden to childhood fantasies of unlimited indulgence:

Jerry:               When I was a kid, I used to have a dream – I was locked up in this pastry shop overnight – with all kinds of goodies around – jelly rolls and mocha éclairs and sponge cake and Boston cream pie and cherry tarts…

Joe:                  Listen, stupe – no butter and no pastry. We’re on a diet!

Jerry, previously the more reluctant cross-dresser, is inspired to commit to his Daphne identity as he sees the hidden erotic spectacles that become available to him as Daphne, spectacles in which he is shown gleefully indulging at band practice, and at bed time, in a sustained close-up of his face, as he observes the rest of the band members undressing. But his lack of involvement or directed interest in any other woman suggests that his apparent desire for Sugar is less predatory and will be less persistent than Joe’s.

The bed is another locus of humorous anxiety in the cross-dressing comedy, where the threat of being found out is far greater. In Some Like It Hot the berths on the train, like the ladies’ room, are curtained, reinforcing the narrative motifs of hidden and compartmentalised identities. When Sugar, in a flimsy black negligee, climbs into bed with Daphne (Fig. 2), the sexual tension increases, as does the narrative tension, heightened as it is by the risk of discovery. This tension seems to increase the more lascivious Jerry gets, yet as he gets drunker and less inhibited, his own attempts to persuade himself, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl” appear to be working. The viewer likewise is becoming increasingly engaged with Daphne, who moves further away from Jerry the further the train gets from Chicago. The physical distance that separates the characters from their original location mirrors the increasing distance between the identities of Jerry and Daphne. One scene was fortuitously cut from the film after the preview screening – one in which Daphne climbs into Sugar’s bed and confesses her ‘true’ identity, symbolically removing her wig according to the generic conventions, only to find herself in bed with Joe, who has switched with Sugar (Lally 1996, 291). The feeling of the film, and particularly the audience’s understanding of and empathy with Daphne, would be structurally damaged by a premature de-wigging scene. Part of the reason that the film is so engaging is the commitment that Jerry demonstrates to the Daphne persona, presenting an unusually enthusiastic engagement with gender transgression. The humour and surprise of the famous ending are effected largely through the sustained and immersive coherence of Daphne’s character, setting the film apart from its more formulaic genre relations.

The comedic concept of cross-dressed men that lies at the centre of Some Like It Hot is not original in itself, and several contemporary critics found the central gag of men in dresses too hackneyed:  “an ancient gag” (in Weiler 1959, 16), “a small joke milked like a dairy” (Variety Staff 1959, np). But Osgood’s final words after Daphne admits she is a man, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” provide a highly original punch-line. This ending explicitly refuses a neat resolution of the confusion created by the cross-dressing, leaving the characters and the audience literally ‘at sea’. As Wartenberg points out,

The pair in the stern appears to be lesbian, the one in the bow heterosexual… the former couple seems unlikely, transgressive of the social norm specifying that romantic couples must be composed of a man and a woman. The situation… is really the opposite of what it seems. (Wartenberg 1999, 1)

However, the dual-gendered identity of the cross-dressed protagonists makes a clear categorisation of sexuality difficult. Joe and Jerry have just escaped frantic chase by the mob, Sugar having been publicly kissed by ‘Josephine’ has seen through all of Joe’s disguises and followed him anyway, and Osgood is happily reunited with Daphne, his intended bride. With the sun setting in the background, the two couples ride off in Osgood’s motor boat, with Osgood and Daphne in front, and Josephine and Sugar taking the back seat, literally and symbolically, as the final shot of the film belongs solely to Osgood and Daphne/Jerry.

Setting this scene in a small boat creates a physically constraining environment that is paradoxically part of an escape into the enormous space of the open sea. The narrative tension resolved, the need for disguise falls away, and Josephine and Daphne are free to reveal themselves as Joe and Jerry to Sugar and Osgood respectively. Sugar predictably forgives Joe, and they disappear from view in a passionate embrace, re-establishing a stable heterosexual status quo. Joe ‘de-wigs’ in a selfless attempt to dissuade Sugar from committing herself to another “no goodnick” saxophone player. The de-wigging process is a key convention of cross-dressing comedies, and can in itself define the character of that representation. Those films where the characters choose to reveal themselves, as opposed to being forcefully exposed, present a more positive and subjective form of cross-dressing. It is notable that neither Sugar nor Osgood are shocked when Josephine and Daphne remove their wigs and drop their vocal registers, Sugar because she already knows, and Osgood because Daphne/Jerry’s biology genuinely makes no difference. Both couples remain visually united in medium two-shots that reinforce their status as couples. Interestingly it is Jerry and Joe who have shared most of the other two-shots in the film; in one instance, in Poliakoff’s office, they are even holding hands. They are the couple who get the least, if any, attention in discussions of the ending, and yet it is significant that their strong relationship, coded primarily within the buddy motif, has survived all of the tests and distractions that have been thrown at it. There is never any suggestion that they will part, even when they both find other partners, but attention is diverted from this coupling by the comedy and romance of the other two couplings.

The heterosexual coupling which marks the closure of category disruptions in most cross-dressing comedies, in this case is the coupling of two screen idols, Curtis and Monroe, a very reassuring antidote for a transphobic viewer to any previous deviancy in the film. It does affirm both stable binary gender roles and heterosexuality, although both have learned non-typical traits during the course of the narrative (Joe has learned consideration and sincerity, and Sugar has learned self-assertiveness), and despite the fact that they have engaged in a seemingly lesbian kiss. But they are not the main focus of the final scene; they function as a very effective distraction. Osgood and Jerry are of more interest, both because they get the final screen time and because they provide the transgressiveness of the ending. Daphne voluntarily removes her wig, rather than being exposed and humiliated, but keeps the earrings and make-up. While offering several double-coded excuses for why she can’t marry Osgood, none of which he accepts, at no point does she say that she doesn’t want to. Daphne has listed all of her reasons for wanting to marry Osgood and none of them have been invalidated. Jerry’s resistance to being ‘altered’ need not be read as a complete rejection of the idea of keeping the personality of Daphne and her relationship with Osgood, but rather as careful distinction between a transvestite and a transsexual identity.

That Jerry/Daphne could wish to remain male, while still dressing/acting as a woman in an implied heterosexual but actually homosexual relationship, seems to be too sophisticated a concept for most critics, who appear to want a definitive answer. It is the presentation of this category-defying identity, and Osgood’s total acceptance of it, that sets Some Like It Hot apart from other films in the temporary cross-dressing comedy genre. Daphne’s revelation does not have the expected effect of shocking or angering Osgood into rejection, nor of exciting or delighting him. He is entirely unfazed, but the reason for this and its implications are left to the interpretation of the viewer. Every other aspect of the narrative may have been normatively resolved, categorized and explained, yet this unusual couple is distanced from that resolution, quite clearly bound together by their physical environment but left in an open condition that deliberately resists categorisation or explanation.

The unusual nature of the final scene between Daphne/Jerry and Osgood is illustrated by its difference from the ending of its German predecessor, Fanfaren der Liebe.[3] Although Some Like It Hot is not a direct remake of this film, Wilder and Diamond “based [it] on Fanfaren das Liebe (sic)…though neither was especially fond of that film. They liked its basic premise” (Sikov 1998, 109).

Figure 5. Fanfaren der Liebe (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft, 1951)


In writing the screenplay for Some Like It Hot, they chose to use only the cross-dressing section of the plot of the German film, which included two other disguises initially adopted by the protagonists, Hans and Peter – gypsy impersonations and the use of blackface (Sikov 1998, 109). In the earlier German version, the male protagonists both end up in heterosexual couples with female members of the band, and the original contains no version of the Osgood/Daphne relationship. In fact Joe’s equivalent character ends up coupled with the leader of the band (Ginibre 2005, 12). In contrast, the open-ended nature of Osgood’s final statement presents the viewer with a truism, but without any attempt to control the ‘truth’ that each spectator can choose to construct from it.

The ending of Some Like It Hot differs not only from the films that preceded it. In a recent successor of Some Like It Hot, Connie and Carla (Michael Lembeck, 2004), the two protagonists are singers on the run from gangsters after they witness a shooting in a Chicago garage. In this film, however, they are females who hide out by cross-dressing as male drag queens, revealing indebtedness also to Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982). The resolution of Connie and Carla places both of the protagonists back into tidy heterosexual couples. Having been forced to reveal themselves on stage, by flashing their breasts, after the mobsters track them down, both are given the conventional happy ending of a heterosexual union, superficially resolving any confusion generated during their stint as drag queens. The normativity of the resolution is somewhat undermined by taking place on stage in a drag club, with Connie and Carla surrounded by drag queens and Debbie Reynolds, giving a camp cameo performance. Despite the similarities in plot, Some Like It Hot stands apart from these other films in that, at the end, it most overtly refuses a complete reinstatement of the status quo, and actively resists a closed, monovalent interpretation despite the conventional coupling of Sugar and Joe.

The stereotypical heterosexual coupling is undoubtedly important, as a reassurance and as that which allows the lack of containment in Osgood and Daphne’s relationship by keeping it hidden in plain view. It is not, however, the image with which we are left at the end of the film. Instead we are left with the smiling face of Osgood, and finally the nonplussed face of Daphne/Jerry, in make-up and earrings and a woman’s coat but without the wig. The bewilderment could be read as suggesting that Jerry is flummoxed as to how he will escape his commitment to Osgood, or that he is pleasantly surprised at his fiancé’s open-mindedness. But more important than the precise meaning of Jerry/Daphne’s bewilderment is the mere presence of that bewilderment at all. The conventions of the typical cross-dressing comedy require that all possible confusion is neatly resolved and contained by the end of the film. Some Like It Hot allows the confusion to continue, and thereby allows each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction. As the screen fades to black on Daphne/Jerry’s nonplussed face, the disruptions of gender and sexual boundaries remain unresolved with regard to these two characters, making any definitive categorization impossible regarding their identities, or the nature of their relationship. This is perhaps the most significant facet of the film’s popularity, that each viewer can construct the ending as happy regardless of their own particular ideology and preferences.


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Connie and Carla. Directed by Michael Lembeck. United States: Universal Studios, 2004.

Fanfare d’Amour. Directed by Richard Pottier. France: Solar-Films, 1935.

Fanfaren der Liebe. Directed by Kurt Hoffman. West Germany: NDF, 1951.

Some Like It Hot. Directed by Billy Wilder. United States: MGM, 1959

Tootsie. Directed by Sydney Pollack. United States: Columbia TriStar, 1982.

Victor/Victoria. Directed by Blake Edwards. United Kingdom; United States: MGM, 1982.


[1] These reasons behind Some Like It Hot’s continuing popular appeal are well-illustrated in the message boards and user comments for the film on IMDB.[2] Bruzzi frames this argument through analyses of six primary films, positioning the ‘cross-dressing’ of Glen or Glenda, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in opposition to the ‘androgyny’ of The Ballad of Little Jo, The Crying Game and Orlando.
[3] Fanfaren der Liebe is a remake of an earlier French film, Fanfare d’Amour (Richard Pottier, 1935), which further illustrates the unoriginality of the narrative concept.



Suzanne Woodward is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, and has recently completed her doctorate at the University of Auckland, where she teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Media Studies. Her doctoral thesis was an exploration of trans representation in mainstream films across four different genres.