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Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me,Stupid" was one of the few flops in the great
writer/producer/director's canon. It was condemned by the Catholic League
and was not well received by the critics or public. And it's a shame because
this is one of Wilder's very best films; a cynical, often very funny comedy
about a very touchy subject: fidelity (which probably accounts for its PG-13
rating; an oblique tribute to its' power)
Ray Walston stars as Orville Spooner, a third rate songwriter from a small town who has yet to chart a big hit. The role was originally cast with Peter Sellers, but after suffering seven heart attacks in a row, Wilder recast the part with Walston. I think it works out better this way. Sellers' greatest strength is improvisation, which Wilder is dead against. Walston has a dry, scorching delivery that works wonders with Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's crisp dialogue. This is his best film work and he deserved an Oscar for this role.Dean Martin is cast as "Dino", a drunken, womanizing singer (how much of that was fiction?). Kim Novak is surprisingly good as the town hooker. Between "Vertigo", "Picnic" and this, who would have thought what a great actress Novak really is? She takes such great risks that a bigger actress wouldn't. And last, but not least, Wilder regular Cliff Osmond has the showiest of his Wilder roles as Walston's songwriting partners. (His lyrics for Walston's music are a riot)
I'm not going to give away the plot here because so much of the film's success is dependent on the element of surprise and there are many. But what amazes me is that you can take the riskiest of material and make it funny. Anything can be funny. It's all in how you do it. For example, Tom Green's "Freddy Got Fingered" wallows in just being disgusting and on that level, it is very wretched indeed. In fact, one could say that "Kiss Me, Stupid" was the "Freddy Got Fingered" of its' day. But Billy Wilder isn't just satisfied with presenting something. He has wit and he has ideas. He takes this material and presents it in such a way that it works as drama too.
It's also a great piece of filmmaking. Wilder's film is widescreen black and white, which emphasizes the characters and story. This is important because if it had been in color, we might have gotten caught up with atmosphere. While sometimes that's a good thing, this film has too many rich characters to care with the atmosphere.
Wilder is a master of the "serious comedy", movies in which we laugh so we may not cry. His titles include "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" ( a wonderful film which was never seen as fully intended) , "Ace In The Hole", "Stalag 13", "The Apartment", "Irma La Douce" and "The Fortune Cookie". "Kiss Me, Stupid" is very much in key with his body of work. It's a shame that this film still hasn't gotten the respect it deserves. It's a bigger shame that even fewer people understand it . That's a biting observation of our society.
**** out of 4 stars
When writer-director Billy Wilder made `Kiss Me, Stupid' in 1964, he was riding high: His comedy-drama `The Apartment' had won the Oscar as best picture in 1960 and Wilder's `Irma La Douce,' released in 1963, had been a smash. `Stupid,' however, would not receive critical raves or a warm reception at the box office. Instead it would be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, banned in several cities and dropped by its original distributor United Artists, which gave `Stupid' a limited and unsuccessful release through its art-film branch Lopert Films. Seen today, it's laughable to think that this innuendo-laden but mostly innocuous comedy created such a furor. Admittedly, Wilder pushed the boundaries of good taste with some of the dialogue and imagery. Even so the movie is far more nutty than smutty. Set in the Nevada hamlet of Climax, `Stupid' tells the story of church organist and piano teacher Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston), who is insanely overprotective of his adoring and adorable wife Zelda (Felicia Farr, who was married to Jack Lemmon offscreen). Orville and buddy Barney (Cliff Osmond) write songs in their spare time one is called `I'm Taking Mom to the Junior Prom Cuz She's a Better Twister Than My Sister,' and another begins, `I'm a poached egg without a piece of toast/Yorkshire Pudding without a beef to roast' and they're excited when singing sensation Dino (Dean Martin as the same kind of leering lush he usually played in his nightclub act and on TV) is stranded in town. Orville thinks he can sell some material to Dino, but the aspiring tunesmith is alarmed by Dino's reputation as a great seducer and fears Zelda, a Dino fan, will end up in the star's clutches. So Orville hires Polly (Kim Novak), a trampy type with teased platinum hair who works at the local dive known as The Belly Button, to pretend to be his wife while he entertains Dino for an evening. Thanks to a series of surprises, it becomes a night to remember for all concerned, including Zelda, who wasn't even supposed to be a part of it in the first place. As the somewhat similar `Indecent Proposal' would do almost 30 years later, `Stupid' ultimately states that the best way to test a relationship is to walk away from it for a while and see what happens. What separates `Stupid' from so many of the so-called `sex comedies' of the period is its combination of cynicism and directness. Beneath the teasing and the titillation there are some genuinely provocative themes about human nature and the sacrifices we're willing to make to catch a break. Although the movie has what might be termed a happy ending, it's a conclusion with more than a few dark clouds hanging over it. Wilder and Diamond must have somehow known that the second half of the 1960s would be fraught with social changes and the re-evaluation of old standards. What looked like trash in 1964 seems pretty prescient when screened today.
Did you know that there are two released versions of this film? The
European release is slightly different from the American release. I
have just seen the European version in a sparkling print shown in New
York. The tint of the American prints seem to be a darker than the
European print. The biggest difference is the trailer scene between
Dean Martin and Felicia Farr. Wilder was forced to re-shoot the scene
by the American censors. In the European version, there is no doubt
that Martin and Farr have a sexual encounter during their night
together. This makes the film stronger, but the American scene is much,
much funnier and we are left with a doubt as to whether Dean and the
pianist's wife had a one night stand.
Seeing this film with an audience was a revelation! The jokes work 99% of the time and laughter filled the theater from the first frame until the last frame. I do feel that with Kim Novack and Ray Walston in pivotal roles, we are given the bus and truck company instead of the heavy hitters. What a film this would have been had these roles been played by Marilyn Monroe and Peter Sellers! Jack Lemmon would have been an excellent choice as well for the Walston role. Now Walston is fine; he is a skillful comic actor but he lacks a certain charisma which prevented him from becoming a top star. Novack, while never a great actress, actually plays the comedy quite well. It is a pleasant surprise. I have also been bothered by Ian Freebairn-Smith's dubbing of Walston's singing voice in the two songs "Sophia" and "All the Livelong Day". Walston had a musical comedy background and sang in the movies "Damn Yankees" and "South Pacific". Maybe the vocals were recorded while Peter Sellers was still on the project. Of course, Dean Martin is perfect in this film. He plays himself, or shall I say he plays his known caricature, and he does it beautifully. He proves what a fine comedian he has always been. Take that Jerry!
Some people still consider this movie a flop. Having just re-watched
this movie for the first time in years, I can't see why. Perhaps
Walston is a bit weak in a leading role (Sellers would have been
fantastic), but the script is first rate, both funny and touching.
Dean Martin and Kim Novak are seriously under-rated actors in my opinion; here Dean sends himself up as 'Dino' and is not afraid to play himself as un-likable. Novak is, as always, wonderful. Sadly Kim never seems to get the appreciation she deserves, her performances in such movies as 'Vertigo' and 'Bell, Book & Candle' are never less than first class. While the lesser-known Felicia Farr comes across very well (she was also the wife of Wilder's frequent star, Jack Lemmon, I wonder how this film would have worked with Lemmon in the Walston role?)
This is a gem of a movie and one of Wilder's best.
This is a low and deeply cynical comedy even by Billy Wilder's
standards. It's about the American Dream and says a man would sell his
wife to achieve it. Ray Walston, (brilliantly cast; nobody played
sharper or more venal in comedy than he did - remember, he once even
played the devil?), is the small-town songwriter who tries to sell some
of his songs to a visiting superstar called Dino, (Dean Martin,
parodying himself as a womanizing, hard-drinking piece of scum). The
way he does it is to pass his wife off as a piece of bait for Martin to
sleep with and hopefully take his songs. But being the all-American
hypocrite that he is, he can't bring himself to use his real wife so he
packs her off to a motel and hires the local floozie Polly the Pistol
(Kim Novak) to take her place.
The film is very funny in the way it undermines our conventional sense of morality. It's like a French Farce full of dirty American gags and in some ways is one of Wilder's best (though under-valued) films. The only 'nice' character in the whole picture is Polly and Novak brings to the part the same kind of touching naiveté we associate with Monroe. (It's a very Monroe-like performance). And this is probably the best acting Novak has done outside of "Vertigo" and possibly "Picnic"; (her Polly is like an older, more sullied version of the character she played in "Picnic"). A lot of Americans found this film deeply offensive, (it was a bigger success in Europe), and it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
First stumbled across late one Friday night on Tv, this is a much maligned little film. Sure, it's a little odd, perhaps confrontational given the (alleged) morality of it's era but once you get over your initial surprise that Dean Martin star of so many truly awful Jerry Lewis films made something as quirky as this, then it's well worth staying up until two in the morning like I did. Dean Martin gives a good performance as - well, Dean Martin, but the show gets stolen by the husband and wife whose marriage is busy falling apart in smalltown America when Martin turns their world topsy turvy. Wilder, it seems, cannot make bad movies and this is a refreshing twist on the now over-used "handsome stranger stuck in small town after car trouble scenario." Much better than everyone claims....
Billy Wilder's career as a hitmaker ended with this for-its-time smutty sex
comedy, yet it shows all of the flaws and strengths that once made him one
of Hollywood's top directors and, for all its sexual innuendo, is really a
very sweet film. Although Ray Walston is terribly miscast as small-town
songwriter Orville J. Spooner, who hires a local prostitute (Kim Novak) to
impersonate his wife (Felicia Farr) so he can use her to sell singing star
Dino (Dean Martin) his songs, the other three stars are dynamite. Farr
displays a crack sense of comic timing. Martin, one of Hollywood's most
underrated actors, is dead on in a parody of his own image. And Novak
the performance of her career as the romantic small-town slut trying to
enough money to get her trailer out of the desert.
As with most of Wilder's films, all the cynicism and sex play mask a romantic heart: Polly and Orville begin to believe in her masquerade as his wife, until he kicks Dino out to protect her honor. The two develop a genuine affection for each other that transcends their brief sexual encounter.
At the time of its release, it was a major scandal, condemned by the Legion of Decency and disowned by United Artists. Now, it seems less shocking and ranks among the second tier of Billy Wilder's work. It's hardly as good as "Some Like It Hot" or "Sunset Boulevard," but never descends to the shoddiness of "The Front Page."
In January 1965, I remember reading a TV Guide article bemoaning the
immorality depicted in recent Hollywood films. Two movies, in
particular, were singled out. The first, THE CARPETBAGGERS, was based
on Harold Robbins trashy novel and KISS ME, STUPID, referred to as out
and out'smut'by various film critics at the time.
The much maligned and savaged KISS ME,STUPID has aged far better than the previously mentioned title, thanks in large part to director Billy Wilder's razor sharp satiric barbs at the expense of small town America's morals and mores, in this case, Climax, Nevada.
Dean Martin portrays himself or rather a ratcheted up version of his 'Dino' persona. From his killer opening monologue at The Sands in Las Vegas surrounded by a bevy of beautiful showgirls, Martin establishes himself as the ultra cool embodiment of 'The Ratpack.' His comic timing is impeccable throughout this flick.
Kim Novak as 'Polly the Pistol' a cocktail waitress-cum-whore delivers a knock out sympathetic performance. Her physical presence in this film represents girlie magazines of the era such as 'Dude,'Gent,''Rogue,'and 'Nugget' i.e. big dames who are well proportioned. Another of the more interesting aspects watching Kim Novak on screen throughout her career is her facial expression which usually looks like she's in the midst of having sex.
When Martin and Miss Novak are on screen together, the sexual tension is palpable. In one scene, 'Dino' is sitting next to 'Polly' who is wearing a several sizes too tight dress, when he removes one of her high heels and starts lecherously tickling her foot. He then pours a long stemmed beaker of chianti into the high heel stiletto and proceeds to drink from it. During a period when an American sex comedy meant serving up Rock Hudson & Doris Day to titillate audiences, KISS ME,STUPID arrived on the scene like a ribald slap on a pretty girl's primly skirted derrière.
The movie has an alluringly seedy look about it. Debauchery plays much better in black & white than in Technicolor. Ray Walston(already a household name,thanks to "MY FAVORITE MARTIAN") portrays a manic version of a frustrated songwriter who imagines himself to be cuckolded up to a third of the way through the film. Even Walston's hair looks taut, almost spiked to add to his on the brink behavior. Felicia Farr as Walston's wife ,Zelda, provides a perpetually smiling, sometimes naive outlook on her life as one of the residents of Climax. (She was married to Jack Lemmon at the time, a Wilder favorite). Yet she does have the final word in this movie.
In the midst of adulterous affairs with impunity(in itself shocking four years before the MPAA codes were brought in) ultimately,KISS ME,STUPID is a love story. Miss Novak as 'Polly'explains in her husky yet nurturing voice "A woman without a man is like a trailer without a car." Who knows, maybe we can hitch a ride to "The Belly Button" where we can "Drop In And Get Lost."
Okay, so it's Wilder. Forget all the other movies he's made. By itself - this one's got a plot, a funny one at that and Ray Walston's ability to replace Peter Sellers may not be possible - unless you never knew Peter Sellers had the part before him. Not a bad film at all - watched without any knowledge of Peter Sellers role or caring about what Billy Wilder had done previously (or since). I liked it - and the storyline fits the everyman dream of finding success (for almost everyone). Love those movies with happy endings. Whenever you see a movie it isn't always the people playing the characters that matter, it's the story being told and the craft with which it's told. This one fits now - may not have in 1964, but it does now.
Billy Wilder could well have entitled his best known comedy "Nobody's Perfect" after its unforgettable last line. Instead he saved this ploy for a a later work that I admire almost as much, "Kiss Me, Stupid". Two things have always puzzled me about this film, one, that a work so innocently harmless unleashed such a furore of moral indignation on its first appearance and two, that it has never become one of the most revered of the Wilder canon. Comedies that retain a freshness long after one knows all the jokes are rare, but, for me, "Kiss Me, Stupid" is one of the chosen few. Like all the best comedies it builds on a situation that gets more and more out of hand. A pair of frustratedly unrecognised songwriters, a small town piano teacher (Ray Walston) and his garage mechanic friend (Cliff Osmond) sense a golden opportunity to become known when a famous pop-singer and stand up comic (Dean Martin) needs to stop off in their town for petrol. It's really a single gag film dealing with the pair's machinations to prevent the singer from continuing his journey before they have played him their songs. Their scheming includes getting the piano teacher's wife out of the way and hiring a substitute in the form of a sexy floozy (Kim Novak) who is one of the attractions of the town's recently opened nightclub. To say more would be to spoil the fun. Suffice to say that all the main protagonists are perfectly cast. It has often been remarked that Ray Walston is no match for Peter Sellers who was originally due to play the role. I cannot but disagree fearing that Sellers might have invested the jealousy obsessed piano teacher with that element of caricature that the role does not quite need. All it requires are a few quirky props such as the Beethoven tee-shirt and the buttermilk deposited in the piano and the rather less than over the top quality of Walston's performance is able to convey the humour and fun of the situation without smothering them . There is one superbly funny cameo by Doro Merande (the waitress in "The Seven Year Itch")as his tetchy mother-in-law. Add to this some stalwart work by the great production designer, Alexander Trauner in recreating the atmosphere of small town Nevada and a sparklingly inventive score by Andre Previn and the result is an extremely enjoyable piece of movie escapism.
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