Thursday, July 19, 2018
With a new onset of depression because of the world, because of people, because of everything falling apart, comes yet another run of watching Billy Wilder films that I’ve already seen countless times. It’s just what I need to do. And when that happens there’s no avoiding the point when I eventually wind up back at KISS ME, STUPID. At the very least, the Blu-ray put out by Olive Films is so sparkling that I can’t remember the film ever looking so good, as stunning as you can imagine the glory of early 60s Black & White Scope to ever be. It makes me want to love the film that much more in all its sleazy glory and by this point I may actually be getting closer to doing that. But it’s possible the film works more as a statement of themes, particularly Billy Wilder themes, than an actual presentation of them. KISS ME, STUPID is an admirable film, it’s a crazily brave film, but it’s open to question just how much of it actually qualifies as funny. It was a troubled shoot which had to be restarted when original star Peter Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks several weeks into filming which resulted in being replaced by Ray Walston in the lead role and when the film was released at the end of 1964 the negative response included a condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency which called it “a thoroughly sordid piece of realism which is esthetically as well as morally repulsive.” Sounds pretty good to me.
Throughout his career Wilder’s examinations of sex (or, more to the point, fucking) and duplicity (or, more to the point, fucking) had teetered on the edge of his acerbically cynical view of the world and this time he either fell in or simply, willingly, jumped. It’s that kind of movie, although we’ve long since passed the point when any random sitcom episode goes several steps further. And looking at it now, particularly on this Blu-ray, it’s still not top tier Wilder but you could say that about a lot of films; maybe part of the issue is that it’s a sex farce that never offers much comic momentum and at times has a sandpaper harshness that borders on the unpleasant. I keep hoping for it to become snappier, punchier, maybe even more endearing and it never quite happens but I’ve still developed a love, or at least a continued fascination, for it anyway. Wilder himself never warmed up to the film much in later years, even in Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations with Wilder” (“I have some questions about KISS ME, STUPID, if that’s okay.” “It’s not okay, but ask them.”), but it’s still an unblinking look at the relationship between fame and sycophancy, desire and pragmatism, lust and partnership. And, of course, fucking which the film pretty much states is the only way to ever get anything done in this world. Maybe one of these days the problems I’ve always had with it will disappear, if only a little. Even with KISS ME, STUPID, I have to hope.
After finishing a stint at the Sands in Las Vegas, superstar entertainer Dino (Dean Martin) heads for L.A. to tape a TV special but a problem on the road forces him to detour through the small desert town of Climax, Nevada where amateur songwriter Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) along with best pal Barney Milsap (Cliff Osmond) are always working on new songs in the hopes of striking the big time. The sight of Dino passing through gets Barney to hatch a plan to keep him around so he’ll be forced to hear their songs and want to buy them but when the immensely jealous Orville realizes his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) is already a huge fan of Dino whose proclivity means he has to have it every night he suddenly wants no part of this. So Barney comes up with another idea to get rid of her for just the one night and bring in Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), a waitress and sometimes more than that at the local roadhouse the Belly Button (“Drop In and Get Lost”), to impersonate Zelda, catch Dino’s eye and help close the deal.
It’s a film where Kim Novak plays a woman hired by a husband to take on the role of his wife for an unsuspecting mark which sounds familiar although maybe it only seems like every Kim Novak film recalls VERTIGO in some way, as multiple viewings of THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE have reminded me. It could even be argued that KISS ME, STUPID (screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on the play L’ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci) is the Billy Wilder equivalent of VERTIGO, a sort of ultimate expression of what women represent for men and how those men react to their duplicity in the end. With Hitchcock this leads to madness; in the case of Wilder, it’s mainly befuddlement. Either way, no one comes out of it looking very good and there’s never going to be any real answer. If this film doesn’t rank as high in the Wilder filmography as something like THE APARTMENT, well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise and maybe it’s a missing a sharpness to go along with the acknowledgement of the true pain that comes along with any obsession, the bitterness that is integral to any real love. Instead it keeps things a little too broad, a little too brazenly arch while taking way too much time getting from one point to the next. It might be a stretch to say his films are only ever interested in the deception that arises between men and women but the subject ranks pretty high up there, the disguises becoming inevitable, the deceit the only way to the truth in the lives they lead. The sprawling big city of THE APARTMENT (and VERTIGO, for that matter) here becomes the stark, wide open Nevada desert, no reason to stop there unless you have to, nothing to do there but watch the TVs in the window of the local hardware store and dream about the outside world. Maybe as settings go, Wilder never quite figured out why anyone would ever willingly stay there.
The character of Polly the Pistol doesn’t even appear until just past the forty-five minute mark so she isn’t quite as integral to this world view, almost as if unless she enters by happenstance through a side door she isn’t going to matter. It’s Dino who we meet first, a reminder of how he pretty much owns his world particularly in the spectacular opening which gives us the greatest look at our fantasy of Dean Martin’s Las Vegas act as we’ll ever get to see (if it isn’t quite the real thing, who cares). But the film settles in for way too long in the tiny desert home belonging to Walston and Farr’s married couple celebrating their anniversary, his immense jealousy over his wife at everyone quickly becoming repetitive so it’s a relief when Dino finally drives into town, still wearing his tux from the night before. The Dean Martin portrayal of “himself” is remarkable, presumably not the real guy so much as the most lascivious version that we imagine him to be, not a care in the world beyond the next bottle and the next girl, the sleaziest possible LARRY SANDERS SHOW version of himself thirty years early. That seeps into the whole film and he wastes no time sprinkling his cigarette ashes or groping every woman he comes into contact with and in this harshly monochromatic Panavision world the skeezy vibe his very presence gives off fits perfectly. This is America, a place where there’s always a western on TV (in what feels like a continuation of a joke from THE APARTMENT with the addition of Polly’s parrot Sam exclaiming “Bang! Bang!” to underline the point ) and the bleakness of the American Dream means that sex gets in the way, it always gets in the way, but Dino can do whatever he wants whether he wants to or not, especially since if he doesn't he wakes up with a splitting headache. Wilder still had to hold back on the language at this point but the meaning of whatever the dialogue is gets pushed as far as it can possibly go. “It’s not very big, but it’s clean,” Orville tells Polly the Pistol when she enters his home. “What is?” she asks suspiciously, every syllable given emphasis so there’s no mistaking the joke.
It’s a world where the glitz and the mundane always go together, you just have to figure out which one to focus on and that makes sense giving KISS ME, STUPID an edge over a few other Wilder titles which play too bland and shallow now, particularly something like THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH which doesn’t have much aside from CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe. This film came about nine years later and the take on marriage is one that doesn’t flinch, as overbearing as things sometimes get and much as it never fully escapes the stage roots of the material (an Italian play set in the 19th century, previously made into the 1952 Gina Lollabrigida film WIFE FOR A NIGHT) the scope compositions that Wilder pulls off in that tiny house are never less than spectacular, as if he loves nothing more than telling his story by lining up these insufferable people next to each other. There’s an undeniable formality to how each moment is structured which is consistently a reminder of Wilder’s brilliance, particularly in the way it lays out a definite beginning and end to the dinner sequence. The exteriors barely seem to matter in comparison, with shots of the town sometimes on location and other points clearly on a soundstage with backdrops representing a desert that go on into infinity. He’s much more interested in the layout of the Spooner living room which features a Victorian love seat for three, perfect for placing Dino next to Polly the Pistol as Orville sits behind them pretending not to notice, so by a certain point that loveseat with every ounce of tension surrounding it becomes as important as the bell tower was to Hitchcock, the perfect symbol of what’s keeping them apart and what is eventually going to bring them together.
But running a few minutes over two hours there’s a little too much dead air in the film as if the breakneck speed of Wilder’s ONE, TWO, THREE a few years earlier caused his subsequent films to all slow down, that metronome Orville dotes on during his piano lessons set at too slow a speed. Except for Dean Martin’s behavior and some moments from Kim Novak where you almost can’t believe that she’s making the most unexpected reaction seem so perfect, the film never achieves the manic feel it should have and for a film that got people so upset over the mere suggestion of sex, it still needs to loosen up. Even the comically bad songs written by the duo that they they’re trying to get Dino to hear, an early version of Beatty and Hoffman in ISHTAR and actually pieces by George & Ira Gershwin pulled from their files of unused material, feel like they could have used an extra satirical zing to make them really pop with the slight running gag of the line ‘I’m da Vinci without the Mona Lis’’ in one of the songs as big a laugh as they ever get. As the film moves deeper into the night and Dino begins to drink the wine flowing from that long phallic bottle of chianti out of Kim Novak’s shoe that twisted feeling begins to emerge and Novak really begins to finally take center stage as well, until this day she never imagined what it might be like to have a song written for her. It gives the film a soul in addition to its sleaze while her character’s ‘bad cold’ always making us aware of the bodily functions of it all. The scam in Wilder’s follow-up THE FORTUNE COOKIE was funnier in some ways while still being just as sparse and acerbic but since it removed sex from the equation maybe not as interesting; it’s as if when you remove the lust from desires in life, who really cares. THE APARTMENT’s C. C. Baxter was in over his head in all that office sleaze but there was a soul to him of trying to make his way through that muck. The characters in KISS ME, STUPID are much broader and desperate, which makes sense for a farce, but aside from Polly the Pistol there’s not as much to explore with them, Dino a force of nature who practically seems immortal, Orville set in his ways of jealousy, his wife Zelda so oblivious that her sweetness seems almost misguided.
This is all morality as Wilder sees it and in Glenn Erickson’s DVD Savant review of the old DVD he went into detail on how the ending had to be changed when the film was released so it could receive MPAA approval. The new Blu only contains Wilder’s preferred version, and Erickson also points out a few other alterations in his updated review, but I can’t help but think that while the intent of Wilder’s first version is correct for the film the reshoot gave him the chance to sharpen some of the dialogue around it, including an improved Beatles reference, and some of that actually helps but I guess it wouldn’t be a film to have complicated feelings over without an alternate version of something to quibble over. Ultimately, KISS ME, STUPID is a dirty joke about marriage and love and sex and the messiness that surrounds all of that, examining what devotion is really meant to be while being forever unsure about which side of a woman is the Madonna and which is the Whore. The way Wilder seems to have looked at it, the only possible answer was to throw up his hands in confusion. It’s up to Orville to find his own self-respect and the realization that he shouldn’t pimp out his wife even if she isn’t really his wife. The women themselves may have other things in mind but never mind about that. But the film makes it clear that you can’t impersonate yourself, that you are who are, even if you’re Dean Martin, the only character here who doesn’t have the luxury of becoming someone else since everyone already thinks they know him. The best thing for him to do is take advantage of that. The best thing for everyone else to do is figure out some sort of middle ground.
The funny thing is that for all of the sex in Wilder (or, at least, discussion of sex) there’s relatively little kissing as if the greatest displays of love in his films render such a gesture almost irrelevant. What’s important is the bitterness that leads up to those kisses, Wilder’s grace note late in the film of Orville walking alone through his empty house, building to the hope of the banter, to the final declaration to shut up and deal when we know that kiss is coming anyway. Maybe that’s why one character’s confusion during the final moments makes it just about the most charming bit in the entire film. The last line, which gracefully dispenses with pages of exposition, serves as the Billy Wilder version of what Nicole Kidman would say to Tom Cruise decades later at the end of Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT. The intent is the same. Just the rhythm is different. KISS ME, STUPID may not be perfect but it is pure. It says, this what the world is, this is what people are. Sure, they’re selfish, they look out only for themselves and they will take what you got from you. Maybe the best in life you can hope for is that somehow something good will come from that.
Kim Novak may not be the lead but she gives the movie and its comedy an extra edge when she finally turns up, never afraid of the trashiness and brining an undeniable blank to her character, particularly the resigned expression on face gazing upward resigned to her life and always the one to watch in the frame even when she isn’t speaking. It’s as if she’s fighting back at her own persona even as Wilder is intent on digging deeper into it and it turns her into the most soulful and fully realized character in the film, finding an intensity to this hooker with a cold, all too aware that she’s being used as meat, that, crazy as it sounds, almost feels as close to a Brando performance as we ever got in a Billy Wilder film. Up against her, and everyone else for that matter, Dean Martin is fearless, not worried one bit how he’s coming off since he knows everyone loves him anyway. He plays every scene always ready to hit the ball back at everyone, reveling in this version of himself. How this would have all been affected if Peter Sellers had played Orville is something we can only dream about and Jack Lemmon would have been maybe too obvious in the role but it’s also possible that as great as Ray Walston is in other films, whether THE APARTMENT or FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, maybe he works best as a supporting character. He brings the necessary pathos to the role but also an array of broad gestures and mugging which would seem more appropriate on the stage so anytime a scene cuts to someone else it’s almost as if we’re getting a breather. He’s still somewhat dialed down next to Cliff Osmond as Barney who really doesn’t hold back on playing to the back of the house while Felicia Farr, also Mrs. Jack Lemmon, comes off as a completely wholesome girl next door and the one person in the film who isn’t any sort of grotesque, finding a way to make her presence endearing and even a little unpredictable. Henry Gibson is seen briefly as a customer at the Belly Button and Mel Blanc appears as local dentist Dr. Sheldrake, presumably related to the various Sheldrakes from other Wilder films, keeping his current patient in hysterics with his bad jokes. He’s presumably also the voice of Polly’s parrot Sam, left alone to watch westerns all through the night shouting “Bang Bang!” at the set the whole time.
The films of Billy Wilder have meant different things to me as time has gone on. Once they were established classics I was introduced to, then they became models of the screenwriting and filmmaking form, pieces of craft to learn from. And now as I get older and more at sea in the world I connect with them more and more, reminding me of my dreams, of my failures, of what I have sometimes reached for, how I fucked it up and if it’s at all possible to be a better person when I try again. I still don’t have the answer which may be why I keep returning to them. Sometimes it feels like I’m that one lone waiter at the start of KISS ME, STUPID standing stone faced through Dino’s act while everyone around him is in hysterics, a reminder that sometimes this is a world where everyone else is getting the joke and it’s on you to figure it out. KISS ME STUPID is not perfect for a number of reasons, and this Blu is even so clear that for the first time ever I spotted a crew member clearly visible through a crack in the set at around the 38 minute mark. But even when it strains for certain laughs it’s honest, maybe in the way that only Billy Wilder knew how to be. I still love the film with passion and complications even though I feel like I sometimes need to ignore that crack in the set. Just as Polly the Pistol seems to be searching for hope through her eyes that have all but given up, the film knows where to find it. And so the depression continues, at least until the next song begins.