Kiss Me, Stupid

| January 31, 2012

After his success with Irma La Douce, Billy Wilder decided to move from the steamy streets of Paris to the outskirts of Las Vegas with Kiss Me, Stupid. Loosely adapted from the play The Dazzling Hour by Anna Bonacci, Wilder and writing partner I.A.L Diamond would serve up a romantic comedy filled with their favorite theme: Sex.
In Kiss Me, Stupid, famous nightclub singer ‘Dino’ (Dean Martin) becomes stranded in the small town of Climax, Nevada on his way to Los Angeles. While stuck for the evening, Dino is approached by Orville (Ray Walston) and Barney (Cliff Osmond), two amateur songwriters hoping to sell their songs to the singer. Orville invites Dino over to stay the night, but realizes the singer’s interest is not in his music, but his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr).
Fueled by jealousy, Orville devises a plan with Barney to get Zelda out of the house for the evening and replace her with Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), a prostitute from the Bellybutton saloon outside of town. If all goes correct, Dino will take Polly to bed and also buy Orville and Barney’s song. Unluckily for the men, including the star singer, the plan doesn’t work how they originally intended.
Much like The Apartment and Irma, Wilder and Diamond did their best to push the limits of censorship that ruled over the Hollywood studio system. And Kiss Me, Stupid definitely does, as evidenced by its receiving a “C” (for condemned) rating by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
“Acting” in the role of ‘Dino’, Martin communicates throughout the film with innuendos and sleazy attempts to pick up Polly. In one instance, the singer is drinking wine out one of the call girl’s shoes while her “husband” Orville plays the piano. Martin, who was no stranger to making fun of himself, takes it too “e-a-z-y” in Kiss Me, Stupid for any real laughter. It’s interesting, the film is centered around his presence in the small town, but he’s ultimately as exciting as the small town itself.
Despite its innuendo driven dialogue, Wilder relishes in putting his character’s in uncomfortable and unflattering situations, namely the women of the film. Though she doesn’t appear until the beginning of the second act, Novak’s role as Polly leads the film with tragic anecdotes about her heartbroken past. We see hear after Barney explains the odd job she’ll be doing for the evening:
“Oh, that’s ok, I’m used to odd jobs. Last year I was auctioned to a man at the Bellybutton-except I woke up the next morning to a bounced check and an empty bed.”
If the dialogue isn’t biting enough, the director refuses to cut the scene when necessity would seem appropriate. Without any sense of compassion for the poor woman, Barney’s silence makes Polly and the audience uncomfortable. While no one can doubt Johnathan Rosenbaum’s statement, “The women in Wilder’s film are invariably smarter than the men”**, but at what price? In Kiss Me, Stupid, both Zelda and Polly are imprisoned by the men they come in contact with. In the film’s finale, the women get the final laugh, but not without making sacrifices.
The role of Orville, the anxiety ridden composer, was originally intended for Jack Lemmon and later Peter Sellers. The former, who would have starred alongside his wife (Farr) could not commit due to scheduling conflicts while Sellers suffered a number of minor heart attacks during shooting. Sellers would eventually return to England and criticize Wilder’s lax approach to filmmaking. Wilder later responded with, “Heart attack? You have to have a heart first to have an attack.”
Lucky for us, Ray Walston, who worked on The Apartment and was then starring in My Favorite Martian, plays Orville with neurotic grace. His performance is stellar and unbelievably funny as he consistently talks himself into corners. The situations give Wilder and Diamond the chance to get away with the most ludicrous, but hilarious writing. In a desperate attempt to get Zelda out of the house and away from Dino, Walston delivers the most illogical lines with hilarious credibility:
“Your eyes are pink! Don’t believe me? Want to make something of it!?”
Kiss Me Stupid‘s soundtrack deserves an equal amount of praise. For Orville and Barney’s songs, Wilder worked with Ira Gershwin to revive a collection of George Gerswhin’s (his brother) unpublished songs. So, funnily enough, ‘I’m a Poached Egg” and “Sophie” are actually composed by Gershwin. Pieces of Beethoven also appear on the soundtrack rather than simply on Orville’s iconic sweater.
Despite its satirical nature, Kiss Me, Stupid is a romantic film; which is really what I love about it. In my opinion, most of the praise is for the performance by Kim Novak. Her character is easy to empathize with as well as rally behind. And of course, incredibly lovely. Wilder and Diamond, who were already acclaimed at this point, run comically amok in Kiss Me, Stupid. It’s bawdy nature is accompanied with a heart; a seeming attribute of the director’s filmmaking. Sadly the film bombed at the box office and Wilder rarely spoke about it afterwards:
“We feel like parents who have been given birth to a mongoloid child. Now we keep asking ourselves-do we screw again?”

Thankfully, they would two years later with The Fortune Cookie.
-It’s funny that Wilder seems to make a joke about the Kiss Me, Stupid by scrolling closing credits at the beginning of the film; ironically as Dino is finishing his final set at The Sands in Las Vegas. His next move is to Los Angeles to film with Sinatra, but Kiss Me, Stupid is what happened in between.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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