Kiss Me, Stupid

1964, Movie, PG-13, 126 mins

Review

KISS ME, STUPID
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A kind of cinematic litmus test that separates the casual Billy Wilder fan from the true connoisseur, KISS ME, STUPID is a monument of satirical tastelessness that was unjustly maligned by critics and condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1964, yet in retrospect, is now seen as one of Wilder's most fascinatingly original films.

Driving from Las Vegas to Hollywood, pop singer Dino (Dean Martin), a hard-drinking womanizer, stops in the small town of Climax, Nevada, for gas. His car is sabotaged by the local mechanic Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond), an unsuccessful amateur songwriter who has collaborated for years with piano-teacher Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston). Barney persuades Dino to stay at Orville's house for the night in the hope that he might buy some of their songs. Afraid that the lecherous Dino will try to seduce his beautiful wife Zelda (Felicia Farr), the insanely jealous Orville provokes a fight with her to get her to leave the house, and replaces her with Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), a "friendly" cocktail waitress at a nearby roadhouse called "The Belly Button."

That night, Orville pushes Dino and Polly together and Dino agrees to use one of Orville and Barney's songs, but Orville's jealousy eventually gets the better of him and he throws Dino out of the house for molesting his "wife." When Zelda returns home and sees the party going on, she goes to "The Belly Button" to get drunk and is taken to Polly's trailer out back to sleep it off. While Orville and Polly spend the night together, Dino goes to "The Belly Button" to look for a woman and is directed to Polly's trailer, where he finds the drunken Zelda. Recognizing who Dino is and what Orville's plan was, Zelda pretends to be Polly. Sometime later, a bewildered Orville sees Dino on TV singing one of his and Barney's songs. When he asks Zelda what's going on, she simply answers "Kiss me, stupid."

The initial savage response to KISS ME, STUPID may now seem quaint (the film was rated PG-13 when it was released to video in 1994), but in 1964, the reaction stunned Billy Wilder, who only wanted to make an amusing little sex farce. Labeled as "immoral" and "smutty," the response says much more about 1960s hypocrisy and double standards than it does about the film itself. The '60s were an era of "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" sex comedies where the prospect of adultery and promiscuity could be dangled in front of the audience like a carrot to titillate it, but no one ever actually bit. Wilder's crime was that he allowed his characters to not only eat the carrot but to enjoy it, and worst of all, emerge as better people for it, daring to suggest that a housewife and a hooker might enjoy swapping roles. While the film is filled with sexual innuendoes and double entendres ("You're in Climax;" Polly's parakeet continually saying "bang bang;" jokes about "eating out;" Zelda's nickname of lamb chops and the attendant running gag about paper panties, etc.), it's actually a very moral story about the sanctity of marriage.

Truly vulgar '60s sex farces (BEDTIME STORY, SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, BOEING BOEING, BOYS NIGHT OUT, MARRIAGE ON THE ROCKS, THE SWINGER, and scores of others) were considered harmless fluff, perhaps because their lasciviousness was a tease and covered up by a phony Technicolor gloss. Wilder, on the other hand, treats his subject honestly and shot KISS ME, STUPID in gloriously drab widescreen black-and-white (which he has described as "beautifully ugly"), which only emphasizes the seedy atmosphere. Its corrosive portrait of small-town squalor and despair probably hit too close to home and revealed the public's pathetic worship of celebrity culture. The Church called it "morally objectionable," but probably objected most to the hilarious scene in which a wimpy priest is ridiculed for trying to start a petition to shut down "The Belly Button."

Amid the furor, it's easy to miss the film's comedic accomplishments, which are considerable. Its idiomatic wordplay and social satire is vintage Wilder, and the opening sequence where Dino performs in a nightclub is one of the funniest things that Wilder has ever done. Sprinkling in bad jokes and Rat Pack references, Dean Martin's comic timing and delivery is impeccable ("If I don't get outta here tonight, you're gonna have to carry me out...in pieces...in a cigar box...baby"), as he parodies and deconstructs his image as a notorious lover and drunk. The rest of the cast is equally superb, right down to the smallest bit part (including Mel Blanc), although Ray Walston's relentless mugging becomes a bit much, and the film undoubtedly would have been even better had the originally cast Peter Sellers not suffered a heart attack after six weeks of shooting. (Sexual situations.) leave a comment --Michael Scheinfeld

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