Saturday, September 04, 2004

I'm Looking For My Wife's Navel

Interesting reviews of Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid, which I watched again last night, can be found here and here. One thing I haven't seen mentioned is that Wilder and his co-writer Izzy Diamond intended Kiss Me Stupid as a tribute to Restoration comedies, those lewd, sex-crazed plays like The Country Wife where trying to hide your wife from the local Rake (tm) just leads to disaster. Kiss Me Stupid transplants that formula to early-'60s America: the Rake becomes a famously lecherous singer, Dino (Dean Martin, playing himself), and we have a man who lives outside the big city (Ray Walston, not very good in a part that was supposed to be for Peter Sellers), trying to hide his unworldly young wife (Felicia Farr) from the advances of his rakish guest. It's basically Wilder's The Country Wife, and the fury it caused was not so much because of the sexual content (which, as many commentators have pointed out, is pretty mild) as its portrayal of adultery as something that can actually improve people's lives -- something that hadn't often been seen in American movies, and hasn't been seen much since then.

The failure of the movie at the box-office can be blamed partly on the lack of Sellers -- Ray Walston's character has to carry a lot of scenes on his own, and he's just not a strong enough screen personality to do that -- and partly on the fact that, as others have pointed out, there's hardly a likable character in the picture except Kim Novak's character (another one of Wilder's many sad/bitter takeoffs on Marilyn Monroe). Another problem is that despite its pushing of the sexual-innuendo envelope, the film is oddly behind the times: as J. Hoberman points out, it is "firmly rooted in the smug ring-a-ding-ding of the Kennedy era." Wilder obviously intended the film as a satire of the way the debased, vulgar popular culture of the early '60s is debasing and vulgarizing American culture in general: because of the trickle-down influence of sleazy big-city cultural icons like Dino, small-town America has become a cesspool where marriage is indistinguishable from prostitution, and where people literally become pimps and whores in the hope of making it big in show business and getting out of small-town America. (Another, even nastier interpretation of the film is that it has nothing to do with influence: small-town America is just naturally as bad and as crass as big-city culture, and Climax, Nevada is not aping Vegas; it's just a smaller version of the same thing.) The theme of the movie is sort of summed up at the beginning, where Dino does his act -- his real-life act -- in Vegas: Wilder keeps cutting to four waiters. Three of them are laughing hysterically at all the drunk and sex jokes; one of the waiters, a little older than the others, and bald-headed, doesn't find any of this funny, and the others look at him as if to wonder what's wrong with him. The old waiter is Wilder's generation; the other waiters are '60s America: they're part of the sleazy world of Dino's culture.

But for this theme to really work, Dino has to be representative of the prevailing currents in popular culture -- and when Wilder got the idea for this movie, he probably was. But the movie came out in 1964, when pop culture was changing rapidly, when Rat-Pack-ism already seemed quaint, and when a major plot point was already an anachronism: Ray Walston's character is an aspiring professional songwriter, trying to sell his bad songs (Ira Gershwin fitting deliberately banal new lyrics to trunk tunes by George Gershwin) to Dino; by 1964, the market for professional songwriting, and particularly for the kind of songs Orville is trying to sell, was going away or perhaps even gone altogether. So what was supposed to be a cutting-edge satire on the corrupting influence of modern popular culture became, instead, an attack on the "older generation's" popular culture, a culture that already seemed to be on the way out. Sleazy Vegas entertainers in 1962 or even 1963 would have been an important target for satire; by 1964 they already seemed like too easy a target. Even if Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody" did beat the Beatles that year.

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