by Patrick Bromley
The great Billy Wilder's secret to success was always that his films mixed what he called "the sour and the sweet" -- offering a view of life that could be happy and fun and romantic but always carrying with it healthy dose of darkness. In some cases, a lot of darkness, as anyone who has seen Ace in the Hole can attest. With his 1964 comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder doesn't bury the lede: even the title is a mix of the sweet (Kiss Me) and the sour (STUPID).
Like a cross between Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid is a romantic comedy about infidelity and damaged people coming to terms with the reality of their lives. If that doesn't sound particularly funny, it's because it isn't; while the screenplay by Wilder and frequent co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is typically full of clever dialogue and witty wordplay, it's minus a lot of the cleverness and wit. Far less of it lands than usual. This is a rare misfire from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Maybe Kiss Me, Stupid can be categorized as "lesser" Wilder because of all the concessions the director ultimately had to make -- it is a movie full of second and third choices. Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville (after Jack Lemmon, real-life husband of Felicia Farr, had to decline), but a series of major heart attacks put him in the hospital six weeks into shooting and Wilder was forced to re-cast and reshoot all of his scenes. Ray Walston is a great character actor, but not someone who generates a great deal of sympathy -- not here, at least. What's left is an unpleasant character who's alternately suspicious of and cruel to his wife, whores out a waitress and sleeps with another woman. There might be a way to make this work in Wilder and Diamond's script, but Walston's portrayal is far too much sour and not enough sweet.
How to Murder Your Wife (also new on Blu-ray/DVD from Olive Films), as both are mid-1960s comedies in which men are presented as feeling threatened and afraid of women. The difference here is that Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond know enough to make the men fools for feeling this way. There's still something sort of ugly about the way Wilder handles the material -- yet another variation on "nobody's perfect," only with way more infidelity -- but at least Kiss Me, Stupid seems to have some grasp on its own gender politics.
If you're a fan of the movie at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up the Blu-ray release from Olive Films, which looks positively stunning in 1080p black and white widescreen. The disc also retains Wilder's preferred ending (found on MGM's DVD from 10 years back but previously only available in international versions) and a few brief additions originally cut from the film to appease censors and the Catholic League. The inclusions make the movie more risqué and "adult" -- though positively tame by today's standards -- and represent the film that Wilder set out to make. Kudos to Olive for making sure that the right version lands on Blu-ray.
If it's possible for a filmmaker to have more than one masterpiece (depending on your definition of the word, you might think there can be only one per artist), Billy Wilder is a guy who made a lot of them -- I can name five off the top of my head, with a few others up for debate. Kiss Me, Stupid will never be part of that discussion, as by Wilder's own admission it's a movie with a lot of problems. In the movie's own way, it serves as compelling evidence that what Wilder does so successfully in his best work is really, really tough. The balance is so tricky that even Wilder himself isn't able to get it right every time.
Blu-ray release date: February 17, 2015
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Buy Kiss Me Stupid from Olive Films here