At the height of her stardom, Marilyn Monroe took an 18-month hiatus from Hollywood. The screen icon, who would have turned 95 on June 1, was battling ill health, which was linked to her barbiturate dependency and fragile psyche, and she was recovering from a miscarriage.
So Monroe turned her back on movies for a time, and sought refuge with Arthur Miller, her playwright husband, holing up in their homes in New York City, Connecticut and Long Island.
In April 1958, Monroe was finally ready to return to the medium that had made her globally famous, with Variety proclaiming “Monroe to Do ‘Hot.'” The Hollywood trade went on to report that after a “two-year absence” Monroe was slated to play “a band singer in the 20s period comedy,” which would be directed by Billy Wilder and was entitled Some Like It Hot.
Monroe’s two male co-stars had yet to be cast (they would later be revealed as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon). At no point did Variety allude to the plot of the mystery project, one that centreed on two musicians who disguise themselves as women and join an all-girls band after witnessing a mob hit. It’s a story that would be reformatted over the years, influencing everything from Tootsie to Mrs. Doubtfire.
The resulting masterpiece, which by most accounts was a herculean effort to bring to the screen, also plays a central role in Monroe’s on-screen legacy. Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk, the emotionally bruised, gin-swilling singer and ukulele player, remains her most accomplished performance. In it, Monroe is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. Nowhere was her breathy voice more seductive and better suited to excavating the hidden pathos behind Wilder and his co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond’s zingers.
In retrospect, it’s a miracle that Monroe was able to complete her work, let alone be brilliant. Her health issues, psychological problems and stage fright were so acute that she would keep cast and crew waiting for hours before arriving on the set, or would frequently miss shooting days, causing the production to run over schedule.
When she did show up, Monroe flubbed lines, battled with Wilder over their diverging views of how to play Sugar, as well as her insistence that her acting guru Paula Strasberg hover off-camera, and required so many retakes that co-star Tony Curtis quipped that doing a love scene with her was like “kissing Hitler.”
The Hollywood trades feasted on the tales of trouble on the set. Variety columnist Army Archerd routinely updated his readers on Monroe’s illnesses and the delays she caused for the production. “Marilyn Monroe was ill again yesterday and unable to report to work in Some Like It Hot, in which she’s only appeared on set two hours so far,” he wrote on Aug. 21, 1958. “And she’s nixed every still taken.” Many similar reports would follow, along with a persistent, underlying suggestion that she might never finish work on the film.
At one point in November of that year, the production headaches grew so pronounced that Variety commissioned a more deeply reported piece that looked at the insurance issues that Monroe’s health problems were causing. In an article entitled Who’s Holding Bag’ Interesting Question on Marilyn Monroe Pic, the trade noted that productions that blow past their wrap dates weren’t indemnified for “‘female ailments,’ including pregnancy,” which the article went on to imply was the cause of her missed days.
It’s the kind of tsk-tsk-ing hit piece, prudish in its verbiage, but violating in its disregard for Monroe’s privacy, that has aged terribly in the ensuring decades. But it was also the norm for how the actress, who was prized more for her curvaceous looks than her performing chops, was treated by a media that wanted to commodify and objectify her, while remaining steadfastly unsympathetic to her struggles.
It’s even there in the initial coverage of the production before things threatened to go off the rails. Archerd practically leers as he notes that at the first press conference for the film, Monroe “…showed up in a black gown, cut as deep in front as in the rear. ‘It’s just something I got off the rack,’ she sighed. ‘Anyone can buy it.'” Archerd went on to ask: “But can anyone fill it?”
Despite the retakes and blown lines, what Wilder was able to capture on screen was a kind of ineffable star power, as well as a performance of technical skill. Monroe was never better, and never would be again. Even Variety’s critic tipped his hat to what she had pulled off, writing that “she’s a comedienne with sex appeal and timing that just can’t be beat.”
But the reviewer couldn’t resist diving in to Monroe’s heavily chronicled personal life, adding, “If at the time of filming she was pregnant, and the tight dresses she’s asked to wear just don’t fit well, never mind. This gal can take it, and so can the audience.” How generous!
Instead of kicking off a new and more interesting phase of her film career, Some Like it Hot serves as Monroe’s last truly great movie. She would complete only two more, and the results were dispiriting. The Misfits with a script by Miller, is a turgid bore with delusions of profundity, while Let’s Make Love squanders Monroe’s talents on a forgettable rom-com. Her drinking and pill-taking got worse, and along with it her reputation for unreliability, all of it culminating in Monroe being fired by 20th Century Fox from Something’s Got to Give.
The studio exacerbated the problem by spreading rumours that she was mentally disturbed.
On August 4, 1962, Monroe died of barbiturate poisoning. Her shocking end at the age of 36 sparked a fresh wave of feverish press coverage, with journalists dwelling on the fact that she was discovered naked and conspiracy theories quickly spreading that she was murdered.
In death, Monroe was even bigger than she was in life. Licensing activities around her image still generate millions annually and she is often ranked among the greatest movie stars of all time. The image of subway grating blowing up Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch or the shot of her extolling the virtues of diamonds to a bevy of waiting suitors from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are among the most iconic moments in cinema history. They are as indelible as Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb to oblivion in Dr Strangelove or E.T. and Elliot’s cycle flight in front of the moon.
Yet, nothing reveals the full extent of Monroe’s power and hints at the unexplored potential of her prodigious talent like Some Like It Hot. It may have been hell to shoot, but it’s a joy to watch. And that’s in no smart part thanks to Monroe.
After Monroe died, Wilder, who had publicly fumed about his experience working with her on Some Like It Hot, finally came to accept how rare a talent he’d had at his disposal.
“In the last fifteen years there were ten projects that came to me, and I’d start working on them and I’d think, ‘It’s not going to work, it needs Marilyn Monroe,'” he told an interviewer. “Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”