Review: ‘Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’’

Anyone who purchases this book will no doubt be faced with an immediate quandary: Do I read it, eat it or make love to it?

Anyone who purchases this book will no doubt be faced with an immediate quandary: Do I read it, eat it or make love to it? The first is certainly the most prudent choice, not only because the book is a splendid tribute to one of our greatest writer-directors, but because it costs $150, a pretty high price to pay for a single meal or dalliance. To call the book luscious and sexy is barely hyperbole. In fact, it is inconceivable that there is a more alluring book on the market today.

Brought to us by world-renowned art book publisher Taschen to celebrate Wilder’s 95th birthday, the volume is bursting with color, creativity and sensuousness. It is roughly 11 inches high by 18 inches wide (proportionately the same aspect ratio as the film), bound in gorgeous banana ultra-suede, and protected by its own eye-popping orange storage box.

Its content, happily, is as appealing as its form. Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing farce “Some Like it Hot,” is considered by many to be among the greatest comedies ever put on film. If one work from the Wilder oeuvre had to be chosen in order to honor the great man and his career, writer Dan Auiler and editor Alison Castle could have made equal choices, but none better.

Reading this book is like watching the film again. Among its contents are anecdotal background on the film, pages of the rare first draft, the complete shooting script of the film, illuminated by hundreds of production photos (everyone young and beautiful, cigarettes ubiquitous), 60 pages of interviews with, among others, Billy and Audrey Wilder, producer Walter Mirisch, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon (his last serious interview before his death), and Barbara Diamond, the widow of co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, plus a complete scrapbook packed with publicity ephemera from around the world. As if this weren’t enough, embedded in the back cover are two delightful lagniappes: a Billy Wilder cartoon bookmark and a perfect facsimile of Marilyn Monroe’s prompt-book complete with the diva’s handwritten notes.

It must be said, however, that serious cinephiles, not to mention serious fans, might be a bit disappointed that there is so little material here that is entirely fresh.

In fact, little or nothing that Wilder says to Auiler did he not say to Cameron Crowe in his “Conversations with Wilder.” And many of the anecdotes from Curtis and Lemmon are recognizable, too, from numerous television interviews over the years.

Yet, recognizable or not, a good anecdote is a good anecdote. Most are marvelously entertaining. There is the tale of Lemmon and Curtis testing out their drag outfits by entering ladies rooms, putting on their makeup, and yapping to each other in the mirror, waiting to see if they would be detected. Curtis, always stunningly candidto the point of immodesty, tells us not only of his romantic past with Marilyn but about the film’s costumer who, when measuring Monroe as she stood in her underwear, informed her that Tony had a better ass. “She unbuttoned her blouse and said, ‘He doesn’t have tits like these,’ ” Curtis recalls.

Perhaps the most illuminating tale of all — one of which every studio executive should take heed — is that the first screening of “Some Like it Hot” was nothing short of a catastrophe. Rather than significantly change the movie, Wilder merely changed the audience. Playing to a more savvy crowd, the next preview was a triumph and savvy audiences have been laughing ever since.

Any fresh details as to the collaboration are largely supplied by Mirish, Audrey Wilder and Barbara Diamond. It is not often one gets to hear at such length from the producer of a film, much less from the director’s wife and the co-writer’s widow, but all have plenty to offer.

On an elegiac note, Lemmon’s commentary, while perhaps not as spicy and frank as Curtis’, reveals a passionate intelligence, an objectivity about the art of filmmaking and a generosity of spirit that makes his recent passing all the more poignant. One cannot help but feel that for intelligence and sheer humanity, we may not see his equal for years to come.

As Wilder nears his 100th birthday, he is yearly showered with more and more kudos and awards, but it is hard to feel they are not deserved. His body of work is massive, diverse, expert, and for sheer intelligence and literacy is rivaled perhaps only by the best of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In the face of so much acclaim, it is also to Wilder’s enduring credit that he, unlike Hitchcock, who routinely and shamefully disparaged his screenwriters, never fails to acknowledge the massive and invaluable contribution of his partner, I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond.

More than a work of enduring or original film scholarship, this Taschen creation is a lavish love letter, a sumptuous and extravagant feast for those who love “Some Like It Hot.”

Billy Wilder's 'Some Like It Hot'

Taschen; 384 pgs.; $150


Edited by Alison Castle, interviews by Dan Auiler
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