Kiss Me, Stupid

Kiss Me, Stupid
July 27th 2023

When, in 1964, you set a sex comedy in the fictional town of Climax, Nevada, you can’t be all that stunned when the Catholic Legion of Decency condemns it. Producer and director Billy Wilder did try to acquiesce to one of the Legion’s demands in Kiss Me, Stupid, by reshooting a scene to tone down its racy implications, but he refused to comply with the others. The condemnation was only the fatal cherry on top for a film that had been plagued with problems from the very start.

It’s easy to see what attracted Wilder and his longtime writing partner I. A. L. Diamond to this farce about men’s lust for sex and success, loosely based on the play L'Ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci. The plot is relatively simple: a man longing for fame, upon seeing a Hollywood crooner and notorious womanizer drive through his desolate small town, decides to sell him one of the songs he’s co-written, even if it means allowing him to have a one-night stand with his beautiful wife, a role he enlists a willing cocktail waitress to play.

Wilder and Diamond wrote the role of the cocktail waitress, Polly The Pistol, with Marilyn Monroe in mind, but after her death in 1962, they reportedly assigned it to Jayne Mansfield, who had to withdraw because of her pregnancy, paving the way for Kim Novak to ultimately be cast. The role of the husband was also a headache to fill. Their first choice, Jack Lemmon (who would haveacted alongside his real-life wife, Felicia Farr) had scheduling conflicts, so Peter Sellers was hired instead. In the middle of production, however, Sellers suffered a heart attack. It was no secret that Wilder and Sellers did not get along (regarding the event, Wilder famously quipped, "You have to have a heart before you can have an attack."), so and rather than wait six months for his recovery, Wilder replaced him with Ray Walston and reshot half the film.

The only role that wasn't a nightmare to cast was luckily that of Dean Martin, who plays a hilariously unflattering version of himself. He and Novak do most of the comedic heavy lifting, and it is thanks to their spirited performances that the film comes boldly alive. Nonetheless, their natural charisma wasn't enough to salvage the picture and its brazen Christmas Day release date, breaking a ten-run hit streak for Wilder, who was so chastened by its box-office flop that he never directed a sex comedy again.

While some audiences were offended by the intentional crudeness with which the film handles sex, it's the misogyny instead that will gall today’s viewers. But if one is capable of looking past that unattractive elephant in the cramped living room in which most of the film takes place, they'll find many of Wilder's legendary trademarks—a candid look at men's worst qualities, cynicism toward the American Dream—in hearty dose. Seeing Dean Martin drink Chianti out of a woman's high-heeled shoe, only to later drunkenly mock these newcomers, The Beatles, is reason enough to give the comedy a second look.

Kiss Me, Stupid screens tonight and tomorrow, July 27 and 28, at Film Forum on 35mm as part of their Billy Wilder retrospective.