Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 15 September 2016 07:46
(A review of
No one could ever incorrectly accuse Billy Wilder of being cynical, but given the jaundiced nature of his outlook and work, there’s still something bracing about Kiss Me, Stupid’s acerbic quality. Not only does Wilder put female exploitation and fragile masculinity through the wringer, but marriage and upward mobility. If you want to achieve your dreams, then you better be prepared to pay and pay and pay.
Kiss Me, Stupid is something of a stepchild in Wilder’s work, with many people ready to close the book on him post-The Apartment, there’s a flawed, but tremendously rewarding body of work that’s being forgotten about. I have a deep fondness for Kiss Me, Stupid, think One, Two, Three is overdue for critical reevaluation, and find Irma La Douce and The Fortune Cookie to be highly entertaining, if messy, pieces of work.
But why is Kiss Me, Stupid treated so poorly? It could be any of the following things, or a combination thereof: a troubled production, a muted release through a subsidiary after the distributor got clammy, condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and a sourness that’s shocking even by Wilder’s standards. Doesn’t mean Kiss Me, Stupid is without merits, or that it’s not entertaining, because it very much is, just that it’s commonly treaded as the thing that handicapped a career of one of the greatest writer/director/producers ever.
Looking back, the slow destruction of the studio system probably played a larger hand in the eventual awkward gait of Wilder’s career, not like he was alone, practically all of the great craftsmen and auteurs of the studio era had trouble adapting to the New Hollywood generation. Yet the troubled production would be a major blow to just about anyone.
Originally conceived with Marilyn Monroe in the sex pot role, her untimely death was but the first sea change. Jayne Mansfield was then considered for the role, but she had to bow out due to pregnancy. Wilder originally hired Peter Sellers as Orville, our neurotic, jealous husband with dreams of being a major songwriter. Six weeks into production and Sellers suffered a major heart attack, causing Wilder to scrap the entire production and start over. Any of the replacements (Tony Randall, Tom Ewell, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye) would have been stellar in the role, but we got Ray Walston in the role.
His work is complicated for me, and the major hindrance towards my praising Kiss Me, Stupid as a slept-on masterpiece awaiting rediscovery. In the later scenes with Kim Novak, Walston manages a warmth and tenderness that is most pleasing, and he creates a believable partnership with Cliff Osmond, but these praises can’t distract from the first act’s volley of loud overacting. Walston projects his fragile masculinity so severely it’s like he’s playing to cheap seats in an auditorium three blocks away.
Thankfully to act as a counter balance Wilder brings in two movie stars and allows them to deconstruct (even outright parody) their familiar personas. Dean Martin does a daring, even bravely unself-conscious, piece of self-parody in the role of Dino, a popular singer with a penchant for booze and girls. Once Dino winds up in Climax, Neveda he deadpans, “The only way to go.” Yes, it’s an easy joke, but Martin delivers it with drunken swagger, landing the joke with more bite. Even better is a sight gag involving his hand getting stuck in an empty Kleenex box that verges on the pornographic for all the smuttiness he plays it up for, and god bless him for it. Martin’s star persona dominates everything in the sleepy hamlet, hammering home the predatory nature of the male ego as Dino happily exchanges sex for performing Orville’s song on a Bob Hope special.
Martin’s performance is one of his greatest, but Kim Novak is even better. Novak’s casting as a sex bomb is no stretch, and in other films that rested upon her character’s carnality, she displayed a strong discomfort in the role. Not so here. Novak plays Polly the Pistol (what a name!) with a deep melancholy, and once again finds herself in a role that fractures. There’s Polly, the waitress/prostitute, and then there’s “Zelda,” where Polly pretends to be Orville’s wife and seduce Dino as an indirect route to sell their song(s) on the pop star. Novak commits completely to the role, deploying a deep, husky voice (her character has a cold), and is at her best in a scene where she expertly avoids the grabby, greedy hands of the bar patrons. Novak gets to be both an object of desire and a knowing but undefeated welder of her sexuality, the role has echoes of her sublime work in Picnic and Vertigo, and it remains one of Novak’s essential roles.
In the end, Kiss Me, Stupid shutters around its two female characters into the roles of wife and whore, then they switch, then back again. For all of the toxic masculinity on display, which Wilder plays as burlesque cruelty and condemns, these two are several steps ahead of the bumbling idiots around them. That final stinger, a strong point for Wilder’s films of the era, gives the distinct impression that fucking around on your spouse can be as effective as marriage therapy. Hell, it may even improve your finances. Kiss Me, Stupid is an abrasive, corrosive and possessing a vulgar integrity, it’s like The Apartment’s more grown-up, bitter cousin.