Nobody bats 1,000. Like all artists, filmmakers can have an off day; unlike many artists, filmmakers are bound by contract to have their mistakes shown in public. Virtually every director has at least one movie on their resume that’s a stumble, disappointment, even an embarrassing miscalculation. For the big names, it’s an extremely dangerous precipice to walk, because they have higher expectations to fulfill. When someone like Brett Ratner makes a halfway decent film, we give him a pat on the head; if Stanley Kubrick made a less than spectacular movie, we would’ve crucified him.
Sometimes the weight of expectations is too much to bear — and so most of the great directors have a movie somewhere in their career that is deemed a “failure”, that is spoken of with derision and even shame, a movie that becomes widely accepted as “their worst film”. Sometimes, though, those films turn out to have their own merits. A few are hidden masterpieces; a few of them are perfectly acceptable pieces of work simply crushed by the weight of expectation; a few…well, OK, a few of them aren’t very good, but they’re not good in interesting ways, and have more going on in them than meets the eye.
The point I’m trying to make is, sometimes a director’s greatest “failures” are most fascinating than they’re given credit for; “failures” like…
10. Kiss Me, Stupid
In 1964, writer/director Billy Wilder’s career had been a virtually unbroken string of hits — with only the occasional hiccup (The Seven Year Itch and Irma la Douce had been big hits, but don’t hold up very well), Wilder had, with the help of collaborators like Raymond Chandler, I.A.L. Diamond and Charles Brackett, managed to produce a dizzying list of some of the greatest American films ever made: Five Graves to Cairo, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One Two Three…Wilder was riding high, and could essentially do whatever he wanted. What he wound up doing was getting himself stuck in the desert with a critical and commercial dud.
Kiss Me, Stupid was an Americanization of an Italian sex farce, set in the desert town of Climax, Nevada (get the double entendre?), the story of a lousy songwriter (Ray Walston) who hires a hooker (Kim Novak) to play his wife in order to seduce a drunken, womanizing crooner (Dean Martin) into buying his songs. Even by the standards of Wilder, who’d spoofed Parisian street walkers in Irma la Douce and blown up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt, this seemed a little risque, even crass; Kiss Me Stupid was plagued during its production — Walston was a last minute replacement for original star Peter Sellers, who had a heart attack two weeks into shooting — and would be plagued after its release by lousy reviews (Variety referred to it as a having a “basically vulgar, as well as creatively delinquent, screenplay”) and condemnation by the Catholic legion of decency.
To be fair to the prudes: Kiss Me, Stupid is indeed a miscalculation of a film. Wilder was infamous for having “a mind full of razorblades”, but even by his standards, this story feels awfully cynical and crass. There’s virtually no one in Kiss Me Stupid who even approaches likability, and the jokes, while certainly tame by today’s standards, still carry some of the icky smuttiness that characterizes modern sitcoms like Two and a Half Men; prostitute Polly the Pistol’s caged parrot can only say one phrase — “Bang! Bang!” — and it’s hard to describe just how foul it is to watch Dean Martin get hot and bothered over the idea that Kim Novak wears (his emphasis) “PA-per PAN-ties!”
But perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that Wilder, at the arguable height of his career, even tried something this tasteless and off the wall; almost 60, Wilder proved that he was certainly not an “old director” by making a “sex comedy” and giving it all he had — one has to admire the chutzpah of Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond for saying “If we’re going to make this movie offensive, we’re not pulling any punches!” And within Kiss Me Stupid’s often limp pacing and off putting sexism, there are still gems of jokes to be found, most of them centering around the character of “Dino”, played by Dean Martin as a none too thinly veiled (and remarkably scathing) self parody. “Dino” warbles Gershwin songs in Vegas while flirting with showgirls; he spends most of the film sloshing drunk; he is crass and crude and rude, and his entire motivation is to lay every woman he sees. The modern equivalent would be asking Mel Gibson to play a character named “Mal” who is a former action star turned director with a drinking problem and anti-semitic tendencies — and asking him to play it for laughs. Kiss Me Stupid shouldn’t be at the top of anybody’s list of great Wilder works, but it’s an interesting curiosity, a rare chance to see a great artist managing nice touches even when the work as a whole stumbles.
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