Dino (Dean Martin), the charming and lecherous Las Vegas singer, stops for gas on his way to Hollywood in Climax, Nevada. The oily gas station attendant is Barney Millsap, a would-be lyricist who writes pop songs with Orville Spooner (Ray Walton), the local piano teacher. By disabling Dino's car, Barney contrives a scheme to have Dino sing one of their songs on an upcoming TV special. To entertain Dino, Barney contacts the village tart, Polly (Kim Novak), employing her to pretend to be Orville's wife, Zelda, for a night. She doesn't like Dino, but does love being Orville's surrogate wife. Dino goes to a bar, where he meets the real Zelda, and they spend the night together while Polly spends it with Orville.
A few weeks ago I was reading John Gregory Dunne's The Studio, a book that covers a year behind the scenes at Twentieth Century Fox. It's 1967, and two executives discuss the worries they've got about their new ribald comedy. They admit, "We're just worried about the specter of Kiss Me, Stupid." That's three years after Kiss Me Stupid had been released, and Billy Wilder's movie had, miraculously, made movie studios wary of smut. If you've seen the movie at all, it's not that surprising.
It's a sexual farce at its most base, as a pair of couples swap partners for a night, and find their relationship strengthened. They also get rich and famous out of the deal, going to show what a crock that must be.
Dean Martin plays a sexed up version of himself, or at least a version of himself that he was selling to audiences in the early 60's. The black and white photography here is a liability as well, as it gives off a vibe of oil and filth rather than desolation and order that Wilder was aiming for. Kim Novak's the only one who really avails herself from most of the proceedings, doing a deeper voiced Marilyn Monroe with a cold and a unhealthy need for genuine affection. Ray Walston and Martin are such an unappealing pair of foils that it's hard to watch, and Walston's Spooner is a painful cartoon in many ways that's hard to watch.
It doesn't help that the sexual politics are those icky 60's version, where swinging is sacrosanct with moralistic purity and beautiful women are considered interchangeable. The women in this picture, Zelda and Polly, get the worst of it, with Polly asserting at one point that, "A woman without a man is like a trailer without a car!" Thank God feminism happened, as it puts this movie and any random Elvis outing on about the same ground.
Wilder tries to liven up Spooner's one note jealousy by showing that it can be transferred. Spooner isn't so much concerned with the love of his wife, it turns out, but possessing her. He's a tiny little man who wants control and order and that's why the ending doesn't work for me: he doesn't learn from it.
That's the worst part of all, I think, is that no one really learns anything from the mess. Everyone gets what they want, and no one is smarter in the first frame than they were in the last.
That being said, uh, the score isn't bad. Ryan, I leave it to you: am I being cruel? Or is this, as Cameron Crowe asserts, actually an underestimated gem?
Cameron Crowe was in the presence of his idol at the time and the man is too nice, Kiss Me Stupid is not a gem of any kind. The movie is just ugly and unappealing in every way. I will say something else before we get into the meat of the movie, I believe that only a great director can make a movie THIS bad. Of course bad directors can make movies that are uninspired, stupid, boring and makes you mad (look at the whole Underworld and Resident Evil franchises for proof) but to make something this unpleasant takes skill. Look at 1941, Speed Racer and Dick Tracy, which are all movies that make you scratch your head at the decisions made. These movies you remember because of how bad they are. Kiss Me Stupid DEFINITELY falls into this category for me. When you think of a bad Wilder film, this is the one that instantly comes to mind even though Emperor Waltz is horribly dull, yet Emperor Waltz did not offend me the way Kiss Me Stupid did. I don't think Wilder set out to make an all time classic misfire but when he went bad he went big. What do you think Danny, can only the truly talented directors make movies this bad?
Well, Ryan, as egregious as this is to admit, I may still have found Emperor Waltz more horrific, if simply because the climax of Kiss Me Stupid doesn't rely on our villains murdering puppies.
That being said, with great directors, you have a level of expectations in going into any of their films. This is unfair since no director is consistently great, and no director is the same person they were when they made their last film. Things change, and here you really feel like Wilder is struggling with all of the freedom he's been given and a script that tries to be hip and it falls flat on its face. Add in Rat Pack icon Dean Martin playing essentially himself, and the whole movie feels like it was hacked off a bad episode of "Mad Men".
I think a movie like Kiss Me Stupid would have been bad coming from any other director, and, hell, I could imagine it being worse. But it's both bad and a disappointment coming from Wilder, which is a double dose of pain. I also don't think it helped things that the movie was a Christmas release, or that Ray Walston just can't bring anything to his one note character.
But, Ryan, you've said a slew of things about how bad the movie is, but I want to know-- what do you think is so bad about it?
What do you think is so bad about it? That question you asked actually made me pause for a second and think about it. Sure Ray Walston is awful in the role and overacts to the 10th degree but he is still not as bad as Tom Ewell in Seven Year Itch, the movie isn't funny but still not as dull as Emperor Waltz and Dean Martin sleepwalks through his role but he does that in every movie. To answer the question I went back and watched the last 20 or so minutes again and realized everything you originally said in the beginning is what I hate about the movie. Orville is a horrible man and not a good main character, while Ace in the Hole can get away with an asshole as a lead, a romantic comedy with a man a half step away from an abusive husband AND doesn't learn anything does not go down well. I don't know who is worse in the movie, a guy trying to whore out his fake wife to get rich or his buddy Barney who gives him the idea and is always there to push him on.
How can a writer/director that gave us such strong female characters in Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, A Foreign Affair, The Apartment and more make this film? The women are only there to be screwed or possessed and there is not one characteristic or action the two women do in the film that is not related to helping out men. In the end, Orville sleeps with a woman pretending to be his wife because he is starting to posses her like his real wife while his wife sleeps with Dino to get Orville's songs published and this is a HAPPY ending? When the credits roll you realize that Orville sold his wife out for a record contract and never feels bad about it or has a second thought. Hell, he and his buddy are rich so everything must be ok. What kind of ending is that? I don't need a fairy tale ending to a film but good god this one makes me feel dirty. Am I being a prude? Do I not understand the 60s and free love? I don't know but the one thing I do know is I would never show this movie to my daughters when they are older because I don't want to explain why one of my favorite directors made a movie that took women's lib back 30 years.
Well, Ryan, if anything, I think it may have bumped women's lib up a bit. Any woman who sits through this has to think, "you know, I think we can do better."
If Kiss Me Stupid did any bumping, it was pushing Wilder's prestige down a few notches. Making an unfunny comedy would hurt anyone's careers, and Wilder had certainly had his fair share of bad pictures at this point. But to make a film that was unfunny, poorly regarded, and a flop... the writing was on the wall. Wilder had a half dozen pictures left in him, and while some would be alright, this is the goalpost that things were coming to an end.
But the crazy thing is that this is less than four years after making The Apartment. Can you imagine?