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But fashions change, and well before his death this year at 95, Wilder had become a lovable relic whose place in the people's pantheon of post-war Hollywood directors had begun to rival Sir Alfred Hitchcock's. Kiss Me, Stupid is unlikely to inspire a Broadway musical, top an AFI poll, or birth a hundred-dollar coffee-table book, but it could burnish Wilder's posthumous reputationespecially as the crisp new 35mm black-and-white print that opens Friday for a week at Film Forum reinstates the original version of a scene the panicked studio excised during previews.
Some have called Kiss Me, Stupid ahead of its time. Actually, the movie's supposedly sophisticated vulgarity is firmly rooted in the smug ring-a-ding-ding of the Kennedy era. The extended opening credit sequence is a Rat Pack classic, with Dean Martin onstage at the Sands, surrounded by a deadpan harem of statuesque showgirls as he staggers through " 'S Wonderful." No less than Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Martin gamely plays a comic version of himself as well as a generic star. Referred to as Dino, he's a randy boozer subject to migraines if he doesn't have a new woman every night.
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Driving back to L.A. from Vegas, Dino finds himself marooned in the desolate backwater of Climax, Nevadathanks to the tinkering of a duplicitous gas jockey (Cliff Osmond), an unpublished songwriter who hatches a scheme to peddle some of the material he's been churning out in collaboration with town piano teacher Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston). Scarcely less subtle than their songs (actually supplied by Ira Gershwin), the pair's plan is to lure Dino to dinner chez Spooner with the promise of the lovely Mrs. Spooner as bait.
Walston, then Uncle Martin of the space-age sitcom My Favorite Martian, replaced the movie's original star, Peter Sellers, who suffered a series of heart attacks a month into the production. That the fortyish Sellers had just married 21-year-old Britt Ekland provided the movie's first leering joke long before it wrapped. (Indeed, the character of the obsessively jealous Orville may have been partially inspired by Sellers.) While it's amusing to imagine Jerry Lewis opposite his ex-partner as Sellers's stand-in, Walston brings his own negative charm. His wizened hysteria enhances the character's unpleasant paranoia, a factor of his having married the too-attractive if not overly bright Zelda (Felicia Farr).
Orville appreciates the strategy of pimping his wife, but modifies it. He provokes Zelda (erstwhile president of her high school Dino fan club) into leaving home so that she might be replaced for the evening by Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), a freelance hooker who works out of a trailer behind the Belly Button cocktail lounge. Her husky accent part Brooklyn, part Sugar Kane, Novak's Polly is the movie's lone sympathetic character, mainly because she's the only honest whoretoo dumb to exploit anyone else. (As the neon sign fronting the Belly Button mournfully puts it, "Drop In and Get Lost.")
Smarmy doesn't do Kiss Me, Stupid justice. The first half is an unending parade of smutty gags and single entendres, with a few toilet jokes thrown in for good measure. The constant tumult in the Spooners' cramped bungalow betrays the movie's stage origins, and indeed, Climax itself is an appropriately desolate stage-set. Kiss Me, Stupid is likely Wilder's harshest view of the American landscape since the orchestrated media feeding frenzy of Ace in the Hole. Pushing all jokes to the far side of the moon, he wrings much defamiliarizing mileage out of a front-yard cactus, a long-necked Chianti bottle, and the parrot in Polly's trailer.
The rancid atmosphere conceals the virtues of the movie's classical structure, detailed mise-en-scène, and deft comic timing. Kiss Me, Stupid hits its stride at dinnerDino pawing Polly and swilling Chianti from her shoe. "What right has he got to treat your wife like that?" she hisses to the unctuously maniacal Orville. (Packed for maximum cleavage, Novak inhabits the movie with her customary stolid vulnerability.) Polly and Orville's spontaneous dance of joy when it appears that besotted Dino will buy Orville's "Italian" number, "Sofia," is enchanting. (Evidently Gene Kelly dropped by the set and choreographed the routine off the cuff.) Nevertheless, the plan goes awry when Orville begins to imagine that the hooker actually is his wife and, rather than go bowling per plan, boots Dino out on his keister.
Polly is a poignant character and Orville a genuine lunaticit's sweetly satisfying when they role-play their way into bed. Meanwhile, desperate Dino cruises the Belly Button, where he inevitably finds Zelda, passed out in Polly's trailer. Demonstrating unexpected intelligence, she susses out Orville's bungled scheme and seduces Dino into seducing her with his rendition of the now rehabilitated "Sofia." Or so it is in the restored print. Kiss Me, Stupid's mutually redemptive adultery is closer to the grown-up world of John Cassavetes's Faces than to Wilder's adolescent Seven Year Itchbut it's ultimately a more knowingly tolerant, not to mention funnier, movie than either.
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