By Daniel Barnes
Dean Martin occupies a fascinating area in the American imagination – he is famed for being a lecherous boozehound, yet there is nothing he could have done on the screen or in public to stain his crushed velvet charm. Even more impressive is that all of Martin’s most profound film roles – Rio Bravo, Some Came Running, and Billy Wilder’s 1964 screwball comedy-in-heat Kiss Me, Stupid – act as auto-critiques of his unimpeachable appeal. The Dean Martin of Kiss Me, Stupid doesn’t just want to have sex your wife. He expects to have sex with your wife. And that sucks, but it’s cool, not to mention funny as hell.
Kiss Me, Stupid feels rougher than the Ford and Minnelli films, but it also offers the most perverse and therefore the best role of Martin’s career, and it’s probably the most toxic view of Hollywood’s soul exchange rate since Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard. “That Sinatra kid missing again?” quips Martin to a couple of cops at a roadblock. Keep in mind that Martin is casually joking about the kidnapped son of one of his real-life best friends and closest collaborators, and you have an idea where Kiss Me, Stupid has its head.
Martin plays “Dino,” a sloshed Vegas icon and movie star who has a showgirl stashed in every dressing room. Just one year after his ex-partner Jerry Lewis self-lacerated in The Nutty Professor and two decades before Scorsese finished the job with The King of Comedy, Martin took the scalpel to his own martini-soaked heart here. On his way to make a movie in Hollywood, Dino gets waylaid into the sexually repressed city of Climax, Nevada, a town where the truck drivers only stop at the gas station long enough to fill their lighters with unleaded.
Dino gets trapped overnight in Climax by a couple of ambitious small-time songwriters – the gas station attendant/hack lyricist who gremlins his car, and a milquetoast musician/part-time piano teacher named Orville Spooner (Ray Walston, replacing Peter Sellers after he suffered several heart attacks). Before Dino even tipsily shadow-boxes his way through town, Orville is already suffering hilarious paroxysms of jealousy over his beautiful and eternally faithful wife (Felicia Farr, a tremendously unsung player here). His cuckold fantasies are an extension of his feelings of sexual inadequacy, or possibly even his latent homosexuality, the latter suggested by the lusty manner in which he “jealously” rips the shirt off one of his pimply male students and threatens him with a horsewhipping.
When Orville discovers that his wife is “crazy about” Dino, he instigates a breakup and hires a prostitute to impersonate his wife (as you do), with the idea that she’ll sleep with the crooner to sell him on an unctuous “Italian song.” Dino pleads that sex “is a habit with me, like breathing.” Or like heroin. Or like blood to a vampire. The flayed-alive version of Dean Martin that we see in Kiss Me, Stupid is barely even a recognizable human being, just an unpasteurized, all-encompassing zombie thirst for gin and sexual conquest. His dinner order is “a bowl of bourbon and some crackers.” He dabs whiskey behind his ears like cologne. Early on, we see him lustily ogle a headless and legless sewing mannequin, and there is the brief suggestion that he is going to rape it somehow.
In the end, a marriage gets saved by rampant cheating, a prostitute finds her true identity as a fraud, a faithful wife proves her fidelity by becoming a prostitute, and someone somewhere is humming “I’m a Poached Egg” (that song and several other hummable atrocities were supplied, Ishtar-like, by George and Ira Gershwin). The fact that a worldview this cynical could make into a horndog Hollywood sex comedy without sacrificing a bubble of its Lubitsch-like champagne fizz is a testament to the unique filmmaking gifts of our June birthday boy Billy Wilder.
Although Wilder was a brilliant portrayer of male sexual anxiety, the more that I watch his films, the more captivated I am by the complexity of his female characters. Kim Novak plays Pistol Polly, a seen-it-all bar girl who lives in a trailer behind The Belly Button and self-describes as “just someone the bartender recommends,” yet emerges as the most morally dignified and scrupulously honest person in the film.
Add her up to Miss Kubelik in The Apartment, Sugar in Some Like It Hot, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and several others, and you have a throughline of harassed working women as sexual prisoners, with only an occasionally demented inner strength to drag them through. There is also a running theme of role play as a sexually (and socially) liberating force in Wilder’s films, from Jack Lemmon’s maracas in Some Like it Hot to Polly’s hip-hugging housedress here. You could even make the case that Wilder was a bit of a (cover your ears, The Ghost of Billy Wilder) feminist. He may not have intended it at the time, but half a century later, it’s as clear and bright as the color TVs in the window of Pringle’s Hardware.