For Screenwriters: How Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot Was Written

Tony Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz) was a big film star in Hollywood during the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. He made great films like Sweet Smell of Success, got an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones and, at the end of his career, in 1968, he showed how fantastic a dramatic actor he was in a personal favourite of mine, The Boston Strangler.

Tony Curtis
Tony Curtis, actor, star, sex-symbol and co-author of the book

But one of the main reasons why he will be always remembered is his work in one of the best all-time comedies, Some Like It Hot.

With Mark A. Viera, Curtis wrote a book about the making of that wonderful comedy, named The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie. I strongly recommend it.

Tony Curtis Memories on Some Like it Hot
Tony Curtis’s book of memories on the making of what could be the best comedy ever made: Some Like It Hot

In this post, we will use this book to have a look at one of the big reasons why the film was such a success: its writing. Curtis witnessed every aspect of the production so he will give us a few clues about the work of two masters of screenwriting: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

Film lovers know very well Wilder, a master writer and director, not only in comedies (The Apartment, One, Two, Three) but film noir (Double Indemnity) and drama (Sunset Boulevard). Diamond, who partnered with Wilder in many films, is not as well known. His real name was Itec Domnic, known by his friends as Izzy. He had been born in Moldavia -Wilder was from Austria-. His American first name, I.A.L., stands for “Interscholastic Algebra League”, as he had won math awards as a kid.

Wilder/Diamond, the writing couple

Curtis wonders how they managed to write together:

How do you do it, especially with another guy? First of all, they divided the labor, in part because they were different. Billy was kinetic. He liked to move around. He didn’t like sitting. He was always pacing back and forth, throwing ideas around the room, some of which Izzy would catch, some of which floated into the ether. Izzy was content to sit at the typewriter, like he was driving a car. He’d take everything down, all the crazy thoughts. He liked typing. Billy didn’t. He didn’t like being stuck behind the typewriter. It made him uncomfortable, and it was boring. 

They would work on the overall structure first, then make sure all the funny ideas fit. That’s probably how they knew that the musicians needed only one disguise. That was funny enough. But who knows what they really thought, what ideas were flying around that office? I heard that they acted out scenes to make sure they played. Billy would play one character. Izzy would play the other.

In an interview, Wilder described a normal working day for him and I.A.L.

We meet at, say, 9:30 in the morning and open shop, like bank tellers, and we sit there in one room ex. We read Hollywood Reporter and Variety change the trades, and then we just stare at each other. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes it goes on until 12:30, and then I’ll ask him, “How about a drink?’’ And he nods, and then we have a drink and go to lunch. Or sometimes we come full of ideas. This is not the muse coming through the windows and kissing our brows. It’s very hard work, and having done both, I tell you that directing is a pleasure and writing is a drag. Directing can become difficult, but it is a pleasure because you have something to work with. You can put the camera here or there; you can interpret things this way or that way; the readings can be such or such. But writing is just an empty page. You start with nothing, absolutely nothing, and I think writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It is totally impossible to make a great picture out of a lousy script. It is impossible, though, for a mediocre director to screw up a great script altogether.

Always an uncompleted script

Curtis found out that Diamond and Wilder always started filming with an incomplete script.

As they were making the picture, they saw it go in directions they hadn’t expected, and they wanted to be able to follow that lead. I know this happened on our picture. 

This is how co-star Jack Lemmon found out about Wilder’s unfinished script technique.

…a messenger brought a package to Jack’s home in Bel Air. It contained sixty pages of script. Jack lay down on his couch to read it. “They were the greatest sixty pages I ever read,” he told me. “I laughed so hard that I fell off the couch! Literally!” He jumped in his car and drove to Goldwyn. He burst into Billy’s office, holding the script. “Billy! Where’s the rest of this?” “You won’t get it until we’re shooting,” Billy told him. And that’s when Jack learned that Billy started shooting with an unfinished script. 

Billy and Izzy completed their first draft (except for the ending, of course) on May 2, so Walter Mirisch submitted the budget to United Artists. 

The risks of farce

Wilder had been working

“on pictures for thirty years now,” Billy began. “There’s nothing tougher or more challenging than a farce. It’s like juggling eleven meringue pies at once. Let one drop and you’re dead. This whole picture is a farce, in the manner of the Twenties.”

Writing while filming

During the shooting period, the writing continued in the evenings.

Though Billy was on the set every day from seven-thirty in the morning to seven-thirty at night, and Izzy was there, too, from this point on they were writing in the evening. There was a reason: the newness of what we were doing. It was uncharted territory. An entire picture with guys in drag. The writing had to flexible, adaptable. The project would be evolving as we filmed it.

Not allowed to change one single word

To convince Wilder to change one word or add one was a huge task.

I suggested to Billy that it would be more in character for Joe to make Junior say “Cheerio!” That would be his concept of a rich guy. I was surprised that Billy let me change the line. He treated his scripts like the Bible. No one was allowed to change even a single line of dialogue. I remember the scene in Poliakoff’s office, the agency where Jack and I are scrounging for work. Jack got excited, and after finishing a speech with the line “Now you’re talkin’ ” he repeated the line. Billy froze. “That’s not how the speech reads,” he said. Jack pleaded. It felt right to him to say the line twice. Billy walked over to Izzy, who was sitting a short distance away. They started talking in low tones. This went on for close to half an hour. He finally came back to us. “Okay, you can repeat it,” he said solemnly. 

Billy wasn’t picking on Jack. Billy didn’t let himself change dialogue. He and Izzy sweated over every line, every cadence, every nuance. Izzy would add one word at the beginning of a sentence, such as and, just to make the sentence sound better, to balance it. 

This craftsmanship is what makes their pictures great. 

Filming almost finished, no ending yet

On Monday, November 3, Some Like It Hot went into its fourteenth week of shooting. Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond had not completed the script. They were still grappling with it.

The ending of the film had yet to be written. This was standard procedure for Billy and Izzy. They always wrote their scripts as shooting progressed. The actors informed the characters, and the characters informed the plot. Billy didn’t usually cut it so close.

But the fact was that Wilder and Diamond

had no ending for Some Like It Hot. They knew where they wanted it to finish, but they weren’t sure how they were going to get there.

They’d gotten our heroes (or were they heroines?) safely away from the gangsters and into that motor launch: Joe is in the back seat with Sugar, and Jerry is in the front seat with Osgood. It was a given that Sugar would accept Joe, even though he was a no-good saxophone player. But how the hell was Osgood going to react when he found out Daphne is really Jerry?

Some Like It Hot Stills

Someone was perfect

Then, on November 3,

Billy was playing the very last scene with Izzy. “And Jerry takes off his wig and says, ‘But you don’t understand. I’m a man!’ ” “Well . . . nobody’s perfect,” Izzy said, almost devoid of emotion. “What’s that?” asked Billy. “A throwaway?” “I don’t know. Why don’t we use it?” Billy wasn’t sure. But he couldn’t think of anything better. Still, there might be something. “It’s getting late,” said Izzy. “If we play with this much longer, we won’t be able to get it typed and mimeographed tonight.” The production office closed at nine. “Well . . . all right,” Billy said. “Let’s put it in. But just for the time being.

In the morning Izzy showed the new scene to his wife, Barbara, who had written novels under the name Barbara Bentley. She read the typescript. She thought the last line was weak. Where was the payoff for the outrageous revelation? She didn’t like it. “That’s what Billy thinks too”, said Izzy. “You’re both wrong”. “No.” “Yes,” said Izzy. “Audiences think they’re smart enough to see a punch line coming. They love to anticipate a joke. In this case, everybody—even the dumbest member of the audience—knows that Jerry has to take off his wig and admit he’s a man. They’re holding onto their seats because Osgood’s going to explode. So. What if there’s no explosion? What if there’s an understated reaction? Look. We’ve set up the laugh. It’s in the structure of the scene. That work’s done. The actual line doesn’t matter, as long as it’s flat. In fact, the flatter, the better.

Billy thought about the last line all week.

On Friday morning he shot it.

Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon were in the front seat. Billy had Joe E. say, “Nobody’s perfect.” “Cut.”

Some Like It Hot Stills

Billy Wilder admitted to the following, in one interview:

We never found the line, so we went with “Nobody’s perfect.” The audience just exploded at the preview in Westwood.

Curtis concludes:

And now no more wigs. No more falsies. No more fucking high heels.

We’d worked seventy-three days, from August 4 through November 11, 1958.

This must be some kind of a record: our post about Some Like It Hot is almost finished and Marilyn Monroe has been mentioned only once, in passing. The truth is that she doesn’t come out well in the book. No complaints about her acting, it’s super, but plenty as a human being and a professional.

Let’s summarise Monroe with something that Wilder said years after in a TV interview:

My God, I think there have been more books on Marilyn Monroe than on World War II and there’s a great similarity.

More about screenwriting: Either type “Screenwriting” in the web searcher or check For Screenwriters: How Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut Was Written, On Screen Writing, According to Edward Dmytryk, Best Scriptwriting Books Ever: The Art of Dramatic Writing amongst many other posts!

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