(This article was originally published at Reel Film News on March 1, 2013.)
Kissing in film. We see it done in almost every movie, from Disney animated movies, to kid’s fare (The Sandlot, The Goonies), even in male-dominated movies like Reservoir Dogs, even if it’s just chaste or on the cheek. We barely think twice when it’s between a man and a woman, even going so far as to celebrate these kisses, like the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity, or the upside-down kiss from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Yet when kisses between two members of the same sex occur, it makes the audience uncomfortable and edgy. We’re still not at that point where we have accepted homosexuality in the movies, and the audience reaction to these kissing scenes varies from drop-dead silence to shouts of denial and disgust.
Almost 20 years ago in 1994, I sat in a movie theater at Radford University watching Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. The climactic battle scene had come and gone, and we were left with Louis (Brad Pitt) and Armand (Antonio Banderas) talking amongst themselves, with Armand trying to sway Louis into staying with him. At the big finish of this scene, their faces get intimately close while Louis spells out the reasons why he cannot stay with him, and they are close enough to kiss. While they do not, the pivotal dialogue was drowned out by audience members screaming “NO!” “DON’T DO IT!”, willing the on-screen duo not to lock lips.
Cut to 2013. I’m in an advance screening of 21 and Over, a comedy about two friends taking out another friend for his 21st birthday. As many of you know, the 21st birthday in America carries with it the notion that this will be the craziest night of the honoree’s life. The film lives up to this expectation, but it also presented an odd duality for me, in that the film carried two same-sex kissing scenes, yet only one was howled at negatively during the screening. Take a guess which one? Yup – the male-on-male kiss. No one had any sort of problem with two girls kissing; however, when the tables are turned and the two men are forced to kiss in a sorority court system where the punishment matches the crime, loud “UGGHHHHH!”s and “NO!”s came from some grown adults in the audience.
These two examples – the first one I can remember and the most recent one – still say to me that we’ve got quite a ways to go in terms of equality, acceptance, or even so much as understanding movies. To the last of those points, I’ll say only this: in the example of 21 and Over, the men are being forced to do this only because one of them, under the guise of a sorority hazing, asked two female pledges to make out. In other words, they’re getting their just desserts; why would there be an outcry? It’s a part of the movie’s rules; deal with it. In the example of Interview with the Vampire, however, it was merely the sight of Brad Pitt getting up in Antonio Banderas’ face that caused such caterwauling from the audience. They didn’t even kiss, for crying out loud, but the mere hint of anything homoerotic caused the audience to be uncomfortable. Understandably, that was 20 years ago, and attitudes have changed somewhat. But still: why would one same-sex kiss garner no reaction, while the opposite same-sex kiss would garner disgust?
Often, we think of men as clumsy, ugly, lumbering beasts compared to the beautiful, soft, feminine woman. Is it that the sight of two visually-pleasing women kissing is considered by many to be wonderful, while two knuckle-dragging men swapping spit are considered an abhorrence to humankind? Personally, I find kissing of any kind to be both lovely and gross, as it all depends on the situation; I’ll give you examples of both. One of the most gorgeous kisses I’ve ever seen was from 1987’s The Princess Bride, where the participants (Cary Elwes and Robin Wright) are framed just right and not getting too graphic with tongues and lip munching. And one of the most horrible kisses – and it’s meant to be horrible, don’t get me wrong – was from the season 2 opener of NBC’s “Community,” where lead characters Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) are awkwardly cementing their fake relationship with the most godawfully brutal kiss ever seen on television. Tongues are not in harmony, mouths aren’t even sealed – I mean, this is just a bad kiss. Funny, but bad. Another funny-but-bad kiss can be found in the film Baseketball, in the middle of the climactic Denslow Cup V (pronounced “Vee”, not as the Roman numeral for 5). Cooper (Trey Parker) and Remer (Matt Stone) reconcile their friendship with the most graphic male-on-male kiss that I’ve ever seen. Is it disgusting? Yes, but not because it’s male-on-male; it’s disgusting because Parker and Stone intentionally went way over the top to make it uncomfortable, with no love or passion (but with lots of unbridled lust), obviously going for a laugh. In the film, they play two raging heterosexuals, and this makes their kiss even funnier. After all, what did you expect from the creators of “South Park”?
That opens up a whole new Pandora’s box; homosexuality being played for laughs. Are we allowed to laugh at the sight of two men or two women kissing? We should be, if humor is its intent. Examples from Baseketball, American Pie 2, Dude, Where’s My Car? and others were meant to be laughed at. Is it an insult towards homosexuals? Not from where I stand, but I can’t speak for them. However, I suppose if non-Asian people were dragging the corners of their eyelids and playing at being Asian, I suppose I’d be offended as well. But is there humor intended, or is there malice instead? That’s what I would look at. Fellow critic Dustin Putman says, “The examples you provide aren’t played for laughs in a disparaging way. The humor comes from the situation itself, and thus isn’t offensive.”
But this all brings me to my question: why do we regard two males kissing as disgusting? Regardless of intent, whether played for laughs or totally serious, it makes audience members uncomfortable, and I’d like to know why. If we are to be tolerant of all lifestyles or sexual orientations, we have to learn that men can kiss too. And there have been some excellent screen kisses between males; Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger shared very memorable kisses in Brokeback Mountain, while Bruce Willis didn’t look too bad kissing Stephen Spinella in The Jackal. To be sure, there have been more male-on-male screen kisses since the first mainstream film kiss between Peter Finch and Murray Head in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, ranging from the sweet to the humorously robust. Maybe it’s because some audience members still cling to the notion that male-on-female kissing is the only type acceptable in polite society, with female-on-female kissing being viewed as a titillating, exciting thing to watch. True, the adjustment cannot and does not happen overnight – there are a lot of learned behaviors we have to unlearn. But the disparity between reactions to 21 and Over’s kiss scenes makes me wonder how far along we’ve come.
Reel Film News Commentary by Eddie Pasa