‘Kiss Me, Stupid’
How good was Billy Wilder? So good that this film, Kiss Me, Stupid—largely entertaining, frequently witty, beautifully shot, and with at least two noteworthy performances—probably wouldn’t figure in most lists of his top 10 movies. Yet it is a good Billy Wilder film, if not a great one.
Starting in Las Vegas, we are introduced to Dino, a womanizer, a drunk, an accomplished singer, and a clever jokester. Dean Martin, in a bit of curiously inspired and rather daring casting, plays the rapscallion; not surprisingly, he does so very well. On his way to Los Angeles, he stops in Climax, Nevada (with all the sexual innuendo built into this film, the town’s name almost seems the least obvious). There he encounters Orville (Ray Walston), a nebbish piano teacher and amateur songwriter who is irrationally jealous of his wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), whom he assumes everyone, from the milkman to the dentist, is trying to flirt with. Orville’s musical collaborator is Barney (Cliff Osmond), a gas station attendant. With the arrival of Dino seen as their big break, Orville and Barney arrange to have him stuck in their one-horse town just long enough to convince him of their own musical talents. But when Dino’s philandering ways put him at odds with Orville’s marital paranoia, especially when it’s revealed that Zelda harbors a crush on the singer and was even the president of his fan club, Orville schemes to get her out of the house while keeping Dino in. As part of this process, he and Barney enlist the help of waitress-cum-prostitute Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to pretend to be Orville’s wife, thus providing the requisite female companionship for Dino without actually subjecting Zelda to Dino’s amorous advances. None of this, of course, goes quite as planned, and as this summary probably indicates, the events that transpire are somewhat ridiculous and erratic. By and large though, it’s great fun to watch.
Martin is the main attraction here, as is obvious by his self-conscious characterization alone, but while his trademark cool and his casual quips may be some of the best parts of Kiss Me, Stupid, the continual scenes of his relentlessly aggressive one-track-mind are some of the worst. I love Dean Martin—his songs and his movies—but I surely hope this degree of sleazily obsessive sexual avariciousness is at least mostly a creative liberty. Nevertheless, he and Novak are the acting highlights. Novak plays Polly as a tragically heartbreaking character, with a low self-esteem but an endearingly charming resilience. She assumes the life she lives is as good as it gets, only because she doesn’t know any better, and though she has to deal with Dino incessantly pawing at her throughout the evening, she takes a liking to the feigned domesticity she embodies in Zelda’s absence. Farr is generally appealing—pretty, playful, and the object of considerable sympathy as Orville cruelly abuses her in order to drive her out of the house—and Osmond, a Wilder regular, essentially just serves his co-conspirator/sidekick role only to the degree absolutely necessary.
Written with his brilliant collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder’s script for Kiss Me, Stupid functions on three levels, two of them successfully. What works is primarily the dialogue. As evidenced in their past four consecutive films together—Irma la Douce (1963), One, Two, Three (1961), The Apartment (1960), and Some Like It Hot (1959)—Diamond and Wilder had a way with words. One-liners, snappy banter, and double entendres were par for the course, and here they’re top notch. This then leads to the second positive element of the film’s script: the audaciousness. By 1964 standards, this is a rather suggestive liberal-minded film (little surprise it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency). Novak the clear sex symbol of the picture dresses at times in very little, and even Farr, playing the dutifully modest housewife, albeit the most beautiful one in Climax, appears in her bra. The sexuality of the film—repressed or on full display—never really ceases, and by the end, morals are tried and tested and some surprisingly waver. There may be lessons learned by the conclusion, but there’s no real remorse or censure. Just as One, Two, Three took on the contemporary politics of the time, Kiss Me, Stupid is a bold exploration of the changing sexual mores of the 1960s.
Where the film’s screenplay falters, however, is in its basic premise. At slightly over two hours, the novelty of Martin knowingly having some fun with his recklessly informal persona grows a little tired. The on-again, off-again theme career advancement for Orville and Barney is a shaky one; for a fair amount of time, that motivating factor goes by the wayside altogether, with the focus instead on the sexual comedy of manners. When Polly questions how Orville could let Dino go after his (fake) wife like he does, right in front of him, we’re kind of wondering the same thing. And doesn’t Dino, even as much of a horndog as he is, find it unusual that this woman’s husband would just sit idly by through all of his advances? Finally, while it seems odd that the role of Zelda rather than Polly was apparently written for Marilyn Monroe, in many of Novak’s scenes with Walston, the two seem to be clearly playing on the Monroe-Tom Ewell relationship from Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). It’s occasionally funny, but it’s a little too familiar.
Music and the movies play a large part in Kiss Me, Stupid’s appeal. André Previn, who had by this point amassed five Academy Award nominations and three wins for his musical work (including on Irma la Douce), provided the film’s score. The original songs were by none other than the Ira and the late George Gershwin. Movie references come from several prior films, most notably a nod to the famous grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy (1931). Then there are the constant references to Martin’s Rat Pack cronies. Kiss Me, Stupid ultimately exists in a strange sort of metafilmic world where real life is merging with on-screen personas and preceding cinematic models.
Kiss Me, Stupid is an enjoyable movie, a crude farce with several laughs and worthwhile performances. If it doesn’t live up to some of Billy Wilder’s finer films, it’s his own fault. Few directors have set their own bar so incredibly high.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT