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Based on the Italian stage comedy L'Oro della Fantasia (trans: The Hour Of
Fantasy), Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid appeared after a long run of successes
by the director, which culminated with a hat trick on The Apartment for which
he won Oscars for producer, director and co-screenwriter, respectively. In the years
that followed, however, Wilder's reputation took a battering; he helmed several films
then less favourably received: The Fortune Cookie (1966), another personal favourite
of mine The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Avanti! (1972) - and
these after, in 1964, what is perhaps his single most outrageous production, Kiss
Me, Stupid. Widely considered at the time as a 'mistake' by a respected talent,
this last title was promptly condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and banned
in several cities. Even its original distributor United Artists washed its hands of
the film, giving it a limited release through an art-film subsidiary.
Many of these later films have found critical rehabilitation. Kiss Me, Stupid has found too an increasing number of defenders, a new generation of viewers discovering its unique tone with delight during late night TV revivals. In an age when the double entendre can be king, Wilder's film, stuffed full of visual and verbal sexual innuendo, and with its ironic irreverence towards traditional values and mores, has acquired a relevance that it never had before. Times have moved on a little since the stuffed shirt brigade were shocked by what was seen then as the leering immorality of Wilder's film, its supposed vulgarity, with its jaundiced view of fidelity. These days the cynicism so characteristic of the director and here drawn out the nth degree appears entertainingly modern, while Dean Martin's central, self-parodic portrayal of satyriasis ("It's a habit with me. If I skip one night a week I get such a headache") can be seen as one of his most memorable performances - probably because it runs closer to home in contemporary eyes than some of his other, more safely packaged appearances do now.
Originally Peter Sellers was cast as Orville Spooner, the eternally jealous and ever-optimistic singer-songwriter, 62 duds in, from the feverishly named Climax, Nevada, pop. 2147. It was one of the great what-if casting choices and went as far as shooting some evidently well played scenes before, for various reasons, the star pulled out. The decision left the plum role to Ray Walston, thereby allowing that actor his finest hour on screen. Blessed by marriage to a delectable wife, Spooner and friend Barney (Wilder regular Cliff Osmond) realise their once-in-a-lifetime chance has come when famous singer 'Dino' stops off in their nowhere town to have his car fixed. Stalling the great man while they ply him with their hilarious, melodious misfires ("I'm a poached egg/ without a piece of toast/ I'm a Yorkshire pudding/ without a beef to roast...") the two eventually hatch a plan whereby, on a pretext of jealousy, Spooner's wife is replaced by local hostess Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), as an ally to seduce the entertainer into accepting their material. Meanwhile Spooner's wife, incidentally a huge fan of Dino, but oblivious to his presence and the plot in hand, ends up drowning her sorrows and left to sleep it off in Polly's trailer. Later that night, unexpectedly rebuffed by Polly and her feelings for the errant tunesmith, the rampant singer just as unexpectedly finds himself alone with the wife...
With hindsight, Wilder's film is an ideal vehicle for postmodernists. Not only does it start with a clue that it is packed full of signifying elements (a gigantic, erect crane arm is the first thing the camera sights after the LAS VEGAS SIGN CO wording), but the films also works hard to deconstruct celebrities, family life and the value of marriage. "By way of Warm Springs, Paradise Valley" Climax is a place of conventional morality, where Spooner just happens to be married to the prettiest girl in town: Zelda (Felicia Farr, incidentally another Wilder regular, Jack Lemmon's wife). As designed by Alexander Trauner, who also worked on such atmospheric films as Jour de Lève, and Othello (1952) it's a small town where the only real excitement is playing the piano or watching colour TV in shop windows, unless one heads out to The Belly Button where apparently, at least as Spooner is assured by a visiting citizen's committee, "love is for sale."
Wilder opposes the sexual opportunism and the commercial value placed upon relationships, as epitomised by Dino's predatory libido and Polly's trailer with its conspicuous 'bang bang!' TV, with the ostensible stability and moral compacts of home life. But whereas the Spooner household is full of laughably intense jealousies on the part of the husband, Dino's life is one of easy come, easy go sex. The rub is, of course, that in Kiss Me, Stupid the two worlds interact and mix: commercialism enters the home, while the exploited eventually make a nest for themselves on the proceeds. One of the ironies is that Spooner and Milsap's song writing team provide the soundtrack for Martin's debaucheries, just as his song albums have given Zelda her own romantic fantasies (she was once president of Dino's fan club) and the married woman melts promptly into his arms as soon as he serenades her. While there is some sorting out at the end, with some token disapproval by the wife, it is clear that the message of the film is not warning about the corruption brought by show business types, or even the disgraceful willingness of some ordinary folk to be swayed by the glamour. The greatness and maturity of Wilder's film is that it shows how both sides can make acceptable accommodation and get along, and without ever compromising self-respect. Of course the idea that the ideal thing is to live one's "live-long day and the long, long night" just as needed, and then to forgive the inevitable, was something hard to find acceptance in early 1960s' America - let alone the thought that relationships could be put on hold to improve them.
In the light of this one can see how fortuitous it is that Peter Sellers did not eventually get to play Orville Spooner. While the comedian would have had a field day with Spooner's psychopathic jealousy, as well his various quirks, his real life celebrity would have obscured the film's focus. Walston is enough of an unknown on screen to suggest the moral confusion of a non-entity desperate for success, for an audience, contrasting against the heavyweight allure of Martin. As 'Dino', a few years out from his other best film (Rio Bravo), the singer is so much at home in his role that one has to pinch oneself to be reminded that he was actually playing a part. As Polly the Pistol, "fastest draw in the west," Kim Novak was an inspired choice. Showing the depth that Hitchcock saw in the actress when he cast her in Vertigo a few years before, her performance convincingly portrays the necessary mixture of wistfulness, self-possession and deprecation that the tart with a heart role here requires.
Lensed in well composed widescreen black and white, and with an excellent cheap edition available, albeit without extras worth the name (the region one edition allegedly contains a couple of deleted scenes), Kiss Me, Stupid is a film made by artists at the peak of their form, without a dull scene throughout, and I recommended it unreservedly.