Monday, October 19, 2009

Notepad Recovery:
Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder; 1964)

What follows is a series of excerpts from what I freely confess is a still-unfinished article on Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid. That's right. Excerpts. This is not the final result; it's barely even close to a workable draft.

When I started this piece it was supposed to be a relatively straightforward retrospective review; one that ultimately sought to explore no more than this film in the context of Wilder's own, oft-repeated admiration for the work of Ernst Lubitsch. As I started compiling notes for the thing, however, I found that my somewhat modest inner-mandate had atomized and run off in a number of different directions; all of which could, I realized, be made to harmonize within the piece through one strategic arrangement of sentences or another. I could have ignored this development and proceeded according to my initial intent, of course, but I shortly came to realize that the sole chance this article
ever had of justifying its existence was to light out for the territory, so to speak, and perform that compositional magic trick with as much mellifluous, Gibbon-esque polish as I could possibly muster. Swell. Unfortunately, whatever literary skill is required to resolve four, seemingly unrelated sub-topics within the spectrum of a single film, to make them echo off one another while sustaining an acceptable prose quality, is not, I fear, a skill that I fully possess; certainly not sufficient to yield a final result that could keep me out of the firing range of my more . . . unforgiving . . . colleagues in this (you'll pardon the expression) racket.

In any event, the excerpts that follow are more or less sequential (beginning at the beginning), and they represent, roughly, half of what I've written on this film to date. These are the only passages I can (or will) permit myself to post in a public forum. I make no claim for either the quality of its prose, nor the dexterity of its insight. I can only say, in all honesty, that it is what it is.


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"He was way ahead of his time", Ray Walston once said about Billy Wilder, "He foresaw what was gonna happen."

Walston was referring to a conversation he'd had with the director during the production of Kiss Me, Stupid, some weeks after he had assumed its lead role from a reportedly ailing Peter Sellers. And there wasn’t a thing about it . . . not the conversation or the moment itself or anyone’s recollection of either . . . that you could call happy.

"I never liked that picture very much", Wilder would later say in an interview with a former music industry publicist-turned movie director, "I would not have liked it better with Peter Sellers." Walston, on the other hand, required no hindsight. By his account he began harboring deep misgivings about Kiss Me, Stupid from the moment he read its screenplay; saddled as it was with an aggressively uncertain third act and a vast, gamy parade float of sledgehammer sex gags. "I said when I finished it," he recalled, "'It's not good' But one doesn't say that about a Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond script. The feeling was that they'd repair it." Now, more than a month after production had resumed, no repair seemed forthcoming and all doubt turned to sheer bafflement. It was very simple: He could not fathom how this director, this critical and commercial titan of Hollywood for two solid decades, expected anybody to release the picture he was shooting.

It wasn't shaping up to be a run-of-the-mill bedroom farce; that much was clear. The scenario, the dialogue, Wilder's direction of the performances, everything about the film as it emerged came off as though it had been deliberately arranged in the most sordid of keys, and not in the service of anything normally considered comedy. "What are people in this business gonna say about you?” Walston remembered asking finally, no longer able to hold his tongue, “How are you gonna get away with some of this stuff?” “Lemme tell you something," Wilder began; at last unsheathing the larger vision that would put sense to the perceived madness. "I'm going to tell you what's going to happen in pictures. You are going to see nudity. Profanity. Things that you are never going to believe in your life that you would see in movies”

"Movies are gonna take a big, long leap", he concluded. "And it's gonna be a big, long leap toward things on the screen you would never believe.”

If he thought this leap heralded a new birth of progress for his chosen medium, he gave no indication of it. He merely did his Criswell shtick, got the pain-in-the-ass Star off his back, then returned to directing the film that, in no small measure, helped usher his words that day into the realm of temporal reality. Was it his true rationale? Anything's possible. Billy Wilder was, I think we can stipulate, perceptive enough to notice just how frail the battlements of Production Code enforcement had lately become (everyone else was noticing it that year, after all). He may also have spotted, within the contours of that frailty, the dim outline of a more forbidding spectacle: that of old-line Hollywood . . . the increasingly scabby epicenter of America’s film industry in whose bosom he had flourished since his arrival three decades earlier . . . speeding headlong to a terminus as grim as it was inexorable. His instinct for what he could get away with at any moment had thus far proven sharp, possibly the sharpest in the business; and it almost certainly informed the calculus behind making this film at an hour when some degree of institutional rot had begun to settle in. But for all its shrewdness of vision and Photoplay-caliber prescience, Wilder’s declaration to Ray Walston was, at bottom, a shuck; no more than glib evasion masquerading as prophecy. For when it all came to pass, and the big, long leap was finally taken, and the slow, steady snowfall of blood and flesh and all the things once hidden from the eyes of America’s innocent, lamb-like moviegoers began in earnest, chroniclers of onscreen prurience the world over would still have a thankless chore on their hands finding anything from a major American director quite so jaundiced in tone, so leering, so completely and resolutely . . . dirty-minded as 1964’s Kiss Me, Stupid.

It was adapted loosely (one might even say corrosively) from a 1944 stage comedy by Anna Bonacci. Set in Victoria’s Britain, L’Ora della fantasia was the tale of a provincial church Organist and would-be composer, reluctantly induced into a scheme that finds his wife accidentally trading places for an evening with a local prostitute; all in the hope of winning favor and patronage from a visiting High Sheriff. A game attempt at reviving the deep dish ribaldry of early Restoration landmarks such as William Wycherly's The Country Wife, Bonacci’s play proved surprisingly popular with audiences; spawning productions everywhere from Sweden to Portugal to France and Mexico; everywhere, it seems, but Broadway. In 1952 it was adapted for the screen by Mario Camerini, with an Italian setting this time, as Moglie per una notte (Wife for a Night) . . . a film whose most visible achievement was making Gina Lollobrigida look convincingly dowdy for the first few reels. L’Ora della fantasia was hardly the kind of play that gave so-called popular theater a bad name, nor could it usefully be called a distinguished effort in that realm. It was utterly benign, and durable, and . . . just as works of its stripe had been three centuries before . . . it was the sort of thing considered prime adult fare in its day.

For whether we're discussing the lost craftsmanship of Restoration farce, or the cheapest swill poured out onto the Great White Way after the Second World War, sex comedies have had an enduring presence in so-called popular entertainment; embracing a standard that would eventually become more time worn and mechanistic and ultimately chaste than anyone toiling in that vineyard ever realized.

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Billy Wilder had already demonstrated a marked facility for this sort of thing as early as 1955, with his otherwise middling adaptation of George Axelrod's noisemaker, The Seven Year Itch for 20th Century-Fox; and despite the relative absence of such works in his filmography to date, it had been clear from the more recent evidence of Some Like It Hot and Irma la Douce that he would never fully estrange himself from the curious magic of the double-entendre. Like all masters of the form . . . a pantheon ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer and Armenter Chatmon to James Joyce and Benny Hill . . . his attraction to it was real and abiding. As a confirmed devotee of Ernst Lubitsch and his fabled ’Touch’, however, Wilder was also capable of investing the most sniggering innuendos with a dash of wit and a wholly tender, yet never treacly, sentiment. Charm. That was the condition his well-honed technique sought; and in his direction of such actresses as Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine, he became the only artist in American cinema who could find whole reservoirs of sweetness, even grace, in all the things that make men drool.

But Kiss Me, Stupid was different. It was a film that drooled. It drooled openly, lavishly, with absolute impunity. There was nothing especially charming or even adult about its humor . . . not in the conventional meaning of that word. What had once been rendered so light and beguiling so many times before was now unleashed before the camera with wild, pre-adolescent abandon; as if wit or grace or any redemptive, feather-like 'Touch' had always been a bald-face lie; a cruelly deployed con job that, once exposed, could never easily gain purchase on a viewer's sensibility again. Like any bedroom farce with its origins on the stage, Kiss Me, Stupid was essentially a machine; a careful, slightly soulless arrangement of social components . . . . in this case a neurotic piano instructor; his too good-natured wife; a demimonde cocktail waitress; and a predatory Vegas headliner, recording artist and film actor everyone calls Dino . . . . where the fullest measure of art is achieved in the intricacy of their eventual collision. As such it was an adroit, often brilliantly reductive assault upon the expectations of everyone, but that alone could not save it from being dismissed with something close to unanimity on its release as unreconstructed smut; entering the measly annals of screen censorship as the last film officially condemned by the Catholic Church’s tottering Legion of Decency (this despite some last-minute alterations on Wilder's part to avoid what had otherwise become a pitfall of dwindling relevance). They needn't have bothered. In more than one sense, Kiss Me, Stupid was a film that condemned itself.

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Few critics of the moment would cast their perspective (such as it was) beyond its almost studied tawdriness; few tried. The anonymous reviewer for Time called Kiss Me, Stupid, “one of the longest traveling-salesman stories ever committed to film,” complaining that Wilder was not "celebrating sex as a glorious human temptation; he is exploiting it as a commodity – and he wears a lascivious grin where his satirical smile ought to be.“ A.H. Weiler, girding the loins of New York Times readers, thought its anarchic vision of marital infidelity “sleazy and forbidding.“ Judith Crist over at the Herald Tribune, simply wrote it off with a shudder as “the slimiest movie of the year." And it wasn't just time-serving mediocrities in the Film Criticism community who found Kiss Me, Stupid sour and detestable, however; the esteemed mediocrities did as well (Andrew Sarris, in full alliterative flower for The Village Voice, declared it "an exercise in joylessly jejune cynicism"). The thrashing made the rest inevitable.

Released by United Artists on its Art-house purgatory imprint, Lopert Pictures, and hauled out just in time for Christmas (December 22, 1964, to be exact), Kiss Me, Stupid was projected onto a few screens in major cities and then plummeted to the leprous state it was almost destined for. And that is where it would languish for a few decades, until . . . in a circumstance so common among maudit works in the American canon as to achieve the status of a ritual . . . the usual flocks of latter-day movie reviewers and cinephiles without portfolio, forever seeking to redress critical wrongs, real or imagined, rode in on their half-wild stallions, looked back and . . . as they always would . . . began to see it magically anew.

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Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) is an amateur songwriter living in a dusty Nevada armpit called Climax; teaching Für Elise to schoolkids for pennies and riding an Organ for the town's Congregational Church while, on the side, composing lackluster Tin Pan Alley retreads with an amoral auto-mechanic named Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond). His life and ambitions are heading nowhere. He's also insanely paranoid about his wife Zelda's potential for infidelity (a prospect apparent only to him); suspecting her and every man who sets eyes upon her . . . the milkman, her Dentist, his kid piano students . . . of the foulest clandestine assignations his overheated brain can conjure.

When Dino (Dean Martin) and his cool, white, Hollywood-bound Dual Ghia convertible are redirected off the main highway by the Nevada State Police and into Climax, Barney grabs opportunity by the forelock and sabotages the vehicle; leaving the weary show business titan stranded in their dead backwater for the evening. It's a perfect set up, he imagines, to pitch a few of those dreadful songs they've been writing. But soon it becomes clear that their guest expects Action, and lots of it, in return for one evening of his time and patronage in Snoresville; instantly training his sights and his prodigious libido upon Mrs. Spooner (Felicia Farr). At first Orville descends into full-scale panic (it's the Spooners' fifth wedding anniversary, after all), but Barney quickly comes to the rescue with his breed of ingenious solution: Since Dino hasn’t actually seen Zelda in the proverbial flesh (his ardor is such that this is not a requirement), all Orville needs to do is get rid of her . . . start a fight, smack her in the face with a grapefruit, anything . . . bring in Climax's best, most cost-effective slut, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), say she's the wife and throw her at Dino for the night ("While you're plugging the songs, he'll be . . . "). Guy won't know the difference.

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It has to be said, in the service of complete fairness, that Billy Wilder didn’t make it easy for that first batch of critics to read his film in anything other than its original light. Sex comedies were such a debased sub-genre by the mid-1960s that their very presence constituted a kind of shrill white noise that, in retrospect, probably did more than big ugly Musicals to ultimately destroy the very standard of mainstream Cinema which had given them such totally unwarranted shelter for so long. The only way to tell Who's Got the Action? from Happy Anniversary from The Marriage Go-Round from Goodbye, Charlie was by their casts (Hollywood veterans just beginning to go to seed); and even then these movies had an unrelenting tendency to blur, even dissolve in the blaring, widescreen ether of fake urbanity. In this sense, Billy Wilder's film may have struck its earliest critics as just an extreme entry in an oppressively tiresome cycle. But what sets Kiss Me, Stupid apart from other farces of its time . . . so far apart that its contemporary detractors can still be condemned for not noting that something quite unique was unfolding before them . . . is the unmistakable sense one gets that Billy Wilder was, from the first, fully aware of just how witless and dreary this kind of motion picture had become. And rather than redeem the form, deliver it to a higher plane of wit and sophistication, as he had every ability to do, he instead accepted the rot; he didn't exploit every cheap and meretricious implication in Anna Bonacci's play; just the opposite. Through every element, from his and I.A.L. Diamond's script to the baroque dinginess of Joeph LaShelle's cinematography and Alexander Trauner's production design, he seemed to embrace it wholeheartedly.

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Unique as Kiss Me, Stupid was in its day, there had been a precedent for such a work in Billy Wilder’s prior filmography; and on the surface it was anything but obvious:

Ace in the Hole (the follow-up to his 1950 triumph, Sunset Blvd.) was the story of a failed newspaper reporter, slugging it out on a penny-ante sheet in New Mexico, who yearns so desperately for a return to his days of glory in New York City that he arranges to keep a man trapped inside a mountain after a horrible accident, milking the tragedy for every scrap of Human Interest slop he can peddle, transforming it into a gaudy entertainment for the American public. Almost apocalyptic in its cynicism, it was a film that revealed perhaps more about Billy Wilder than Billy Wilder ever intended; marinating in the pathological scorn of Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum toward everyone and everything around him until it flowed over the rim of fiction to saturate its creator; character and author curdling as one. Nowhere in its twilit human landscape was there a man or a woman with a decent impulse who wasn't a fool or an impotent cretin, nor a moment when the film's cruel trajectory didn't feel like a noose slowly tightening around the viewer's neck. In the final minutes of Sunset Blvd., Wilder broke the fourth wall for one extraordinary moment and had Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond acknowledge us, those wonderful people out there in the dark, as something no less central to her damaged identity than the Cecil B. DeMille of her last, inextinguishable delusion (thereby implicating us in the construction of her madness); but Ace in the Hole was a feature-length address to the audience, to all audiences. And what it had to say, more in bitterness than disappointment, about all that we, the entertained, make possible were not what moviegoers had ever been accustomed to hearing.

Kiss Me, Stupid . . . a comic farce, no matter how nihilistic it remains at its core . . . isn't the towering indictment of the human race Ace in the Hole was, but it retains that film's flagrantly cynical disposition and, in a sense, broadens it. Like fugitives from an early 30s Warner Brothers musical, Orville and Barney may appear to be driven by the prospect of show business success and all that it implies in terms of mammon and public adoration, but theirs in truth is a quest to sell their souls, with the cheapest forms of sex exploitation the only paths to achievement they either know or can understand. For all his rectitude and position in that dried out community, Orville really has no qualms when it comes to pimping out his wife to Dino . . . as long as she's not really his wife. His is not, then, a case of small-town hypocrisy ripped from the pages of everyone from Sherwood Anderson to Grace Metalious; far from it. In a struggle endemic to Wilder’s protagonists, the man Orville sees himself as is fatally at war with the man he really is, and it’s a losing struggle at both ends. But once he commits himself to Barney's scheme and employs Polly to be his wife for the evening, ultimately in every respect, he finds he can cut it all loose: the ambition, the rectitude, the fidelity, the whole meaningless shot. In the earlier film Chuck Tatum is immolated by the fruits of his ambition . . . his final self-sacrifice seems less like an eleventh-hour bid for redemption than a purebred act of suicide . . . but Orville prevails. Barney's scheme, lurid and byzantine as it is, works; Dino gets some quality, cash-on-the-barrelhead action with Mrs. Spooner; Polly fulfills her inchoate longing for domesticity before being sent back to her trick wagon; the Spooners' mutual adultery is forgiven; and nothing is spoiled by this anarchic gavotte of sex and avarice that wasn't already rotten long, long before.

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NOTE: I started writing this article at a time when the question of why I pursue this endeavor had reached something like the apogee of its persistence . . . and, after more than two and one-half years, it is still a far distance from being in any way finished. For those who may be curious, here's a brief rundown of what I did not post (though all of it is alluded to in these excerpts):

* A few paragraphs on the diversionary social function of Sex farces, beginning with their active patronage by King Charles II (court and courtiers alike) at the outset of the English Restoration, and ending with the explosion of their more artless descendants on Broadway during the 1950s, when the general purpose of mainstream American culture was to induce a state of narcolepsy in the general population.


* An extremely long passage on the institutional and, yes, spiritual disintegration of mainstream American cinema after 1960; the gradual expulsion of the
auteur class (FordHawksWalshWellesRay . . . eventually Wilder); and the cinephile hordes (or, as I put it, "the vast army of Orville Spooners and Barney Milsaps") who swooped in like a pack of vultures and, in the name of their 'love' of cinema, made any number of killings off the whole tragic spectacle.

* An equally long, concluding section on Ernst Lubitsch, The Lubitsch Touch (both as a critical and aesthetic phenomenon), Billy Wilder's career-long obsession with replicating said Touch in his own cinema, and my overarching thesis that Kiss Me, Stupid is the single most perfect emanation of The Lubitsch Touch in Cinema; but with every fiber of charm and continental sophistication scraped off the surface.

This afterword has already gone past its 'Sell by' date, but if anyone finds these matters intriguing in the context of the article and wishes to know why I left out this material . . . in the event that the reason isn't immediately apparent . . . I'll be only too happy to explicate in the Comments section.

And that, as they say, is all.