Amongst all the Valentine's Day related articles in the papers last week I noticed one in the Sunday Times that I could not resist blogging about. Entitled "What Happened to the Big Screen Kiss," it was written by a film critic and claimed that the cinema kiss was officially dead. His contention was that there had not been a great cinema smooch since the days of Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity and Casablanca.
The history of the cinema kiss
The first screen kiss made its debut right back in 1896 in a 21 second film called, appropriately enough, The Kiss. In it May Irwin and John Rice re-enacted the kiss from their 1895 Broadway stage play The Widow Jones. It was filmed by Thomas Edison and became the most popular film produced that year by Edison's company. Inevitably it was denounced in some quarters as disgusting and scandalous, which no doubt aided its popularity! After that it did not take long for the kiss to become the star attraction in films. The 1920s was the great age of the silver screen smooch with actors such as John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino and Theda Bara giving it their all.
Between the 1930s and the 1960s the screen kiss flourished in every shape and form, sweet, sexy, dangerous, flirty. This was the period that gave us such classic kisses as the kiss in the rain in Breakfast at Tiffany's and the swirling 360 degree kiss between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair. So what happened to the screen kiss in the 1970s? Is it true that with the shedding of sexual inhibitions the heterosexual screen kiss was seen as too tame, replaced by the shocking images of films such as Last Tango in Paris? Is that when the screen kiss lost lustre, never to recover? ? Did the kiss seem corny in comparison to erotic explicitness?
Leading men don't measure up
One of the most shocking claims in the article was that none of today's leading men are great screen kissers. Hugh Grant was dismissed as a "nibbler" who aims and lands his mouth on the small area above the upper lip and below the nose, then settles down for a nice nibble like a rabbit. This is hardly a romantic image. Neither George Clooney not Brad Pitt were rated as halfway decent in the smooch stakes. Is this too harsh? Or is it not the fault of the actor but simply that the kiss will never regain its power because it has lost its ability to shock? There was a time when all screen kisses were moments of huge dramatic and sensual tension. Eyes met, hearts melted, lips locked and audiences swooned. Now the kiss is usually the romantic prelude not the main event. It has even been suggested that the rise of the vampire owes something to the urge to bring back the romance of old. The bite is the new kiss, erotic but innocent at the same time.
All this got me wondering firstly if it was true – are screen kisses less memorable and romantic now that they used to be – but also, is this apparent trend reflected in books as well as on screen? Has the kiss been sidelined in the rush to get the hero and heroine between the sheets? I'd hate for either of those ideas to be true. I'm an unashamed romantic who still relishes the build up of sensual tension on screen or on the page and for whom The Kiss is still The Moment. My favourite movie kiss moments from (relatively) recent years include Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver in The Year of Living Dangerously (and I love that poster too!), Mel Gibson and Sophie Marceau in Braveheart, Mel Gibson and Julia Sawahla as Rocky and Ginger in Chicken Run… Yes, there is a Mel Gibson theme here. Also Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro in Love Actually and George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day. And I could certainly make a case for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith.
Sweep me away between the pages
With books I think the author has to work even harder to create a "sweep me away" moment on the page in a medium that isn't visual like cinema. The Literary Review offers a "Bad Sex Award" for appalling descriptions of sex in books and this can encompass desperately off-putting kisses as well. A reference to a kiss tasting of sawdust and fish-slime will forever stick in my mind. But some kisses in books still hit you right there with the intensity and emotional punch, the kiss being so much more than "just" a kiss.
So please reassure me I'm not alone in believing that the kiss is still vitally important in both the movies and on the page. It doesn't have to be the romantic prelude. It can still be the unforgettable moment.
What are your favourite movie kisses? Do you think that a kiss on the page can have as much impact as a kiss on the screen? Or do you think the article was right and the kiss is no longer the star attraction?