Despite being such an enormous pop culture icon, Marilyn Monroe is often very misunderstood and underestimated. Many people claim to adore Marilyn, but would be hard pressed to even name one her movies. Others only know Marilyn from that image of her standing over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch and assume she didn’t actually have any talent.
If I were to recommend a Marilyn Monroe movie to someone who has never seen one of her movies before, I would go with Some Like it Hot. Sure, Marilyn was funny in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but you see none of her dramatic skills there. If you only watched Don’t Bother to Knock, you’d never take her for a comedienne. But Some Like it Hot offers a look at everything that made Marilyn great. It let her be a bombshell, it let her show off her comedic talents, and it let her have moments of melancholy as well. She’s bubbly, yet cynical.
When we first meet Sugar Kane, it’s a signature Bombshell Marilyn moment. As she walks through the crowded train station, moving just like Jell-O on springs, not only is she beautiful, she’s the embodiment of all the intangible qualities the camera adores. Call it what you like — magnetism, star quality, screen presence — she had it in spades. When she’s singing songs like “Running Wild” and “I Want to be Loved By You,” her magnetism is so far off the charts it makes you wonder what this band is doing playing little gigs at hotels when they’ve got a lead singer like that.
Of course, Marilyn the Comedienne has plenty of time to shine in Some Like it Hot. Comedic actors often don’t get the credit they deserve because so many people have the mistaken idea that you don’t have to be particularly talented to do comedy. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but there’s no denying that Marilyn made comedy look like the easiest thing in the world in Some Like it Hot. Her comedic timing was absolutely impeccable and feels completely natural.
Last, but certainly not least, there’s Marilyn the Serious Actress. Marilyn the Serious Actress only gets a few scenes in Some Like it Hot, but when those moments come, they’re some of her best moments in the movie. Those are the moments that prevent Sugar Kane from being just like Marilyn’s other characters who were out to land a rich husband. Sugar’s been jilted in ways that Lorelei Lee would never tolerate and she has a cynical streak to show for it. Lorelei Lee would never let herself end up playing in a second-rate band, sneaking booze on a train and lamenting all the men who have mistreated her and taken her money. I love how completely and totally unimpressed Marilyn sounds in the scene when Sugar talks about that.
Marilyn’s heaviest acting moments come close to the end of the film. The first of which is when Sugar gets the phone call from “Shell Oil Jr.” explaining why he has to leave. In that scene, Sugar goes from being on top of the world to feeling the lowest she’s ever felt. Her heartbreak is very evident, but Marilyn never resorts to over-the-top hysterics. Instead of actually sobbing uncontrollably, when she talks, she sounds like she wants to sob uncontrollably but is trying to hold herself together. You really hear this when she offers her band to play at his wedding and when she tells Josephine and Daphne that she could never forget him when there’s a Shell station on every corner.
One of the most poignant scenes I’ve ever seen Marilyn do is when she sings “I’m Through With Love.” By the end of the song, she sounds so thoroughly defeated. You don’t doubt that she meant every single word of that song. I also love the little mannerisms that Marilyn works into this scene to show how uncomfortable Sugar is. She keeps fidgeting with her scarf and when she puts her head down at the end of the song, she moves her shoulders in a way that suggests she’s trying not to cry.
Marilyn’s performance in Some Like it Hot is definitely not the work of an amateur — it’s the work of an actress who has really applied herself to improving her work. Some Like it Hot was released just four years after she caused a sensation in The Seven Year Itch and the progress she made in that time is remarkable. She really upped her own ante here.