American Audiences watched Irma la Douce without discomfort, perhaps because French prostitutes and pimps were performing immoral acts and misdeeds. The same subversion of middle-class values that would later inform Kiss Me, Stupid was present, but in palatable candy-coated form: MacLaine and Lemmon are cute, funny Americans playing dress-up, pretending. Dino, Orville and Polly aren’t cute and lovable but neurotic and sleazy. They could be the audience’s next-door neighbors or members of the family.
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In Irma la Douce (1963) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), writer-director Billy Wilder ruptures and desecrates the idealized realms of bourgeois domesticity — the parlor, the kitchen, and the bedroom. Wilder subverts these sacred domestic spaces through the intrusion of an array of outsider characters: prostitutes, pimps, and johns who mimic the values and concerns of middle-class American husbands and wives in the early 1960s. Both films are comedies on the surface, but complex currents of emotion and tension run beneath. Wilder works to topple restrictive utopian visions of monogamy and patriarchy, creating a Rabelaisian maze of funhouse mirrors, a world turned upside down and continuously transforming.
Wilder uses the carnivalesque, the grotesque, and the masquerade to subvert gender roles and destabilize hierarchies. In his gender-bending comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), train compartments, yachts, and hotel spaces become topsy-turvy sites where gender and class are exposed as performative constructs. His decision to show Jerry and Osgood in final close-up flips the script on the traditional Hollywood ending. Joe and Sugar’s romance literally takes a back seat as the audience watches Osgood cheerfully tell Jerry it “doesn’t matter” that he is not a woman. Some Like It Hot invites audiences to watch, laugh, and to learn something new (like Jerry and Joe, who discover empathy by walking in someone else’s high-heeled shoes).
With Irma la Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder uses the image of the prostitute as a transformative agent of change, not as a figure of scorn. The two films signify a break in method for the director. Usually, as in The Apartment (1960), the prostitution is metaphorical and spiritual. Jack Lemmon as C. C. Baxter is the corporate whore, exploited by his executive bosses. The men use Baxter for his apartment. As gatekeeper to their infidelity den (where Shirley Maclaine receives cash as a Christmas present from her boss after an assignation), they promise their office underling advancement up the corporate ladder. In Irma la Douce, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon perform as French prostitute and pimp in a charmingly grotesque, candy-colored parody of white American suburban marriage. Kiss Me, Stupid represents the shadow side of the arrangement, a grotesque realism in which a puritanical American (Ray Walston as Orville Spooner) hires a prostitute (Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol) to perform the role of a happy middle-class wife.
In Irma la Douce the camera glides smoothly, inviting the audience along on a tour of the underbelly of Paris. The street that Irma and the other prostitutes work is located in the same district as the city’s local market. Prostitutes, produce, and slabs of raw meat are displayed for purchase and consumption, and occupy a carnivalesque space, where men and women comes together to participate in a street culture in which the boundaries of class, race, and gender become blurred. Wilder and his camera elegantly construct the symmetry and composition of the shots. The market is visually striking with its fruits and vegetables colorfully arranged in patterns of green, red, and orange. The prostitutes stand on the sidewalk in the rain, vibrantly dressed and spinning their pastel-colored umbrellas.
This style stands in contrast to the black-and-white world of Kiss Me, Stupid, where Panavision is used in the exterior shots “perhaps only to capture the dull emptiness of [Wilder’s] characters’ lives with even more expansive, vacuous space” (Ed Sikov 479). Irma wears pretty green stockings, a green bow in her hair, and bright red lipstick. She lives in a cozy garret with a champagne-drinking lapdog; Polly the Pistol makes do with a crummy trailer, a rat’s nest hairdo, and a parrot that watches so much TV it can only imitate the sound of gunfire. Wilder’s exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excess move from the city streets and marketplaces of the first film into the more intimate and disturbing realms of the home and the female body, which are put on grotesque display in Kiss Me, Stupid. For instance, it is only after making dinner with Polly the Pistol (in itself an inversion of the usual prostitute/wifely roles) that Orville Spooner is able to discover “perhaps for the first time how to talk to a woman” (Kevin Lally 343).
Wilder reverses social roles in Irma la Douce by making MacLaine the protective wage earner. Irma and Nestor fight because Nestor wants to get a job at the local market. Irma is outraged that he would even consider taking on a job (much less one involving physical labor) and asks him in indignation, “Are you trying to make me look cheap?” She tells him that she wants him to be the best-dressed man around; she wants to take care of him. Nestor is Irma’s trophy wife. Early ’60s audiences could laugh at the absurdity of the arrangement, but inherent in Wilder’s funhouse mirror image was a critique of the real absurdity: the commercial or business aspect of middle-class marriage.
It is no coincidence that when Nestor first meets Irma he is taking a bite from an apple. Polly and Irma are archetypal characters representing the first woman, Eve. In Wilder’s upside-down vision of the world, however, Eve is not the temptress of the Puritans but a liberator who introduces enlightenment to the benighted males she encounters. For Wilder, Polly and Irma are prostitutes, but neither is vile, dirty, or inferior to the male characters in the film. The feminine and sexual elements in each film work to challenge male hierarchies and the patriarchal structure and to promote a vision of equality.
Orville Spooner is like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown who meets the devil in the woods. Orville meets his devil (a suave Dean Martin cloaked in a black Italian suit) not in the forest but at the equally traditional crossroads: the local gas station. In both Hawthorne’s and Wilder’s tales, the main character comes to see the corruption beneath his community’s surface. To begin with, Orville is uptight and sexually repressed. His environment is bleak. In his home he moves about like a caged animal. Orville is shackled by a puritanical heritage. He cannot touch his wife the way he would like but imagines other men doing what he’s too prudish to attempt. Orville’s neurosis is symptomatic of a larger cultural heritage that posits sex and various sexual acts (and their participants) as deviant and wrong.
Polly the Pistol is similar to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Like Hester, she lives on the outskirts of town and is condemned by the community. Hawthorne’s description of Hester as “alone, as to any dependence on society” could apply equally to Polly (164). Instead of having a scarlet letter on her breast, Polly has a stud in her navel (and works at a joint called The Bellybutton). Orville, instead of being behind the pulpit like Reverend Dimmesdale, is seated at the church piano. It is no coincidence that the church wants to shut down The Bellybutton – what the Greeks called the omphalos, which expresses “the sexual principles of the cosmos … the Egg of the world, connected with the feminine principle” (J. E. Cirlot 244).
A giant wooden figure of a woman, scantily dressed with a shining jewel in her navel, marks The Bellybutton’s locale off the highway. The caption at the bottom of the sign, near her boot, invites the weary traveler in neon lights to “drop in and get lost.” In the topsy-turvy world, of course, getting lost is getting saved, as Bakhtin has observed. The grotesque body represents possibility, openness, and regeneration, the old gives way to the new. The lower stratum of the body with its reproductive capability connects the inner and outer world. In Kiss Me, Stupid, the roadside amazon is an ambivalent marker that collapses moral and social boundaries.
When Dino drives into town he passes a huge billboard on the side of the road that reads “Welcome to Climax.” Outside Orville’s house in the front yard are two tall cacti that look like large erections. When Orville and Polly cook dinner, the neck of the Chianti bottle is suspiciously long and stiff. These are no unconscious Freudian inclusions, as the camera strains to capture the phallic symbols again and again in medium close-up. Dino isn’t shy either when he tells Orville Spooner that he would like to take Mrs. Spooner (actually the masquerading Polly the Pistol) out in the garden so she can “show him her parsley.” The danger that Wilder negotiates in both films by employing carnivalesque verbal and visual tropes is that ultimately the audience could miss his intention, and the imagery might lose its ambivalence.
In fact, this seems to have happened as far as Wilder’s audience and critics were concerned. The two films came out within a year of each other but prompted extremely different reactions. Irma la Douce was one of Wilder’s biggest moneymakers. Kiss Me, Stupid, however, was hated equally by the critics and the public. The film was attacked by the Catholic Legion of Decency and became “a symbol of everything that was wrong with American entertainment, a threat to American families, a moral blight” (Sikov 496). In fact, the language in Irma la Douce is just as suggestive, and there is more violence and flesh as well. For instance, when Nestor first meets Irma he tells her she should keep that thing on a leash. She is offended until she realizes that Nestor is talking about her dog. When Nestor is in the back of the police van with a large number of prostitutes, nude shoulders and bare thighs surround him.
Yet American Audiences watched Irma la Douce without discomfort, perhaps because French prostitutes and pimps were performing immoral acts and misdeeds. The same subversion of middle-class values that would later inform Kiss Me, Stupid was present, but in palatable candy-coated form: MacLaine and Lemmon are cute, funny Americans playing dress-up, pretending. Dino, Orville and Polly aren’t cute and lovable but neurotic and sleazy. They could be the audience’s next-door neighbors or members of the family.
At Orville’s request, and as part of the charade, Polly wears one of his wife’s dresses. In a grotesque parody of genteel domesticity, the dress turns out to be too small for Polly’s full figure. It exaggerates her breasts and the size of her hips. Dino gropes at Polly’s body and fetishsizes her breast and bottom. Each pat, prod, and poke becomes an act of dismemberment that fragments Polly’s body. Dino and Orville are both guilty of objectification. The close-up shots on Polly’s breasts and buttocks implicate the viewer in the act as well and prevent the spectator from occupying a passive role. Of course, such shots implicate Wilder as well.
Wilder’s approach at first glance appears problematic, participating as it does in the fetishization of the female body. However, to take this limited view misses what Wilder attempts to accomplish in both films, which is to affect the viewer and draw attention to how female objectification and repression function in American culture. The exploitation of Polly the Pistol at the hands of a grabby Dean Martin is overt. Wilder’s carnival is an invitation not to celebrate the cad and Protestant prig, but rather to confront and cringe, not with delight but discomfort, as toxic manhood runs amok under the stage light. The dethroning of social hierarchies and the exposure of hypocrisy are part of carnival’s liberatory process, something Bakhtin observed in his study of medieval folk culture and tradition.
Orville and Nestor are crippled sexually and emotionally; both men suffer from paranoid delusions and fits of jealousy that are intimately tied to their notions of masculinity (or lack of). In each case, both men are obsessed with the sexual surveillance of their partners and the desire to claim and control the female body. Nestor and Orville see women as objects, commodities to contain. The desire for control drives both men to the brink of insanity.
This is exactly Wilder’s point, though his chosen medium cannot help but mirror the prurient obsessions of his characters. Wilder becomes entangled in the exploitation of the female body and the titillation of the audience. Orville’s exploitation of Polly for his own gain, along with his possessive mania over his wife Zelda and the desire to control her in a restrictive marriage cause him to become delusional, and the camera likewise focuses on the fetishized objects of Orville’s (and Nestor’s) sexual paranoia.
When Dino is finally left alone with Polly in the parlor, Orville imagines that Polly and Zelda are one – the Madonna and Whore become fused and confused in his unhinged mind, which has cracked under the strain of trying to disassociate itself from the desires of his body. Orville attacks Dino and throws him out on the street. It is his descent into madness that transforms him. Before his descent, Orville resides in the realm of the head, disconnected from the lower stratum. Dino represents the lower stratum, the carnal – pure sex. He is disconnected from the upper stratum of the body – the mind. The two men are out of balance. The mind and body are split and wage war with one another.
The same war is played out in Irma la Douce. The battle over duality that takes place, however, resides completely in Nestor’s mind. He takes on, in other words, the characteristics of both Orville and Dino, a split that can first be seen in his transformation from policeman (symbol of repression) to pimp. Later in the film, Nestor’s dual nature expresses itself on a more fundamental level. His paranoia causes him to develop a split personality. Nestor takes on the role of “Lord X.” He wears the costume of an aristocratic gentleman and puts on an English accent. Nestor no longer performs the role of pimp but plays the part of a john instead. His performance is so convincing that he fools himself and Irma, who falls in love with the impotent Lord X. The only solution left for Nestor in order to become whole is to kill his alter ego. Nestor has multiple partial transformations on his path to unity. Nestor’s metamorphosis takes him from policeman to pimp, turned john, turned gentlemen, to “murderer” (in fact, he only kills the impotent, all-mind version of himself) and in the end to husband and father.
The theme of unification continues with the transformations of Polly and Zelda. Polly, with her teased hair, curvaceous body, and quick-witted tongue captures the carnivalesque figure of the grotesque – with its sprouts, protrusions, and sites of excess and messiness. Zelda’s body by contrast represents the classical form, smooth, well defined and self-contained. At the end of the film, the roles of the two women are reversed. Polly spends the night with Orville as Zelda. Zelda ends up behind The Bellybutton in Polly’s trailer, where a drunk Dino makes his way in search of the famous Polly the Pistol. After his night of madness and transformation, Orville drops Polly at her trailer unaware that Zelda is inside making coffee – now the scarlet woman’s lair has been transformed into a site of domestic regularity, once again echoing Hester Prynne’s cabin in the wilderness.
Zelda and Polly (classical and grotesque), unlike Orville and Dino (mind and body), share a cup of coffee together rather than blows, and accept each other; neither discusses the events of the night before. Once again, Wilder’s faith in the sense and wholeness of the feminine comes through. Polly and Zelda are both in the act of becoming; each takes the role of a confidence woman. Kiss Me, Stupid depends for its effect on the realization that Polly as housewife and Zelda playing prostitute are just as much in drag as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. For Zelda and Polly, femininity becomes a performance through a connection of space and the crossing of boundaries, the domestic sphere, and the wilderness of the isolated individual. The Rabelaisian cycle is complete, night turns into day (the meeting of the two women is at dawn in Kiss Me, Stupid), and death brings about rebirth and transformation (the “death” of Lord X and the birth of Nestor’s son) – unification of the mind and body is complete after an evening of carnival. The old way of life gives way to the new.
In Kiss Me, Stupid and Irma la Douce, social mores and hierarchies are challenged and undermined. Patriarchal power dynamics are exposed through the lens of the carnivalesque. Debasement, mockery, and dethroning are accomplished through the acts of masquerade. Transgressive femininity collapses normal, static, and restrictive gender roles and redefines the world.
When one leaves the lights and noise of the carnival, nothing on the outside looks the same. In Wilder’s vision, the masks and funhouse mirrors do not obscure and hide, they reveal and bring to light. The audience – pointing, staring, laughing – are in reality the subject of silent, secret, and subversive mockery by the “freaks” nominally on display. The joke is on us.
Jacques Barzun. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Harper Collins, 2000, p. 616.
J. E. Cirlot. A Dictionary of Symbols. Philosophical Library, 1962, p. 244.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960, p. 164. Originally published in 1850.
Kevin Lally, Wilder Times: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Henry Holt and Company, 1996, p. 343.
Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford University Press, 1990. pgs. 443, 444.
Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Hyperion, 1998, pp. 479, 496.
Irma la Douce. Directed by Billy Wilder. MGM, 1963.
Kiss Me Stupid. Directed by Billy Wilder. United Artists, 1964.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films.