BFI: Marilyn Monroe

The BFI are currently showcasing the sublime, sexy acting skills of Marilyn Monroe with a sparkling retrospective of her film work playing all summer at BFI Southbank.

It’s the kind of recognition the Hollywood screen siren never quite achieved in her lifetime. But we are lucky enough to be enjoying it now – films such as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and that remarkable end-of-an-era tragedy of The Misfits, directed by John Houston and written by Arthur Miller, which gave Marilyn her finest, most wounded role but ended up being the final film for both her and co-star Clark Gable.

The BFI and Stylist magazine asked me, along with a few other critics, to contribute a piece on my favourite Marilyn Monroe film: Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Marilyn was never more wonderful, nor more vulnerable than in Some Like It Hot. She plays Sugar Kane, vocalist and ukelele player for Sweet Sue’s all-girl band and when she sings Runnin’ Wild on the train on the way to Miami, it’s as if the world stops. It might be just be the sexiest performance of a song ever delivered on the silver screen (cue furious debate).

If you’ve never seen Some Like It Hot, I’m jealous of just how good a time you’re about to have. It is comic perfection but unlike the gag-fuelled comedies of today, its pleasures are elegantly honed, the script by director Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond as witty, funny and beautifully sculpted as Marilyn herself is in her control of her sexiness and her femininity.

This is, of course, a comedy about femininity. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play jazz musician on the run having witnessed the famous St Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago in 1929. Chased by the mobsters, they disguise themselves as women, Daphne and Josephine, and get a job with Sweet Sue’s band who are on their way by train to Miami.

That’s where they – and we – meet Sugar who can teach us all a thing or two about walking in high heels and getting our seams straight. Both Daphne and Josephine are instantly agog but obviously can’t let their masks slip, even as Sugar climbs into bed for a girly chat. “I’m a girl, I’m a girl,” Jack Lemmon has to remind himself.

But it’s Marilyn who constantly reminds us what being a girl, feeling like a girl, really means. “Story of my life,” says Sugar. “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” She’s constantly let down by men (particularly saxophone players) and sings that really I Want To Be Loved By You (boop-boop-de-boop). She is dazzled by the possibilities of seducing a millionaire with a yacht, always falling in love with a lie that can’t match her fantasies.

Amid all the silliness of male posturing – jazz musicians dressing up, Tony Curtis pretending to be the Shell Oil heir, mobsters in their spats – Marilyn is the only one striking the true notes.

As the star’s personal life became ever more complicated and her reputation for stage fright and not showing up grew – Billy Wilder said that instead of going the Actor’s Studio to learn method acting, she should have gone to “train engineer’s school to learn how to arrive on schedule” – she still pulls it all together to give a performance of utter comic brilliance, playing all the levels and layers, her flashing intelligence burning through the mask and the make up of that incandescent sexuality.

Like the girl herself sings: “I couldn’t aspire/To anything higher” than Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.