When trying to understand the significance of a great filmmaker, sometimes it’s more insightful to look at their less successful films or when their career is in decline. A good example is famed writer/director Billy Wilder and his 1964 film ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’.
Wilder had many peaks during his lengthy and illustrious career but his run of three exceptional films from 1959 to 1961 – ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’ & ‘One, Two, Three’ was never bettered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder’s career never reached such heights again and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ was made when Wilder’s career was beginning its steady decline, culminating in 1981’s abysmal ‘Buddy Buddy’.
But ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is probably more valuable for study anyone interested in Wilder’s career as it showcases his significant strengths as a filmmaker but also the weaknesses that began to develop in his work from this point onwards.
The plot of ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ sees Orville Spooner (Ray Waltson)as a small-town frustrated piano teacher looking to break out of his dreary lifestyle by becoming a famed songwriter with friend Barney (Cliff Osmond). Their opportunity arises when they dismantle the car of popular singer Dino (Dean Martin, obviously playing a variant on himself) driving through town. But because of Dino’s voracious sexual appetite, Orville is obliged to send his wife out of town and have local prostitute Polly (Kim Novak) pretend to be her. But things get only more complex from there.
‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fascinating mix of old-style and modern cinema. Watching the film in its black & white photography, long takes and limited camera movement, the film could easily pass for a film made 10, even 15 years before.
But whereas its filming style wasn’t ‘modern’, its content certainly was. In fact, the film not only feels modern by 1964 standards, watching it today one is surprised by how it didn’t just stop at innuendo but actually followed through with multiple infidelities carried through by central characters. Even in this era of ‘raunchy’ comedies, if a mainstream film like this were made today it wouldn’t go as far as ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ does.
Also, like most of Wilder’s post-1961 films, ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ feels slower and longer (at around 124 minutes) than it needs to be. Perhaps this is because Wilder was first and foremost a writer and was reluctant to condense his words when possible and didn’t have the deftness the best directors have to make a film more succinct without any value being lost.
Probably the film’s biggest problem though is the casting (or miscasting) of Ray Walston as Orville. In a role crying out for Wilder regular Jack Lemmon, Walston displays none of the vulnerability or likability required to pull off a difficult role. Indeed, an early comic scene where he chases a music student out of his home out of paranoid jealousy leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth because of the way Walston plays it. One wonders if a more likable central performer had been in the role, that all of the claims of moral indecency wouldn’t have surfaced?
But for all that’s wrong with ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’, there is a lot that’s right with it and that includes Wilder’s script (written with long-time collaborator I.A.L Diamond). It may be not the best script they ever wrote but compared to many of today’s comedies that almost try to make virtues of having no sense of timing or narrative, it feels like a comparative masterpiece. One of the refreshing aspects of a Wilder film is how well-organised and structured they are. And ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is very well put together from a plot structure point of view with all the main characters reaching resolutions of some kind.
Wilder/Diamond scripts always felt well-structured plot wise in that they accommodated narrative and key character resolutions and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is no exception. And their famed comic one-liners are backed up by lots of nice little details; for example how a local hardware store is incorporated deftly into the film.
Apart from the Walston,, the cast does a pretty good job and it bats pretty deep with the likes of John Fielder, Alice Pearce and even Mel Blanc appearing in small roles. Dean Martin is obviously having a ball mocking his own persona and Kim Novak (someone who I’d previously felt was a dull performer) gives the film zest as Polly.
A fascinating part of the film from a sociological perspective is how the dream of the central characters is to become great songwriters as they were not only financially successful but were revered figures in American culture. Indeed, many of the most famous ones like Cole Porter were household names. And yet just as the film was getting made the new wave of popular musicians like The Beatles (who are referenced in the film) and Bob Dylan were becoming famous for not only being great performers but writing and composing their own material. As a result the role of the pure songwriter/composer was – while not redundant – going to be far down the pecking scale when it came to fame and fortune.
Back to Billy Wilder, why did his career gradually decline from mid-60s onwards when his skills, cynicism and preparedness to take on ‘adult’ subjects suggested he could’ve prospered in the permissive Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s? One reason is – as already mentioned – a technique issue as his old-style filmmaking would’ve seemed out of whack with the increasingly inventive, risk-taking and ground-breaking style of 1970s cinema.
But more significantly while Wilder was always prepared to attack aspects of American society, it would usually only go so far. Often he’d direct his scorn towards those on the lower rungs of society as being full of deviousness and hypocrisy such as struggling screenwriters, scheming lawyers or those trying to make a quick buck. But Wilder never seemed to direct his criticism at American society as a whole and its institutions that helped create a culture develop where ordinary citizens would act so cravenly. And in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s that tended to criticise American society overall and show more empathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder, Wilder’s satire felt more brittle and nasty instead of incisive as it had once been.
Nevertheless, despite these issues ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fine film worth seeking out, especially for those despairing at the standards of modern mainstream Hollywood comedies.