Amber Ruffin’s “Some Like It Hot” Bridges the Generation Gap
In 1959, a cheeky comedy did what few movies at the time were prepared to do: defy Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, a restrictive set of censorship guidelines designed to keep any allusions to homosexuality out of sight, and others taboo subjects, off the big screen.
The film, “Some Like It Hot,” follows two straight white cisgender men (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who elude a mob boss by dressing in drag and join an all-female traveling group. Despite disregarding the so-called Hays Code, the film was a box office hit and is still considered a classic to this day.
As progressive and groundbreaking as director Billy Wilder’s project is, it also highlights the limits of pop culture at the time. It has an all-white cast (including Marilyn Monroe in the female lead) and only flirts with the idea of a queer romance, without committing to it.
Comedian Amber Ruffin, 44, struggles with the film for reasons like these. “Nobody made this movie with me in mind,” she told HuffPost in a video call.
While she appreciates that many people feel nostalgic about it, with some possibly fondly remembering their first time watching the film, it’s not a sentiment she shares.
“It was definitely not in the Ruffin house rotation,” she said. “My parents weren’t like ‘You have to watch this movie’.”
But her childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska hasn’t entirely shaken off the age-old tradition of parents awarding movies to children, either. because a particular movie is important or classic, or just because mom and dad love it. “Dad would love to try to get you to watch ‘Ben-Hur’ and stuff like that,” Ruffin recalled with a soft sneer. “You will watch this for yourself.”
Ruffin, the youngest of five, was more interested in movies her older sisters watched, like 1976’s “Car Wash,” 1984’s “Beat Street” and 1985’s “The Last Dragon.”
“They were the staples of the house,” she said.
Still, “Some Like It Hot” impressed her enough to return to it later in life. And this decision will mark a turning point in his career, already catapulted by a myriad of achievements.
These included joining high-profile improv troupes like The Second City and Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, writing “two full-throttle musicals” and becoming the first black woman to write for a late-night talk show. evening on “Late Night With Seth Meyers”.
Ruffin also hosts his own eponymous talk show and wrote the 2021 New York Times bestseller “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism” with his sister Lacey Lamar.
“When I looked [‘Some Like It Hot’] again as an adult, I was like, ‘There’s work to be done,’” she said. “It’s tricky because the work that needs to be done has to do with why it’s everyone’s favourite. So the very thing that people are celebrating about this movie is what needs to go.
And when the offer came to join the new Broadway musical production “Some Like It Hot” as a writer, alongside Matthew López, it was an opportunity to craft an iteration of the 1959 tale that, by fact, had people like her in mind. .
“I saw it more as an opportunity to get grandparents and grandkids on the same page,” Ruffin noted. “That was the most exciting thing for me about it. What if you could take your grandpa to see something he likes, and you can like it too?”
These days, that seems like an almost impossible feat, as the generational divide often seems galactic. Younger audiences can be just as critical of past entertainment as older adults can be of contemporary entertainment. There is often disdain coming from both sides.
Sometimes it’s for a good reason, but other times it’s just exasperation. Even Ruffin said, “Our grandparents love a mess, man.”
But Broadway’s “Some Like It Hot” is a vibrant, rare exception that bridges the generation gap, as it retains just enough of the original story while incorporating concepts and ideals loved by young people.
In the musical, sultry Monroe singer Sugar Kane is played by Adrianna Hicks, a phenomenal black performer. Natasha Yvette Williams brings Sugar’s employer, Sweet Sue (created by white actor Joan Shawlee) to life. Meanwhile, non-binary black actor J. Harrison Ghee steps into the role of Lemmon from Jerry/Daphne, who now fully thrives as a queer musician.
It all manages to entertain, move and upset audiences without disrupting the essence of the 1959 story. And the show received 13 Tony Award nominations, including one for Ruffin and López for Best Book of a Comedy. musical.
To think, Ruffin wasn’t part of the show when it first started. Four or five years ago, she’d started work on an entirely different Broadway musical — an update to ‘The Wiz’ slated to arrive this fall — when the folks behind ‘Some Like It Hot’ came along. ‘to call.
She was familiar with the new production and had a strong belief in it at the time, largely because of the talent involved: director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, as well as López.
“I was like, ‘That’s a hit,'” Ruffin recalled. “I knew it, then I saw it. It was so much better than I thought. They were like, ‘We need help with this.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck you do – this thing is the best.'”
But in fact, “Some like it hot” did need her. The creatives were all men then, and none of them were black. “They looked around and most of the actors were black,” Ruffin recalled. “They were like, ‘Hmm…'”
“So to their credit, they were like, ‘Are we doing the right thing here? ‘” she continued. “I came on and I like to think that I helped give a more authentic voice to a lot of black women on the show. And also, I like to think that I helped make it a little dumber.
The bar was already high for Curtis and Lemmon’s comedic genius, as well as Monroe’s timing. But the musical is a perfect marriage of inclusivity and the same emotional beats of the film – just more queer and Blacker, with soulful, big band musical numbers throughout. It’s a delight.
That’s because it still has the inside of the movie, but with something more to enjoy. “It’s like this laser-cut retelling of history,” Ruffin said, recalling how Nicholaw and his other partners all contributed.. “It’s the singular thought of a man who adores him, but it’s really five of us who beat him.”
Ruffin acknowledged that Tony’s nods didn’t even click with her at first, since she continues to see herself as such a fan of the show.
“When we were nominated, I guess I kind of forgot that I was a part of it too,” she said. “I was like, ‘Sure, this show is going to get a fucking billion nominations. That’s shit. But then I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m on this.’ »
And above all, she can have fun – one of her main goals in life. It’s what helped her move from one type of job to another, often discovering things along the way, without much guidance or purpose. “I was looking for what was the most fun to do.” Ruffin said. ”I was not making a plan to become this and that. I had the most fun ever.
This meant moving to Los Angeles and learning to write musicals after realizing it was “the thing to do,” writing jokes for late-night television and for sitcoms like “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and finally entering the world of Broadway.
And Ruffin loved every minute of it. But as adaptive as it is, learning a new skill hasn’t always been pleasant. “You’ll never hear me complain, except for that tiny bit: Oh, my God, just stick to one thing I’m already good at,” she laughed. “I hate to learn.”
She certainly hides it well. “I’m a learner and a whiner,” she clarified.
Fair enough. But after spending most of her time writing these days, she barely has a moment to do anything else. She could be more than content to vegetate in front of her TV watching hours of the Eurovision Song Contest – “It’s funny because they’re all performers, but almost none of them are singers” – or reciting lines from the 2004 romantic comedy “Spanish.
Although she hasn’t seen the film for a long time, it was practically on repeat in her Amsterdam flat years ago since it was the only DVD available. “I watched it the whole time because it was my only option,” Ruffin said. “I developed a love for it. But after that, I loved it.”
“Spanglish” is filled with Latin stereotypes and directed by a white filmmaker (James L. Brooks). So, as enjoyable as the film is, it’s also quite problematic. Sound familiar?
“Yuck,” Ruffin said. “Our ‘Spanglish’ is ‘Some like it hot’ from our parents.” And with that, we have come full circle.
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