Monday, February 13, 2023

Some Like It Hot Refurbished, and a Brief Word of Farewell

Christian Borle & J. Harrison Ghee in Some Like It Hot. (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

The best romantic comedy released in the early fifties, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, was about the impossible romance of a princess and a reporter; it was a cross between a genteel version It Happened One Night and a reverse Cinderella story. But then Hollywood romantic comedy degenerated into sex cartoons with Jayne Mansfield at one end of the spectrum and mechanical farces at the other. One might have feared that the form was dead, until Billy Wilder’s divine Some Like It Hot came to the rescue at the end of the decade. It wasn’t remotely like any previous movie in this genre. (But then, Wilder’s The Lost Weekend hadn’t been like any other social problem picture or Sunset Boulevard like any other film noir.) Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond took a page from Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies and then doubled it. When two jazz musicians witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre they run like hell, straight into drag. They figure their only retreat from the gangsters on their tail is to vanish into dresses and wigs and join an all-girls’ band. Tony Curtis’s Joe, a.k.a. Josephine, falls for the lead singer, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe at her most sublime), and chooses a second disguise – a millionaire named Shell Oil Jr. who entertains her on a borrowed yacht, where Curtis draws her in with a dead-on Cary Grant imitation. Jack Lemmon’s frantic Jerry/Daphne finds himself the object of the yacht’s actual owner, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) – a courtship that Wilder and Diamond leave up in the air when the rest of the plot is resolved. The final line – spoken by Brown – when Jerry reveals his true gender to Osgood is one of the two best curtain lines in American romantic comedy. (The other concludes Charade, with Hepburn and Cary Grant, which followed Some Like It Hot four years later.)

Composer Jule Styne, lyricist Bob Merrill and book writer Peter Stone turned Wilder’s joyous gender-bending farce into a stage musical called Sugar in 1972, with Robert Morse as Jerry and Tony Roberts as Joe, but it wasn’t great. The current attempt, called Some Like It Hot, is. It’s a brash. lustrous, quick-witted show with a tuneful pastiche score by the Hairspray team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw that represent his most inspired work since The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006. Matthew L√≥pez and Amber Ruffin have shifted the locale from Miami to San Diego and the year from 1929 to 1933, but otherwise they’ve left the plot pretty much as Wilder and Diamond wrote it. (Or transformed it, rather:  their source material was a 1935 French comedy called Fanfare of Love.) What this new musical has changed are the attitudes, skimming the cream off contemporary pop-culture takes on both gender and race and hardly ever pushing a woke agenda. The exceptions are brief and easily forgivable, especially when the creative team is giving the audience such a fantastic time.

The racial twist comes at the outset. Jerry and Joe, the musicians who are also best pals, are a mixed-race duo: Joe (Christian Borle) is white and Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) is Black. When they try to sell themselves as a multi-talented pair who can also sing and dance – their moniker is the Tip-Tap Twins – the quality of their sample, “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him),” makes the club owner (Casey Garvin) who’s ready to show them the door because of Jerry’s color look like an idiot as well as a jerk. The all-female band they wind up joining on its sojourn to southern California, Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, has a Black conductor (NaTasha Yvette Williams); Sugar (Adrianna Hicks) is also a performer of color. As for the gender stuff, it’s faithful to Wilder and Diamond, but Lopez and Ruffin push it deliciously farther.

Borle adds another wild-card musical-comedy triumph to his staggering curriculum vitae, and except for his dazzling vaudeville turn in the Encores! revival of Little Me it may be his funniest and most varied. Ghee, whom I’ve never seen before, is his perfect opposites match: tall, soulful and, even in Gregg Barnes’s gowns and caramel curls, devastatingly handsome. If Borle, whose blonde, bespectacled Josephine has the look of a schoolmarm – and who is continually on the receiving end of Sue’s put-downs about her age – is a through-and-through clown of quicksilver deftness, Ghee strives to give Daphne some depth, and he’s a good enough actor to get away with it without dampening the comedy. The other leading performers are of the same caliber. Hicks has a pussycat silkiness and a low curl in her voice, and when she sings a ballad like “A Darker Shade of Blue” or “Ride Out the Storm” Shaiman’s music glides into the blues. Williams, who wears the richest and most flamboyant of Barnes’s wonderful costumes, is the hottest mama in musicals since Queen Latifah played the wheeling-and-dealing prison matron in the movie of Chicago, and she has an even ampler frame. And Kevin Del Aguila, as a Latino Osgood, is funny in some ways that he appears to have invented for himself and other ways that return us to the long-vanished era of uncategorizable comics like Jack Oakie and Burns and Allen, who could reduce moviegoers to helpless fits of laughter. One of them was Joe E. Brown, but the man I kept recalling while I watched Del Aguila was Rudy Vallee in the Preston Sturges classics The Palm Beach Story and Unfaithfully Yours. They don’t sound alike and God knows they don’t look alike, but they share an oblivious quality that makes them both legitimately bizarre. These five are the leads. In a supporting role Angie Schworer, as Minnie, Sue’s second-in-command, Minnie, is a hard-boiled doll in the Joan Blondell mold.

What’s the dance highlight?  Hard to say.  I was a little worried by the end of “You Can’t Have Me” that Nicholaw couldn’t top it, but half an act later we get “Take It Up a Step,” where Hicks, Borle and Ghee captain the phenomenal ensemble, and the first-act finale, “Some Like It Hot,” is even better than that. This is what we always long to experience in a dance musical; we got it in Kathleen Marshall’s 2011 revival of Anything Goes with Sutton Foster and more recently in the Goodspeed’s iteration of 42nd Street. The surprises continue in act two and I think that “Tip Tap Trouble,” which follows Sugar’s gorgeous eleven-o’clock number “Ride Out the Storm,” transcends everything that has preceded it. “Tip Tap Trouble” pays tribute to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes. And you can hear Cole Porter’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” – often interpolated in productions of Anything Goes – in “Let’s Be Bad,” Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and the Gershwins’ “Shall We Dance” in “Dance the World Away,” “Take Back Your Mink” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls in “He Lied When He Said Hello.” For musical-theatre aficionados, these echoes add extra dollops of pleasure. 

Melinda Dillon in Absence of Malice (1981).

Melinda Dillon, who died on January 9 at the age of eighty-three but whose death wasn’t announced until last week, won sensational reviews when she played Honey in the original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 (she was twenty-three). Then a nervous breakdown drove her away from live theatre. Eventually she wound up in Hollywood, where she played the role that even movie lovers who don’t know her by name would recognize: Jillian Guiler, the Indiana single mother whose little boy is abducted by friendly extra-terrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Who can forget the tinkle in her gossamer alto voice when, seeing the alien bubbles whizzing across the sky above Wyoming’s Devils Tower, she proclaims to another of the true believers in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 fantasy, Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary, “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups!”? Dillon, whose slender, loping body in a loose blouse and jean cut-offs wordlessly evokes an unassuming hippie otherness – Jillian is, of course, an artist – is the image of heart-whole acceptance. She’s childlike and utterly without affectation; she has a deep capacity for understanding the eternal promise of the magical. Everything Dillon does in the movie seems not just authentic and pure but completely imagined, as if she had no models but had simply dropped into acting. You might compare her to Margaret Sullavan, but she’s grounded whereas Sullavan is neurotic; you might think of the Blythe Danner of the 1970s, but Danner has a more complex sensuousness and a magnificently accomplished technique. Dillon is sui generis.

The charmingly zonked 1983 Songwriter, written by Bud Shrake and directed by Alan Rudolph, juxtaposes her as the legendary, now retired country singer Honey Carter with Lesley Ann Warren as the cracked, alcoholic newcomer Gilda, who is also gifted but covets Honey’s ineffable presence. We barely see Honey perform – only briefly, with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, in a montage at the beginning of the picture – but whenever Dillon shows up her tossed-off homey grace suggests what she must have brought to the concert stage: something, perhaps, like Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean in Altman’s Nashville, without the doomed undercurrent, the lostness. Gilda wants so desperately to be Honey that she even tries to get in bed with her ex-husband (Nelson), an effort so misconceived that when he retreats Gilda ODs. (She survives; Songwriter is a comedy.) The scenes between Dillon and Nelson are so natural they seem improvised, but they can’t be; they’re of a piece with the rest of Shrake’s dialogue, which somehow blends effervescent looniness with explosively funny profanity without once dragging it down to earth. My favorite moment is the one where Dillon sits next to Nelson on a couch with her arm draped tenderly across him as she explains why, though she loves him, she can’t live with him. You think, Buddy, you have to earn a woman like this one. By the end of the movie, he has.

It’s not that Dillon couldn’t play a fragile character. She did so in her most amazing performance, in 1981’s Absence of Malice. But that piece of acting has no antecedents either, as far as I can tell. In Sydney Pollack’s movie, Paul Newman plays the head of a company that wholesales liquor who, because he grew up in a Mafia family, is suspected when a union leader is killed. When an eager-beaver reporter (Sally Field) prints a story about him, Dillon’s Teresa Perrone, who was with him in another city when the murder occurred, seeks out the reporter to provide an alibi for him. But Teresa, a well-brought-up Catholic girl who works as the principal’s assistant in a convent school, wants assurance that Field won’t reveal her name or the reason for the trip – that she got herself pregnant and Newman, her lifelong friend and protector, was taking her to get an abortion. When Field won’t offer that assurance, Teresa burrows softly into herself and drifts away. But the story appears anyway, identifying her. Once again Dillon does miraculous things with that slight, elastic frame, wearing a buttoned-down sweater like a shroud that can’t hide her restlessness and hiding her terrified face in clouds of cigarette smoke. She seems to want to erase herself. In the scene that must have been the greatest Dillon ever played, Teresa waits on her front porch in the early morning for the paper boy to bike by, shakes the plastic covering off and reads the story that exposes her. Every gesture has a self-effacing gentleness that tears at your heart. Then she dashes like a rabbit across the lawns of her neighbors, stealing their copies. We never see Teresa again; she cuts her wrists offscreen. But she leaves an indelible mark on the movie, and so does Melinda Dillon.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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