A Movie About Infidelity That's ... Good for Your Marriage?

Rom-coms have always been a healthy outlet for fantasies about other people, and Kiss Me, Stupid, which turns 50 this year, shows why.
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According to a recent study, watching romantic movies with one's spouse helps keep a marriage healthy. The study even provides a list of movies to screen from the flirtatious Thin Man, through suspense like Fatal Attraction, and on to the twee uplift of Her.

One movie that isn't listed though, is Kiss Me, Stupid, a classic Billy Wilder comedy that turns 50 this year. Probably that's just an oversight. Though it seems possible, too, that the researchers were leery of listing a film that so cheerfully endorses infidelity.

Indeed, for a movie from 1964, Kiss Me, Stupid is startlingly earthy; Kim Novak swishing her hips to demonstrate hula-hoop technique seems like it should violate decency ordinances all on its own. Critics at the time were appalled: A.H. Weller called it "pungent" and snooted at its "cheapness" while Variety chastised the film for failing "to rise above a basically vulgar … screenplay."

Even today, in the era of the raunch-com, Kiss Me, Stupid's casual immorality can startle. Two would-be songwriters, Barney Milsap (Cliff Osmond) and Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) from the gloriously named town of Climax, Nevada, try to sell a tune to star Dino (Dean Martin) when he happens to pass through on his way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. To convince him, they disable his car, then encourage him to spend the night at Orville's home—and to sleep with a local cocktail waitress, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) who they've paid to impersonate Orville's wife. Hijinks ensue, and when we're done Orville has slept with Polly while Dino has crawled into the sack with Orville's real wife Zelda (Felicia Farr). The sanctity of the marriage bed having been violated with gusto (and on Orville and Zelda's fifth anniversary no less), the film skips on, with Dino purchasing the song, Orville and Zelda reunited, and everyone (including Polly) happier for diddling around.

Kiss Me, Stupid is, then, structured in such a way that the protagonists find domestic bliss through sleeping with other people. This is not what you expect from your romantic comedies. And it is especially unexpected in that it manages to slyly suggest that it is in fact what you expect from them after all. 

The film is constantly flirting with its own theatricality or film-ness. This is most obvious with Dean Martin, who as the smarmy, boozy, priapic "Dino" is basically playing himself playing himself. Dino's self-performance is hardly isolated, though. Orville hires Polly to play his wife, which means that Kim Novak is playing Polly playing Zelda—she's pretending to not be Zelda, an act which is in fact (since Novak isn't Zelda) the truth. Similarly, Orville pretends to stage a fight with Zelda in order to get her out of the house to facilitate the plot with Polly; the fake fight on screen is, in fact, really a fake fight you're watching on screen. And, finally, angry at Orville and despairing for her marriage, Zelda goes to the local dive, gets drunk, and ends up being put to bed in Polly's trailer—where Dino eventually finds her and mistakes her for Polly. So Felicia Farr is playing Zelda playing Polly, pretending not to be the person who she in fact isn't.

The switching and scrambling of identity, the way in which reality and fantasy slide into each other with lusty effervescence, isn't just a pleasure in itself. It's also a metaphor for the rom-com film—or more specifically, for the relationship between rom-com characters and all of us watching the rom-coms in the audience. When you watch a rom-com, after all, you're supposed to fall in love with the characters; it's a fantasy of being in love with someone else.

And that's exactly the fantasy that the film unguiltily doles out to Zelda and Polly. Zelda, we learn, has a long-standing crush on Dino; she was president of his fan club, and she's thrilled when she happens to see him driving through town. When he shows up in Polly's trailer, thinking Zelda's Polly, she gets to take a deep breath and be with that guy up on screen—just like watching a rom com, albeit a bit more visceral.

If good-girl Zelda dreams of the bad boy, bad-girl Polly longs for the domestic idyll. Dino's clumsy passes disgust her. But Orville's heartfelt adoration of his wife—that's something she wants. Orville gives her a ring, he sings to her the song he wrote for her/Zelda, and then, in an ecstasy of confused gallantry, he beats Dino up and tells him to stay away from his darling. Polly helps Orville clean away the dishes, engages in some friendly spousal small talk, and then, clearly half-stunned at her good fortune, follows him into the bedroom and her own dream. For his part, Orville gets to consummate his relationship with a woman who both is and is not his wife—just as a rom-com watcher might hold his or her date's hand with greater appreciation while imagining himself or herself kissing someone else on screen.

The scolding the film received from early critics demonstrates the discomfort that people often feel with sexual/romantic fantasies in general, and with women's sexual/romantic fantasies in particular. Feminist writers have long been uncomfortable with Polly's brand of patriarchal domestic desire; she wants a ring and a husband who'll fight for her and take care of her so she doesn't have to work, how retrograde is that? Zelda's one-night stand-prostitution daydream is, for its part, in the tradition of female pornography that continues to draw side-eyed glances and outright condemnation. Immoral fantasies, many seem to worry, will leave you weak and sad and immoral. Bad thoughts are bad for you.

Not in Kiss Me, Stupid, though. Polly tells Zelda it was fun to be a wife for a night; Zelda responds that being Polly the Pistol for a night was quite enjoyable too. Then they go on their way; better, not worse, for the play. Polly had a great time, cured her cold, and the money Zelda gives her from Dino finally enables her to get out of town. Zelda had a great time and helped get her husband his big break. More, his guilt over his own infidelity, and his recognition of his own desires, gives her the lever she needs to make him stop being a jealous jerk. For Kiss Me, Stupid, romantic films aren't just a way to talk through romantic issues and problems. They're a way to love other people—to practice infidelity in order to be more faithful.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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