Bright Lights Film Journal

Queer Kisses: The Cinematic Taboo Before 2000

Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday, Bloody Sunday

What is it about the sight of two men kissing that drives Americans insane?

Frank Oz’s In and Out can be read on one level as an attempt to relocate a sorely missed cinematic motif: the queer male kiss. When Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck settle in for their already legendary extended smooch, it’s hard not to recall those instances in movies where such a kiss seemed to be called for but never arrived; where it was used to signify dislocation and terror; or, rarely, where it functioned like the one in In and Out, as a positive, pleasurable, even life-changing event. Independent, foreign, and porn films offer plenty of all-male kisses and more, but the mainstream has mostly showed extreme cowardice in this area.

In & Out

As in the past, the kiss in In and Out was the source of much hand-wringing. The shooting of the scene took two days; there are stories of startled security guards; and cast members, while not objecting to the event per se, expressed some anxiety over whether it would “play.” Paramount execs hotly debated whether to keep it or cut it, but preview audiences allegedly made the decision for them by first gasping and then, according to producer Scott Rudin, “cheering” as the kiss builds into a kind of comic frenzy. A cynic might say that the amount of publicity generated by this kiss – and it was the topic among the press at the film’s New York press junket – was what motivated Paramount to let it stay in. Nonetheless, it’s there and in the limited context of this rather foolish movie, it works.

Historically, the cost of the queer kiss has been quite high. In one instance, the amount was actually measured. This was Deathtrap (1982), where Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine engage in a passionate liplock that Reeve later said came to be known as “the ten-million-dollar kiss” – the revenue the producers believe they lost as a result of daring to show it. (According to Vito Russo, Denver preview audiences ferociously booed it.) And even the masterful Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) is widely regarded to have failed commercially because of the frantic tongue-swapping between Peter Finch and the fetching Murray Head. The far duller Making Love (1982) flopped for the same reason; this time it was Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean who crossed the oral threshold. Queer viewers cheered both films anyway.

Mainstream audiences want their homosexuals but not the details. Six Degrees of Separation (1993) is more famous for Denzel Washington’s widely quoted warning to Will Smith – “Don’t you be kissing no man!” – than it is for a credible queer character who might have sexual impulses. This calculated evasion not only offends intelligent viewers, but makes the entire film dismissable. How can the audience trust any part of a movie that doesn’t have the guts to show even the smallest aspect of the key component of a character’s arsenal? (Smith played a hot gay hustler.)

Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Phladelphia

Another famous example of the “lost kiss” is Philadelphia (1993), where we must take the word of the gay partners that they love each other because the filmmakers didn’t have the guts to offer any visual evidence. The Birdcage (1996) brought huge rewards to its investors, but failed as a human document. No one could believe in the “loving relationship” between the two male principals who lacked even the mildest physical connection. To Wong Foo (1995) offers similar distortions, relying on sensitive, “thoughtful” drag queens to repair the stupidities of the straight world while exhibiting none of their own basic human, homosexual urges.

An alternative strategy to total suppression is the kiss that’s threatened but never materializes, as in Victor/Victoria (1982). James Garner plays literal straight man to the dazzling genderfuck world of cabaret, and more specifically to Julie Andrews’ mystery-gendered singer. He’s totally turned on to Julie-as-a-man but agonizes over the homosexual implication. What to do? The film accommodates viewer prejudices by delaying their kiss until after he’s discovered Julie’s really a girl.

Most commonly, the queer kiss is a downbeat decorative motif signaling a world out of control. In The Detective, closeted queen-killer William Windom is shown wandering through the demimonde of New York’s sexual underground, circa 1968. A scintillating background view of two men kissing is visualized as yet another corner of poor Windom’s murderous mental breakdown. In Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), which traces a young New Yorker’s black-comic descent into hell, two leather queens smooch in the background, a sure sign to the audience that there’s something radically wrong here. In the Dirty Harry epic Magnum Force (1973), a gay cop kisses his dead lover’s lips, an act apparently so repugnant it immediately triggers his own murder. The Mafia homo-inflected “kiss of death” – where the kissee is soon to be dispatched – appears in a number of movies but in one, The Brotherhood (1968), it was actually part of the poster art, meant to seduce and terrify with its sense of transgression. The same year, The Sergeant featured another brutal kiss, the unappetizing climax of the violent repression of a mincing, aging military man played by Rod Steiger.

Perhaps for now the last word on the subject belongs not to In and Out but to John Waters. His 1971 Multiple Maniacs features a criminal traveling circus headed by Divine. Her shtick is to lure unsuspecting suburbanites into her tents with “shocking” sex-and-fetish acts, then rob and kill them. When promises of “puke eaters, lesbians, and mental patients” fail to entice a reluctant couple, circus-master “Mr. David” (David Lochary) trots out the final horror: “Two actual queers kissing each other like lovers on the lips! These are actual queers!” Waters hilariously counterpoints the onlookers’ screams of horror with a close-up of the queers in question, unapologetically french-kissing with all the sweat and heat that normally accompany the act.