Catching up on Summer Watching: Drag Queens as Comedy in Some Like It Hot



Summer in Barcelona is a beautiful thing. The city bursts alive with a myriad of outdoor events—from open-air films and concerts with Música als Parcs and Sala Montjuic, to the Grec international theatre, dance, and music festival. The Sala Montjuic opened for the summer on July 4, and has since been providing a program of classic films and concerts. Although the locals may complain of the unbearable humidity of Barcelona during the months of July and August, Barcelona, with its sunny, cool breezes, has got nothing on a sticky New York City summer. But that’s the plotline for Billy Wilder’s Seven Year Itch (1955). This night, we were treated to another Wilder classic, Some Like It Hot (1959), starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. Watching the lovely Marilyn Monroe in front of an old, ivy-covered castle on a hill, cava in hand, with Barcelona twinkling far below in what seems to be the best view of the city yet (you will undoubtedly think this each time you stumble upon a new mirador)—it doesn’t get much closer to perfection. 


Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are two Chicago musicians struggling to make ends meet in the middle of winter of 1929. One night, as they are performing at a speakeasy—a club that illegally sold alcohol during Prohibition—the police make a bust on the gangsters who run the place. By some incredible series of events, the two happen to witness the shoot-out payback for the police informant who had tipped the police about the club. Miraculously, Joe and Jerry manage to get away, but not before the gangsters notice them. Meanwhile, Joe and Jerry find a gig that offers an all-expense paid trip to Florida. The only catch—it’s a women’s band. Now on the run, they can find no other choice but to dress up in drag, as Josephine and Daphne. On the road to Florida, they meet the lead singer of the band, Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe. At a time when Hollywood censorship, known as the Hays Code, banned the explicit depiction of “sex perversion,” Curtis and Lemmon’s drag performances somehow found a loophole in comic relief.


The Hays Code’s definition of “sex perversion” included the depiction of homosexuality, interracial relationships (known as miscegenation at the time), adultery, or excessive and lustful kissing. As alternative gender performances aren’t necessarily related to sexuality, Curtis and Lemmon in drag as straight men on the run seemed to pass the censors more so than two explicitly gay men in drag would have done. Yet, why is the effeminization of men so funny? Effeminate men, either gay or straight, seem to be the final frontier of acceptable politically incorrect humor. Gay or effeminate men always seem to be an easy laugh—from David Cross’s questionably straight character, Tobias Fünke, in Arrested Development (TV Series, 2003—2006) to films relying on drag comic relief by straight actors, such as The Birdcage (1996) and its French original La Cage Aux Folles (1978), or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995). Not to mention, the tradition of drag as comic relief in British comedy, as you find from sketch troupes such as Monty Python and Little Britain. The list goes on.


Perhaps the only explanation is to postulate humor as derivative of absurdity. We perceive two straight men in drag, both characters trying to seduce Marilyn Monroe—both in drag and out—and another character expressing excitement over his engagement as a woman to a millionaire. Both instances we find absurd, and in turn, funny, as they approach the boundaries of our already suspended reality. We also see their characters challenging particularly American notions of masculinity—a masculinity defined through images of rough cowboys or gangsters, with any sign of femininity perceived as weakness. Witnessing a masculinity that is anything less than what we expect, particularly in terms of Hollywood, further evokes the feeling of absurdity from the audience. You would never have found Rock Hudson, a closeted gay man in Hollywood, in a role such as that created for known womanizer and heartbreaker Tony Curtis. Hudson ironically perpetuated Hollywood tropes of masculinity while living a secret gay life. Moreover, Curtis’s character never seems to forget that he is, in fact, a man, as he consistently pursues the affections of Sugar Kane. On the other hand, Lemmon, an actor already known as a comedian, was sure to evoke laughter due to audience bias and expectations. As a straight man embracing his newfound femininity to the point that he must continually repeat the mantra “I am not a girl,” Lemmon further capitalizes on his already comedic reputation by pushing both his own and the audience’s boundaries of absurdity, i.e. the rupture of expected masculine performance. In turn, his comic performance as a man in drag shines more so than Curtis’s. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the quality of a film like Some Like it Hot or a television series such as Arrested Development, despite their capitalization on gender stereotypes as a way to produce an easy joke. 


Sala Montjuic will continue to delight audiences with cinema alfresco into August. They have a great line-up of international films, with titles such as the American Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Where the Wild Things Are (2009), the Iranian About Elly (2009), and Argentine Lion’s Den (2008). They will also be showing more classics such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963). For a full schedule, please see the Sala Montjuic website. Watching great film projected onto a majestic castle in the heart of Barcelona’s exquisitely peaceful Montijuic Park is just not something you want to miss. Pack a picnic, bring a blanket or chairs, and go early to get a good spot. You won’t regret it.



Queer, Gender