Billy Wilder never liked to talk much about Kiss Me, Stupid. The crass 1964 box office bomb marked the beginning of the end for the dyspeptic writer-director in Hollywood, both critically and commercially, after two decades during which the astringent Austrian’s cynical sensibility found favor with audiences in an unbeatable run of sophisticated entertainments like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, and Some Like It Hot. Based on an Anna Bonacci play that had already inspired a Gina Lollobrigida vehicle in Italy two years earlier, Kiss Me, Stupid (now streaming on Amazon Prime) was the logical endpoint of themes Wilder and his regular co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond had been working through since their 1960 triumph The Apartment and its significantly less accomplished spiritual sequel, 1963’s Irma La Douce. (Confoundingly, the latter film was one of their most massive hits.)
Wilder and Diamond’s big subject, once again, was matters of business getting mixed up in the bedroom, with men behaving badly and unable to see women as anything besides prostitutes or possessions. Except this time their misanthropy was garishly cranked up to eleven, in stark, widescreen black-and-white with the ugly behavior shoved straight in your face, untempered by the inherent sweetness of stars like Jack Lemmon or Shirley MacLaine. Kiss Me, Stupid is Wilder’s most bracingly unlikeable film since his muckraking 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole, which died a similar death at the box office. It’s also a curiously powerful picture, pushing up against the era’s mores and sexual politics in productively uncomfortable ways. You get the sense that the director is not always in control of his material, and that’s why the movie leaves a mark.
Kiss Me, Stupid is best remembered for a fearless turn from Dean Martin, viciously sending up his own persona as a debauched nightclub singer and sex-addicted sociopath. He’s playing a pal of Sinatra’s named “Dino,” decades before HBO programs like The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm made it cool to play a narcissistic asshole version of yourself. The opening sequence mimics Martin’s act at the actual Las Vegas Sands casino, with the louche crooner telling winking rape jokes (“Last night this girl was banging on my door for 45 minutes. But I wouldn’t let her out!”) while Wilder cuts to hideously unflattering reaction shots of male waiters cackling like hyenas. In the previous year’s The Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis created the character of Buddy Love to lash out at his former showbiz partner, but Dino does it better.
The picture’s convoluted, unpleasant premise finds the singer suffering car trouble and stranded in the hick town of Climax, Nevada. Dino happens upon two struggling songwriters – persnickety piano teacher Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) and his cheerfully amoral, gas station attendant partner Barney (an odious Cliff Osmond) who somehow manage to make beautiful music together. (Their unsold songs are by George and Ira Gershwin.) The two conspire to keep the crooner in Climax overnight –long enough to hear and fall for a few of their tunes– by using Orville’s wife as bait for the priapic performer. Except he’s far too jealous a husband to let this happen to his actual spouse (the fetching Felicia Farr) so the songwriters hire Polly the Pistol, a pro from a rundown roadhouse at the edge of town called The Belly Button, to pose as his wife for the night. Polly’s played by Kim Novak with a blowsy sadness that shoves the movie’s mean-spirited single-entendres into sharp relief.
It was a snakebit production from the beginning, with the director’s first choice for the lead, Jack Lemmon unavailable due to prior commitments. The role of Polly the Pistol had been intended for Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and The Seven-Year Itch star Marilyn Monroe, whose death in 1962 caused shooting to be rescheduled. Jayne Mansfield was going to play Polly for a while before she got pregnant and Novak eventually assumed the role. Then, six weeks into production, star Peter Sellers – who had replaced Lemmon as the piano teacher – suffered a series of 13 heart attacks (!) and was sent home to England to recuperate. Ray Walston, a fine comic performer and nobody’s idea of a leading man, stepped in as the star and leaves a big, leaky hole in the bottom of the movie. Putting it bluntly, there are things audiences will allow a Jack Lemmon or Peter Sellers to get away with that are unacceptable from anybody who isn’t a movie star. And Ray Walston is an excellent character actor.
Yet this disconnect also adds to the film’s weirdly suspenseful second half, which after an hour of brutally crude jokes that don’t always land well, takes on an oddly wistful, melancholy tone. Polly the Pistol discovers that she quite likes playing house, and the piano teacher’s wife learns a thing or two about herself while spending an evening on her own. The drunken, piano-pounding antics call to mind John Cassavetes’ Faces four years ahead of schedule, and let’s just say that Stanley Kubrick must have had this movie heavy on his mind while making Eyes Wide Shut. The morally transgressive finale of Kiss Me, Stupid goes a lot further than you’d expect from a Hollywood comedy of its era. Heck, it goes a lot further than you’d expect from a Hollywood comedy today.
To say the picture didn’t go over well would be an understatement. Condemned by the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency –even after Wilder reshot one of the final scenes to appease them—the film was called out by critics for contributing to the moral degeneracy of blah-blah-blah, with Time magazine evocatively describing it as “a jape that seems to have scraped its blue-black humor off the floor of a honky-tonk nightclub.” One of the film’s few fans was Joan Didion, who insightfully suggested that the public’s rejection of the picture stemmed from seeing the loose morals of popular swinging sex comedies transplanted from decadent international locales to the supposedly saintly streets of smalltown America. This makes even more sense when you remember that the naughty antics of Wilder’s hit red-light district comedy Irma La Douce were safely set in faraway France. Kiss Me, Stupid is too close to home.
“Kiss Me, Stupid” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.