Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Kiss Me, Stupid.

criterion logoWhen singer, celebrity, and notorious womanizer Dino (Dean Martin) passes through Climax, Nevada, he doesn’t count on meeting two would-be songwriters with a plan to strand him there and serenade him with their songs.  But then again, they weren’t counting on Dino’s obsessive pursuit of wine and women!  And when one of the men, Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) learns that his own wife (Felicia Farr) was once president of Dino’s fan club, he hires Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) as his replacement wife to help lure the carousing celebrity into a song-buying mood.  Beset by a troubled production and condemned on release by the Catholic League of Decency, Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid was a staggering box-office flop, proving to be too frank, too lurid, and too coarse for audiences and authorities alike.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar Ken Feil
  • Wilder’s Anti-Climax, a new documentary on the making of Kiss Me, Stupid, its release and reception
  • Behind the scenes footage from Hollywood Backstage
  • Video afterword with director Mick Garris
  • Wife for a Night, Mario Camerini’s 1952 feature starring Gina Lollobrigida and based on the same stage play as Kiss Me, Stupid
  • Alternate scene originally present in the theatrical version
  • Stills gallery
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: New essays by film scholar Michael Koresky and reporter and columnist John Leland

With only 1¼ films in the Criterion Collection (2¼ if you include the laserdisc library), it’s unlikely that Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) would be the first choice of many film fans to add to the director’s spine numbered profile.  Wilder’s filmography is perhaps equaled only by Alfred Hitchcock’s for its volume of near-universally recognized cinema classics.  Box-office smashes like The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Irma la Douce (1963) and trumpeted masterpieces like Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960), to name only a few, could easily describe the output of 3 or 4 successful directors, but the side-effect of this prolific success is that it places arguably more minor works in the shadows and discourages their reconsideration.  Challenged in its production, pilloried by critics, and abandoned by audiences unaccustomed to its transgressions, Kiss Me, Stupid is truly Billy Wilder’s film maudit.  While most look to unpack where Wilder went wrong, a better question to ask might be how he made so many successful comedies about equally uneasy subject matter – pimping and prostitution, transvestism and voyeurism, philandering and suicide.  Is it surprising that Kiss Me, Stupid failed or that these other films all succeeded?

Ken Feil provides as brief and effective a summary of Kiss Me, Stupid as I’ve seen.

[A] flurry of phallic sight gags and sexual double entendres adorn the tale of a small-town song writer (Ray Walston) who hires a prostitute (Kim Novak) to impersonate his wife (Felicia Farr) and sleep with Dino (Dean Martin), a randy music and film star, in hopes of selling the celebrity a song.  The composer fornicates with the prostitute, though, and the wife (mistaken for the prostitute) has sex with Dino; the couple eventually reunites, no questions asked.

Wilder was reportedly reluctant to speak about Kiss Me, Stupid following its quick demise and sound rejection, however his comment to Ed Sikov about his bafflement toward the film’s reception is instructive – “I don’t know why the film shocked people.  It’s the most bourgeois film there is.  A man wants a career and the person who wants to help him wants to sleep with his wife.  He replaces his wife with another, but when he is nearest to success, he refuses it and throws the guy out … The public accepted it better in The Apartment because it was better conceived, better written, better lubricated.”  I’ve always felt that Wilder was encouraged to disavow the film given his prior successes and the controversy Kiss Me, Stupid spawned, and I’m yet to be convinced that the director’s subsequent attitude truly reflected his belief in the end product.  We’ll come back to the notion of Kiss Me, Stupid being “the most bourgeois film there is,” and focus now on that word “lubricated,” a perfect choice of expression given the coarse and mercenary approach to sexuality and middle-class values central to the film.  Kiss Me, Stupid bears a definite kinship to The Apartment, but Wilder substantially deviates from his previous films by making his protagonist an active participant in the movie’s sexual chicanery.  While The Apartment‘s C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) was at worst an enabler and a profiteer to his bosses’ infidelities, Kiss Me, Stupid‘s Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) goes far beyond simply providing a roof to tryst under.  Spooner happily serves up another to satisfy Dino’s sexual appetite and, hopefully, line his own pockets with fame and riches.  And when Spooner finally experiences his own drunken crisis of conscience, he confirms his fidelity to his wife by sleeping with the prostitute who masquerades as her.  It’s his actual wife, having unraveled Spooner’s little plot, who sleeps with Dino and sells the song.  While all done with the best of intentions, sexual norms and moral conventions quickly become slippery in Kiss Me, Stupid and critics and audiences proved to be disinclined to slide down that slope with its characters.

Kiss Me SellersFor most, the problem starts with its principal, Ray Walston, or rather the lack of Peter Sellers.  Sellers was to star in Kiss Me, Stupid and Wilder’s next film about Sherlock Holmes, but had second thoughts on the production when word came that actors playing Orville’s wife and the Vegas celebrity had both changed.  Nevertheless, Sellers reported for duty and by all accounts wowed Wilder and his co-stars with his performance, but the British actor was falling apart.  Sellers struggled with the “Cooks Tour of hangers-on and sightseers” that filled Wilder’s set and his mounting nervous exhaustion revealed itself in “a massive sty” on his right eye.  In fact, Sellers’ life was far closer to Spooner’s than anyone expected.  His mounting paranoia over his new and much younger wife Britt Ekland and his preoccupation with his own virility had him routinely consuming amyl nitrate.  Sellers had finished the day’s shooting on Friday, April 3, and borrowed a few hundred dollars from Wilder to take the family to Disneyland, then no-showed the following Monday.  Sellers had begged off the movie to visit the Magic Kingdom that day, then popped some pills for some vigorous love with Ekland and suffered at least 8 heart attacks over 2 days, each time saved from death by the staff at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.  Back in England, obituaries and memorials were being written for Peter Sellers.  Sellers returned to London to convalesce and a week and half later took a shot at Wilder’s set in an interview with the Evening Standard, saying that Hollywood studios “give you every creature comfort except the satisfaction of being able to get the best work out of yourself.”  It was enough to cause Wilder, Kim Novak, Dean Martin, and Felicia Farr to send him a wire calling him an unprofessional rat fink.  Sellers promptly pulled out of Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes picture and took out a full-page ad in Variety to defend himself, thank hospital staff and fans, and declare that the Hollywood “atmosphere is wrong for me.”

Sellers’ footage on Kiss Me, Stupid was apparently discarded, so there’s no way to know what that film might have been or how his performance translated onscreen.  What is clear is that, regardless of the quality of Sellers’ work during those 6 weeks of filming, Sellers was on a downward spiral and Wilder’s set only aggravated those issues.  It’s a shame that Ray Walston’s Orville J. Spooner stands in the shadow of a performance by Sellers that never came to be and likely could never have come to pass under the circumstances.  Worse yet, Walston is also crushed under the imagined performances of Jack Lemmon, who the part was originally written for but was unavailable due to scheduling conflicts, and the various actors who were also considered to replace Sellers – Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Bob Ewell.  How is any actor to compete with that?  Walston is none of those men and, admittedly, struggles in the film’s early scenes to find a resonating tone for Spooner’s jealous aggression, but, as the film wears on, Walston finds his own manic energy.  As Walston plays Spooner playing the naïvely happy-go-lucky husband setting his fraudulent wife up for seduction by Dino, Walston settles into a giddy, drunken, carefree attitude that has the distinct air of Looney Tunes about it.  It’s a highly entertaining, yet slightly off-putting, performance in its delirium, and is one that hides its depth, as it’s by Spooner’s accidental abandonment of his jealousy that he can appreciate his married life and, in turn, embrace his fidelity, even if it’s with someone only standing-in for his wife.  By the film’s midpoint, Walston has made the character his own and, while neither adorable or sympathetic, his version of Orville J. Spooner is arresting, gliding along like a giggling, effervescent car crash in slow-motion.

While Walston usually bears the brunt of Kiss Me, Stupid‘s casting problems, he’s certainly not the only victim.  Ed Sikov suggests in Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers that Sellers originally understood that Frank Sinatra had been cast in the Dino role.  This observation is rarely noted elsewhere, perhaps representative of Dean Martin’s well-regarded self-parody.  Martin is triumphantly unselfconscious as the drunken, lascivious star of stage and screen who prowls around the Spooner home licking his chops like the big, bad wolf.  Dino has about him a raggedness that is endearing in its way, a kind of good-natured exhaustion that comes from living like a march hare.  His jokes may be corny, but they’re still funny, and Martin shines portraying the other side of an artist who makes his living appealing to middle-American tourists and boob-tubers.  Kim Novak’s prostitute, Polly the Pistol, was originally written for Marilyn Monroe until her untimely death, then shifted over to Jayne Mansfield until her pregnancy made her unavailable.  Novak, who had a reputation for being difficult on set, proved to be a trooper, toughing out an injury from an on-set fall that ought to have put her in traction and even baking cookies overnight for the crew.  Novak’s Polly, played with a chest cold and an overly husky voice, conveys an admirable sincerity, being at home with her profession and her place in the world, but empathetic in her modest dreams of love and security.  Posing as Orville’s wife brings these domestic aspirations to the fore, and Polly’s deep, uncoquettish voice and her even deeper moral sense makes her contempt for Dino’s shallow, ring-a-ding-ding attitude a thing of beauty.  Sikov also suggests that Shirley MacLaine was originally intended for the role of Orville’s wife Zelda, although most accounts suggest that Felicia Farr had the role with the intention of playing opposite her new husband, Jack Lemmon.  Farr does shine as Zelda, and most critics have little unkindness for Farr’s portrayal as the devoted and adoring wife blind to her husband’s mania.  Cliff Osmond makes his contribution as Spooner’s song-writing partner and co-conspiring garage mechanic, Barney.  Kiss Me, Stupid plays against an intricate web of imaginary versions with seemingly innumerable combinations of alternate casts, obscuring the work contained within the actual film, but these performances are successful and appropriate to Wilder’s vision.  Unfortunately, 1964 America had little interest in what Wilder and his team put on display.

Kiss Me, Stupid was crucified by critics and the Catholic Legion of Decency was there to hammer hardest.  Wilder’s film was the first in nearly 10 years to earn the Legion’s “Condemned” rating.  Critics called the film “long on vulgarity,” “tasteless and insulting,” “repellent,” “squalid,” “filthy,” and “a prolonged, dirty and unfunny joke” that was “heavy with crude innuendo.”  Kiss Me, Stupid had a few good weeks in major cities before dying and arrived D.O.A. in the rest of the country.  Wilder had already established a career of finding humour in American sexual mores and in exploring the underside of American culture, but The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment concerned New Yorkers and Chicagoans and big city life and attitudes.  Small town America was not immune to Wilder’s critical gaze, but no audience was asked to laugh at Ace in the Hole (1951).  Kiss Me, Stupid premised itself on the idea that small town folk were just as ambitious, hypocritical, mercenary, and horny as their metropolitan cousins, then put a lid on it, turned up the heat, and watched it rattle.  We might expect that kind of behaviour out on the coasts, but not just down the street from the general store, and the bluntness of Wilder’s farce left most of America cold.

Ken Feil maintains that Kiss Me, Stupid is a forgotten catalyst for the New Hollywood that would arise shortly thereafter.  Wilder blends classical Hollywood style and narrative with “vulgar” sexual content typical to the popular international art films circulating outside of the Production Code.  Notably, United Artists scuttled the film over to its Lopert Pictures subsidiary which it used to distribute foreign films with questionable content too problematic for UA to associate with directly.  In the latter half of the 1960s, sex comedies like The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and others would openly embrace moral ambiguity and uninhibited sexuality, and audiences and critics, just a few short years removed from Kiss Me, Stupid, would find their palettes now accustomed to these new tastes.  What is perhaps so potentially off-putting about Kiss Me, Stupid is how directly and explicitly the film’s wallows in its panting desires while its narrative approach and visual construction fails to anticipate the radical formal changes about to firmly take root in American cinema.  (Wilder reportedly hated the far out, psychedelic style of the sex comedies that followed.)  J. Hoberman suggests that “[t]he constant tumult in the Spooners’ cramped bungalow betrays the movie’s stage origins, and indeed, Climax itself is an appropriately desolate stage-set,” referencing the film’s adaptation from Anna Bonacci’s play, The Dazzling Hour, and its Italian film adaptation, Wife for a Night (Mario Camerini, 1952), however the artificiality of Kiss Me, Stupid‘s environments bear a more specific connection to the bourgeois spaces of television.  Ilpo Hirvonen observes that the Spooners and Kiss Me, Stupid‘s other wacky characters are the “common folks” of America who have been “betrayed and enslaved by sexuality and passion,” “fooled by the delusions of Hollywood,” and “above all they are controlled by television.”  The film ends with a hot night Climax where its citizens gather outside the local hardware shop to watch a display of televisions broadcast Dino’s latest TV appearance, little better than Polly’s TV-watching and quoting parrot.  Wilder’s film is a blunt assault on the American institutions television reinforced in an effort to gather families around the set each night – religion, marriage, celebrity culture, consumer comfort.  His return to black and white from the Technicolor prestige of Irma la Douce, the entry of Ray Walston to the project while firmly established as the star of the CBS comedy series My Favorite Martian, and, as Michael Koresky describes, “the aggressively stale set-design of Alexandre Trauner” certainly makes clear connections to the small screen (American television did not make the committed transition to colour until 1965) and in turn the conservative, traditionalist values that came to entrench the medium.  Yet what is perhaps Kiss Me, Stupid‘s greatest irony is that for as confrontational as it is in its explicit treatment of adultery, lechery, and the like, it remains a film that is as positive about marriage and fidelity as it is consistent to classical Hollywood storytelling.  It remains heteronormative in its conclusion and valorizes Orville and Barney’s pursuit of fame and wealth.  It even ensures that its infidelities are mutually redemptive, strengthening the Spooners’ marriage and freeing Polly from Climax and her tawdry occupation.  And so, perhaps Wilder is right and Kiss Me, Stupid is ultimately as bourgeois as he asserts.

JimFloraKiss Me, Stupid‘s descent into dishonesty, adultery, drunkeness, and fornication are all done in the name of selling a couple tacky little ditties.  Wilder had approached his friend Ira Gershwin to compose the tracks and instead received 3 songs – “Sophia,” “I’m a Poached Egg,” and “All the Livelong Day” – with lyrics written by Ira from unpublished music composed by his late brother, George Gershwin.  And speaking of musical pedigrees, we can think of no better cover treatment for a Criterion Collection edition of Kiss Me, Stupid than one in the style of the late, great Jim Flora.  Flora’s album and commercial art from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s presents the same distinctive pop sensibility as Wilder’s transgressive comedies, particularly Kiss Me, Stupid‘s playfully erotic and brazenly lowbrow foolishness.  Fun and frivolous, fearsome and fearless, Flora’s individual style would be a perfect complement to Wilder’s misunderstood film.  Kiss Me, Stupid desperately needs space outside of the shadow of Wilder’s already embraced classics and an opportunity to recover from its own history and the judgments of the wet blankets and tight-asses that killed the film on its release, and Criterion has the capacity to provide that forum to advocate and appreciate.  We adore Kiss Me, Stupid for its once raunchy, now PG-rated immorality; its cardboard consumerism; and its happily-ever-after idealism.  Maybe a Criterion edition of the film might convert a few more cinephiles too.

w6Credits:  First, we must thank the organizers of the Billy Wilder Blogathon for letting us participate and giving us a reason to move Kiss Me, Stupid up on our slate of titles to write about.  Please take a moment to check out some of the other contributions to the Blogathon.

Turning our attention back to this post and our imagined addition to the Criterion Collection, Ken Feil was chosen to provide a commentary based on his admiration for Kiss Me, Stupid, his work on the romantic comedy and the sex farce, and his invaluable essay “Sex, Comedy and Controversy: Kiss Me StupidWhat’s New Pussycat?, New Hollywood, and Metropolitan Taste.”  Wilder’s Anti-Climax is an invention for this post, but with so much surrounding Kiss Me, Stupid regarding its casting, production, distribution, and reception, a commissioned documentary on the film seemed necessary to cover all the bases.  We’re fans of Trailers from Hell and Mick Garris’s discussion of the film, so we provided an opportunity for him to discuss Wilder’s problem child.  In his book, Hip: The History, John Leland cites Kiss Me, Stupid as his #2 pick for the coolest films not starring Dennis Hopper and so we chose him to elaborate on his appreciation of the film in a booklet essay.  We also included an essay from Criterion Collection staff writer Michael Koresky after having read his excellent piece at the Sundance Now blog.  We should also acknowledge the contributions  granted to this post by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s blog article, J. Hoberman’s article for The Village Voice “Zero for Conduct,”  Glenn Erickson’s review at DVD Savant, and Ilpo Hirvonen’s discussion at Essence of Film.

12 thoughts on “Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964)

  1. girlsdofilm June 22, 2014 / 5:18 pm

    Whilst I prefer The Apartment, Kiss Me Stupid is not without its merits. It’s hard to imagine just how serious those charges of debauchery were, and how influential and ‘condem’ rating could be – now it looks positively tame!

    • spinenumbered June 22, 2014 / 6:16 pm

      I must admit that the darkness at the core of Wilder’s comedies, something I find almost Kubrickian, has left me rather cold, particularly in the case of The Apartment, but there’s something about the reckless abandon of Kiss Me, Stupid (and Dean Martin’s hilariously lame jokes) that wins me over. And you’re certainly right – Kiss Me, Stupid definitely reveals how much tastes have changed over the years. Cheers!

  2. Aurora June 22, 2014 / 6:03 pm

    Fantastically thorough commentary and a wonderful addition to the Wilder blogathon! I learned a hell of a lot with this so THANKS on many levels.

    And now I must revisit Kiss Me, Stupid because it’s been years


  3. Grant Skene June 22, 2014 / 6:33 pm

    I appreciate this article which has informed me about a lot of the behind-the-scenes history in the making of this picture. Personally, I lasted only about 20 minutes before turning this film off for one simple reason: Ray Walston was a 50 year old who looked at least that old, playing a man who was supposed to be perhaps 30 and acting like a giddy teenager. I could not suspend my disbelief enough to see past this, and nothing else in that first 20 minutes inspired me to do so. I suspect this was largely the reason behind its failure at the time, and deservedly so. I didn’t realize Peter Sellars was originally involved, but have no doubt he would have been far more believable.

    • spinenumbered June 23, 2014 / 2:47 am

      Your reaction to Walston’s performance is definitely fair, although I do think it gets more enjoyable as the film progresses. Kiss Me, Stupid isn’t just comedy, it’s farce, and that’s a tough tone to nail. Walston definitely is conveying a kind of negative charm.

  4. 2packs4sure June 23, 2014 / 10:16 pm

    DANG ! I have always held out hope that the Sellers footage would show up someday.
    One can only imagine what kind of movie it would have been if Sellers had finished it.
    D A N G !!

  5. 2packs4sure June 23, 2014 / 10:20 pm

    P.S. i don’t want to beat up on Ray Walston but i just never did get it. Why was Walston considered a comedic actor?
    He, at least to me, didn’t have a funny bone in his body. Competent actor. But not funny.

  6. Le July 7, 2014 / 4:48 pm

    What a brilliant, brilliant post! I couldn’t have done it better.
    I watched this film on TV and loved it. I believe the best role goes to Kim Novak (I’m happy Marilyn couldn’t do it, I’m not really a fan of hers), yet I kept imagining how Lemmon or Sellers would be as Orville. I think Ray Walston gave a new tone to the movie, like the ugly, jealous husband with a gorgeous wife – how did he conquer this trophy?
    And, for the Catholics condemning the film, they did the same with Some Like It Hot, a comedy we know stood the test of time.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

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