Tuesday, April 16, 2013


"It's a habit with me, like breathin'... If I skip one night a week I wake up the next morning with such a headache." -Dino (Dean Martin), on his daily need for sex

Anything to avoid a headache
If you're at all familiar with classic Hollywood movies, you probably know the work of Billy Wilder. He was the director and co-writer of some all-time gems, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, and The Apartment. Less well known is his 1964 sex comedy, Kiss Me, Stupid, a raunchy poke at showbiz sleaze whose subject--small-town songwriters do whatever it takes to convince a visiting superstar to buy one of their songs--would be right at home on today's reality TV.

But at the time, the movie proved far more risque than audiences (or critics) were equipped to handle. Even today there's something distinctly dirty about it. Aside from the illicit spark that comes with seeing undisguised innuendo in an old Hollywood movie, Kiss Me, Stupid is marked by a cynical leering quality that covers it like a crusty coat of pollen. With every lewd zinger and suggestive image, you can't help wondering, "How did they get away with this?"

Unfortunately, they didn't. The film was a commercial and critical flop, delivering a mortal blow to Wilder's 25-year run of success. Why was Kiss Me, Stupid such a scandalous affront to decency and the wallets of movie patrons? After all, it had two of the era's biggest stars, Dean Martin and Kim Novak, and was co-written and directed by an Oscar-winner whose comedy, Irma la Douce, was a monster hit only a year before. On top of that it boasted a handful of unreleased songs by George and Ira Gershwin, one of the all-time great songwriting teams. What could possibly go wrong?

Yes. Yes it did.
Releasing a comedy about adultery on Christmas Day didn't help. Neither did the film's setting--"Climax," Nevada--or its seedy characters, which along with Dean Martin's leering lothario, Dino, included a hooker named Polly the Pistol (Novak) and a parrot whose only words are "Bang, bang!" The film was condemned not just by critics, but by the Catholic church's Legion of Decency, which gave the film a dreaded 'C' rating. It called Kiss Me, Stupid "morally repulsive" and "a thoroughly sordid piece of realism" that contained "crude and suggestive dialogue, a leering treatment of marital and extramarital sex [and] a prurient preoccupation with lechery." In other words, an average episode of Married, With Children.

Hollywood movies had begun to show a growing acceptance of adult themes, but Wilder had miscalculated the country's tolerance for full-on smut. And in updating an Italian farce to a modern setting, he failed to realize that American audiences and critics might miss its very...Continental...point of view. Worst of all, he didn't expect the film's ultimately moral center to be so completely overshadowed by its baldly opportunistic characters and unapologetically cynical surface.

The 1960s were especially tough on Hollywood's older directors, humbling no less than Howard Hawks, John Ford, and even Alfred Hitchcock, none of whom seemed able to adapt to the decade's new audiences and less studio-bound production methods. Yet Kiss Me, Stupid was far from being the case of an old man fallen behind the times: rather, Wilder pushed the envelope too far, and by the time everyone else caught up, he had been left behind.

Happily the film is finally getting some recognition. It is, after all, a Billy Wilder joint, and it's pretty damn funny. Dean Martin has a ball sending up his Rat Pack image. Ray Walston will make you forget he was ever a sitcom Martian. Kim Novak is surprisingly game as the good-hearted hooker. And Felicia Farr (who was Jack Lemmon's wife) is adorable as the Dino-lusting housewife.

What audiences couldn't see at the time, but what's pretty clear now, is that despite Kiss Me, Stupid's unvarnished take on humanity and the desperate depths to which its characters stoop, all of it's there for a reason: Knowledge is gained. Redemption is found. And Dino can put off his headache for another day.

NOTE: Kiss Me, Stupid expired on 5/1/13. If you're considering purchasing the disc version, please support this site by using one of the below links. Thanks.

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