Some Like It Hot and Annie Hall: Not Weathering Well

Some Like It Hot (1959)
Directed by Billy Wilder
United Artists, 121 minutes, Not Rated (mild sexual references)

Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by Woody Allen
United Artists, 93 minutes, PG* (sexual references and situations)
            * PG-13 ratings did not exist in 1977

Film history exists independently from social history. Some films that strike modern viewers as trite or problematic were beheld quite differently in their own time period. Witness two films, Some Like It Hot and Annie Hall. Today, neither goes down easily or weathers well. The American Film Institute reworked its 100 Greatest Films list in 2007–long before MeToo#–hence Some Like It Hot currently checks in as #22 and Annie Hall as #35. The only way to make sense of this is to view each as an artifact rather than a manifesto. Still, one wonders if either film will survive the AFI’s next update.

Billy Wilder, a Hollywood legend, directed Some Like It Hot. As was still the case of numerous films in 1959, it is in black and white (though badly colorized versions exist). It’s set in 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash, and follows two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis), a saxophone player, and Jerry (Jack Lemon), who wields a double bass. Jobs are drying up and they’re reduced to performing in a dodgy Chicago speakeasy. They barely manage to join the corpses when they accidentally wander in on a gangland slaying–patterned after the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. (Mobsters don’t like witnesses.) Joe and Jerry need to blow town tout de suite and they need jobs and disguises.

Thus begins a comic caper in which the two dress in drag, board a train for Miami and–as Josephine and Daphne–join Sweet Sue and the Society Syncopators [sic], an all-female band. All manner of silly and awkward situations ensue, including Joe-as-Josephine crammed into a sleeping birth for a giggly “girls” drinking session with Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s lead singer who fears she’ll be kicked out of the band because she likes to take a toot. (Booze is off-limits during Prohibition.) Of course, Joe is attracted to Sugar, but he can’t blow his cover as the Mob is searching for him. For his part, Jerry-as-Daphne must fend off the roaming hands of a leering rich man, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). As you might imagine, Miami isn’t exactly the best place to hide from organized crime figures! (You can spot both George Raft and Edward G. Robinson among the sanguinary tough guys.)

Some Like It Hot is basically a romp with high heels, girdles, flapper garb, and machine guns. Modern viewers need to remember that the film’s innuendos and sexist jokes were considered hilarious in 1959; patriarchy was a barely contested given. Actually, the film’s historical take on the battle of the sexes is its primary virtue. The comedy is of the broad in a mile-wide-inch-deep variety. Curtis and Lemon chew the scenes with appropriate histrionics, and the dough-faced Joe E. Brown is a riot. Brown is forgotten figure, but he was one of the great hangdog comics of his era. But let’s be frank: Marilyn Monroe had but two outstanding features, neither of which was her acting or vocal prowess. (She whisper/warbles four songs and no one will ever call her take on “I Wanna Be Loved By You” as definitive.) Watching Some Like It Hot now is akin to re-reading a novel you loved years ago. You discover a few sublime moments, but mostly you wonder why you once loved it.

Keaton yes; Allen no
Annie Hall is even more difficult to swallow. The only way you can watch it is to put aside what you think of Woody Allen, its director and star. In 1977, Allen was considered an auteur and Annie Hall was hailed as a masterpiece. Unlike Some Like It Hot, which won only a design Oscar, Annie Hall carried off statues for Best Picture, Best Director (Allen), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), and Best Original Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman). These days, Annie Hall is a glimpse into the social and economic wreckage of the late 1970s.

Like many Allen films, it’s a confessional. It opens with Alvy Singer (Allen) recounting his breakup with Annie (Keaton) a year earlier. It involves numerous flashback sequences, perhaps the finest of which are Alvy’s memories of growing up in a dysfunctional Brooklyn Jewish family that lived beneath a Coney Island rollercoaster. We also flash back to Alvy’s two failed marriages, but much of the film is shtick in which Allen/Alvy riffs on his neuroses, his intolerance of intellectual phonies, his preferences for decaying New York over sunny California, and his own sexual virulence. If the last of these makes you cringe, it’s supposed to, the “joke” being that the nebbish Alvy can’t be a sex machine. Alvy refuses to follow his best (and perhaps only) friend Rob (Tony Roberts), a producer, to Los Angeles. After all, he’s the kind of guy whose idea of a first date movie is The Sorrow and the Pity, a 4 ½  hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of France and the roundup of Jews.

Call the film “When Alvy Met Annie.” Their relationship is recapped episodically because we already know it’s over. Annie is a cabaret singer and a ditzy klutz who also has neuroses to spare. Unlike Alvy, Annie grows, including a move to LA, where Tony Lacey (singer Paul Simon) promises to help her musical career. (Alvy, true to form, thinks Lacey is a phony and flies to LA to try to convince Annie to come back to New York.) Most of the scenes in which Alvy and Annie actually interact–as opposed to material from Allen’s standup act–fall into the category of being edgy cute. There’s a classic sequence involving lobsters.

Keaton is a bubbly delight as Annie. Back in 1977, she actually touched off a fashion craze with her quirky Boho duds, and she absolutely made trendy the phrase la di da. Unlike Monroe, Keaton is a competent (though not outstanding) vocalist who imbued “Seems Like Old Times” and “It Had to Be You” with the proper amount of atmosphere demanded by the script. There are also small roles and cameos for Truman Capote, Beverly D’Angelo, Colleen Dewhurst, Shelly Duval, Jeff Goldblum, Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, Christopher Walken, and Sigourney Weaver–most of whom were little known at the time. As for Allen, his material simply doesn’t seem very funny anymore.

Ironically, what resonates most for the present are Allen’s rants about anti-Semitism. Despite what you might hear on college campuses, the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2018 alone is triple the total number of anti-Muslim incidents for the entire period between 2012-18. Allen folded anti-Semitism into Alvy’s anxieties, but that’s not funny anymore either. I won’t ride the anti-Allen tidal wave–I happen to find Mia Farrow as untruthful as Allen and even crazier–but I will say that several Allen films are far superior to Annie Hall. It seems as out of place today as a double-knit leisure suit.

Rob Weir

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