Skewering celebrity vanity, the allure of success and the obsession with fame, Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) takes a long, hard look at these subjects and is simultaneously fascinated and appalled, amused and aghast at what it sees. The film starts by literally deconstructing an icon of the era, with the name and image of Dean Martin – here playing Dino, a comically exaggerated version of his ‘Rat Pack’ ladies’ man persona – being dismantled and removed from a huge sign on the closing night of his Las Vegas show. Dino is introduced on stage, drink in hand, cracking jokes while singing “‘S Wonderful”. He then swiftly exits after the show, abandons a number of ‘dames’ and starts driving to Los Angeles, but an unintended detour leads him to the small, remote town of Climax.
The focus then shifts to pompous piano teacher Orville Spooner (Ray Walston), introduced at his home with his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) while giving piano lessons to young Johnnie (Tommy Nolan). Orville wears a sweater emblazoned with Beethoven’s face, an amusing gag revisited later when Orville opens a closet to a reveal another sweater featuring an image of Bach, and what looks like more ‘composers on sweaters’ stacked behind. Orville is pathetically and insanely – and comically – suspicious of Zelda, assuming she is being unfaithful with other men, including the innocent Johnnie, with the ticking metronome during Johnnie’s lesson increasing Orville’s paranoia. The film makes it clear that Zelda is not doing anything untoward, and that it is Orville who is misguided and insecure.
The one man that does not threaten Orville’s fragile ego is Barney (Cliff Osmond), a gas station worker and would-be songwriter. When an unsuspecting Dino pulls into the gas station, Barney spots an opportunity for himself and Orville to achieve fame by getting Dino interested in one of their songs. Dino ends up stuck in Climax due to car trouble, engineered by Barney, and is offered a room at Orville’s place. To sweeten the song deal and ‘persuade’ Dino to stay, Barney hatches a plan to have Orville make his wife available to Dino; not Zelda, though, but a substitute recruited from one of the cocktail waitresses at the sleazy ‘Belly Button’ diner. The stand-in wife ends up being Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), and the ensuing farce features crossed purposes and mistaken identities.
Writing on Wilder’s comedies, J.H. Fenwick notes: “He works, in the first place, with farce plots which take for granted weakness, coarseness, passion and vice.” 1. With Kiss Me, Stupid, director and writer Billy Wilder, and cowriter I.A.L. Diamond, concoct a crass and cynical comedy along these lines. There are plenty of sharp, smart one-liners that mock the situation, like the one from Orville to Polly as he shuts the blinds in his house to cover up his illicit scheme: “You realise if it weren’t for Venetian blinds, it would be curtains for all of us?”, a gag highlighted in Fenwick’s contemporary review.
Walston comes off as manic and perhaps too abrasive as Orville, but it fits the skittish nature of his character, and he does show the ultimate decency of Orville, a man that loves his wife dearly, cares about Polly’s predicament and despairs over the scheme suggested by Barney. Novak plays Polly like a funnier, tougher, less tragic version of her Vertigo (1958) salesgirl role, with both characters caught up in a devious scheme involving controlling men. Meanwhile, Martin floats through the film as if in a daze, playing a version of himself as an inveterate womaniser and gamely opening himself up to mockery. It is a testament to the performers, along with Wilder and Diamond, that this sleazy sounding scenario does not come across as unpalatable on screen as it sounds in writing. Wilder does not cynically – or simply – hate or denigrate the characters. While he laughs at their absurdities and aspirations, and mocks their obsessions and pretentions, he also likes these messed up people, despite their disreputable behaviour.
Examining Kiss Me, Stupid in the context of Wilder’s career, George Morris feels the film marks a crucial turning point. Noting Wilder’s earlier collaboration with writer Charles Brackett, Morris writes: “During the years he was flourishing commercially and artistically, Wilder was often criticized [sic] for the cynicism, the absence of redeeming human values in his work. There is a measure of truth in this. As brilliant as they are, Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951) seem a bit too callously resigned. The venality inherent in people who must claw to survive in a corrupt world has no sympathetic alternative.” 2. Morris then contrasts this era with later films like Kiss Me, Stupid, identifying a change in tone, putting it down to Wilder working with Diamond: “Love in the Afternoon  was the first film Wilder co-scripted with I.A.L. Diamond. Except for One Two Three (1961), that unmodulated exercise in staccato punchlines, the films written with Diamond operate from a moral base that both accommodates and offsets the vituperative strain running through the Charles Brackett years. The two men complement each other beautifully; Diamond’s ready wit leaves Wilder free to tap his emotional resources more fully.” 3
Fenwick also detects the “moral base” in Kiss Me, Stupid: “The characters are ludicrous and ignoble, but as a corollary, they are at times touching – Wilder seems to feel rather sorry for women in particular…”4 Wilder mainly aims his mockery at the male characters and reserves a lot of his sympathy for the women. While it is true that Polly and Zelda are manipulated by the men, neither woman is a helpless victim. Polly understands Orville and Dino, sensing a good heart in the former and sizing up the latter as a shallow flirt, while Zelda is perfectly aware of – and amused by – Orville’s insecurities, with her final words in the film reminiscent of Shirley MacLaine’s famous closing line from The Apartment, 1960). Meanwhile, the blinkered Orville and Barney have one track minds, being ignorant, at least initially, of the absurdity of their behaviour and the consequences of their actions.
These people in Kiss Me, Stupid may be ‘stupid’, but they are endearingly so, and it is a testament to the skills of Wilder and Diamond that the film succeeds in eliciting sympathy for these characters. As Morris observes: “Kiss Me, Stupid is admittedly an audacious film. On one level it is one of Wilder’s most excoriating portraits of human greed and lust. And yet, beneath all the surface duplicity, there is a strong undercurrent of feeling and compassion for its misguided souls and their hapless efforts to grab a squalid slice of the American dream.” 5 6
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Kiss Me, Stupid (1964 US 126 mins)
Prod Co: The Mirisch Corporation Scr: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond (Based on a play by Anna Bonacci) Prod: Billy Wilder Dir: Billy Wilder Phot: Joseph LaShelle Ed: Daniel Mandell Prod Des: Alexander Trauner Mus: André Previn
Cast: Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, Cliff Osmond
- J.H. Fenwick, “Kiss Me, Stupid,” Sight and Sound Volume 34, No. 2 (Spring 1965): p.95. ↩
- George Morris, “The Private Films of Billy Wilder,” Film Comment Volume 15, Number 1 (January-February 1979): p.34. ↩
- Morris: p.34. ↩
- Fenwick: p.95. ↩
- Morris: p.35. ↩
- For further details on Billy Wilder, see Richard Armstrong, “Great Directors: Billy Wilder,” Senses of Cinema 20 (May 2002), http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/wilder/ ; Anna Dzenis, “Billy Wilder: The Chiaroscuro Artist,” Senses of Cinema 20 (May 2002), http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/wilder-2/ ↩