William Shakespeare was a master of both the tragic and comedic forms of drama (or, in the words of Harold Bloom, he “usurps” the genre completely). He had a knack for altering the various conventions of both forms in endlessly entertaining and compelling ways. His art is definitely the most enduring of its time, and perhaps he will continue to outlast even more recent authors as the years go on.
I’ve discovered lately that Billy Wilder deserves this same distinction.
Having recently watched both Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. and Some Like It Hot within a relatively brief time of each other, both are masterpieces of their genres: the noir and the screwball comedy. As with Shakespeare’s greatest works, there are streaks of comedy and tragedy in both films, respectively. The script of Sunset Blvd., as narrated by William Holden, is so cynical as to be almost funny at times (without straying into the realm of parody). Likewise, there are shades to Marilyn Monroe’s indelible Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot that are disarmingly serious: her borderline alcoholism, self-destructive love habits, and overall recklessness. And despite the excellent performances in both films, the fact that they work on multiple levels is chiefly the achievement of Wilder.
For those who don’t know, Some Like It Hot is centered on two musicians who witness a mass murder in Chicago, and flee to safety in Florida by posing as women in an all-girls jazz group. The story gets complicated as the men initially vie for the attentions of blond bombshell singer Marilyn Monroe, and then one of them gets wrapped up in a faux-mance with an elderly millionaire.
Some Like It Hot begins when gangsters savagely murder a group of defenseless men in cold blood. The irony of the situation is that the dopey Joe and Jerry—played respectively by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon—happen to be in the area at the same time. The violence is not graphic, but the implications on the lives of the witnesses are obviously quite dire, as shown by the constant deadpan expression of the mob boss, Spats Colombo. Yet the movie is far from a black comedy; Wilder does not approach the material in a cheerless way as the Coen brothers might, whose Burn After Reading and The Ladykillers have an equally high body count. By some magic of cinema, with the help of Curtis and Lemmon, Wilder somehow manages to keep the tone of the movie light and fluffy without leaving a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.
Of course, the central gimmick of the movie is that of cross-dressing, which is a major part of many of Shakespeare’s comedies, especially Twelfth Night. The two romances in this film—those between Curtis and Monroe, and Lemmon and Joe E. Brown—are both contained in the love triangle between Viola, Orsino, and Olivia. The matchup is a bit complicated, but makes sense if you think about it. Curtis and Lemmon are versions of Viola, in that they both cross-dress. Monroe is Orsino: they both are dim-witted, in love with being in love, and are secretly pursued by the Viola character. Lemmon embodies the love-resistant Olivia, whom Orsino/Brown is unsuccessfully attempting to woo. Were these parallels intentional? Probably not, given the archetypes that Shakespeare established with Twelfth Night. But their presence is indicative of Wilder’s ability to reach such a pinnacle with his art that comparisons between it and the works of Shakespeare are warranted.