More than just a kiss

Times Staff Writer

The kiss didn’t exactly come naturally for actor Dennis Quaid. In his new film “Far From Heaven,” Quaid’s character, a 1950s executive, is discovered, by his wife, sweaty and shirtless in a passionate embrace with a gay barfly, played by Jonathan Walker. Both actors are straight, and Quaid particularly has become known for roles as a guy’s guy in such movies as “The Big Easy,” “Frequency” and “The Rookie.”

“I was pretty nervous. I think he was too,” Quaid recalled. “Both of us were laughing, ‘How about those Yankees’ and stuff. On take 1, we were sort of mauling each other like linebackers. [Director Todd Haynes] said, ‘Cut! You have to tone it down. This is a 1950s screen kiss.’ ”

“It took eight takes to get it right,” he added. “After the third take, when I got over the razor burn, it was just another day at the office.”


It could take longer for audiences to get used to passionate kissing between men. Women kissing women has become so common it’s almost a cliche in art-house and even studio films (“Frida,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and the upcoming “The Hours,” which explores the effect of writer Virginia Woolf on three women in different eras). But two men kissing still carries enough charge to shock.

“It’s almost a last frontier,” said screenwriter Paul Rudnick, whose 1997 film “In & Out” induced a mild hysteria in some audiences five years ago with its long, comic roadside kiss between actors Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck.

The taboo against screen kisses between men may crumble as gay characters become increasingly intimate in movies -- and as high-profile mainstream actors like Quaid become more willing to do whatever their characters would. The kiss “wasn’t anything exploitative; it was integral to the script,” Quaid said of the kissing scene in “Far From Heaven,” which opened on Friday.

As Rudnick said, American audiences by now have become used to gay male humor and gay domestic life, whether it’s depicted in movies (“The Birdcage”) or on network television (“Will & Grace”). But physically expressing gay love is something else again. “When you see two guys kissing, it pretty much demonstrates they’re not kidding,” Rudnick said.

If any actor could take on a male kiss, it would be Quaid, said Gary Morris, editor of the online quarterly Bright Lights Film Journal. “People associate him with a certain kind of honesty. He’s not so concerned with his marketability to the detriment of his art. He can afford to take risks other actors like Tom Cruise can’t.”

Quaid’s kiss in “Far From Heaven” is a particularly good one, said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Los Angeles office of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, because it’s a natural part of the story and not used for shock value. Julianne Moore, who plays Quaid’s character’s wife, doesn’t just find her husband going out with another man in a public place, he noted, but discovers them in flagrante delicto, actually embracing and kissing.


“It’s also a great kiss because it’s Dennis Quaid. He’s a great-looking guy, not just an actor, but a movie star. I know it tells other actors it’s OK to play gay. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

This fall, actors James Van Der Beek and Ian Somerhalder, playing jaded college boys, shared a kiss in “The Rules of Attraction.” There’s more male kissing in the current indie films “Love in the Time of Money” and “All the Queen’s Men.”

More ambitious than those smaller films, the $14-million “Far From Heaven” is already stirring Oscar speculation. It brings to the surface the undercurrents of homosexuality in the 1950s Douglas Sirk movies (“All That Heaven Allows,” “Magnificent Obsession”) that inspired Haynes to make his film. The themes of subterfuge seem more obvious today knowing that Rock Hudson, who starred in some of the films, was secretly gay.

“Douglas Sirk dealt with social issues of the time,” Quaid said. “At the time they were hard-hitting but today would be fluff. What Todd did was insert modern-day issues into a 1950s Douglas Sirk film.”

A threatening image

The reason mainstream audiences squirm when men kiss men, Rudnick said, is that the general rule against same-sex kissing is far harder to break with men than with women.

“Two women kissing is seen as having a kind of sweetness, a moment of friendship, and is fairly common in heterosexual pornography,” he said. But women are in general less threatening than men, he said. “Men are seen traditionally as enjoying more power in the world. It’s seen as much more of a disruption of the world as we know it.”


The startling nature of a male kiss also accounts for a certain kind of appeal, Rudnick said. In test screenings for “In & Out,” audiences seemed to enjoy the Kline-Selleck kissimmensely. “An enormous amount of people said the kissing scene was their favorite scene,” he said.

Hollywood has been flirting with different types of male kisses for more than three decades. In the more experimental ‘70s, actor Peter Finch unabashedly kissed his on-screen lover Murray Head in “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The movie tanked. Some kisses were used to reveal plot points or symbolize hostility or power (in such films as “The Sergeant” or “Reflections in a Golden Eye”). The movie “Deathtrap” (1982) dared to show a passionate kiss between Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, who played playwrights plotting against a wealthy wife. “The people who produced the film determined the kiss between the two men cost them $10 million,” Bright Lights editor Morris said.

That same year, 20th Century Fox produced the risky “Making Love,” a film about a closeted doctor (Michael Ontkean) who leaves his wife for an openly gay writer (Harry Hamlin). One kiss between the men was so passionate that it rivaled the famous surf-line kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity,” said GLAAD’s Seomin. “It’s one of the best gay-male screen kisses we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Straight audiences weren’t prepared for it, Hamlin recalled. “I talked to a lot of people who saw the title, saw the people in it, and went with dates or wives. Then they got to the kiss and were pretty shocked.”

Hamlin, who is straight, said that was the last studio film he ever made. “The notion that an actor could as a person be identified with a role he’d played was something I’d never considered. It never occurred to me at that young and naive age. From that time on, roles that involved young heterosexual men, active aggressive men, I couldn’t get a meeting,” he said.

Some agents still warn young clients that gay roles could be the kiss of career death. “We don’t have a situation now where it’s chic for straight actors to kiss guys,” Morris said. “We’re not going to get ‘Star Wars’ with guys making out. Not yet, at least.”


TV takes the lead

Since “Making Love,” no major studio has attempted to make “a thoughtful film about adult men struggling with sexuality and their love for one another,” said Stephen Gutwillig, executive director of Outfest, an established and popular gay and lesbian film festival in Los Angeles. The small screen remains the vanguard of representations of gay sexuality, he said, citing the popularity of cable shows “Queer as Folk” and “Six Feet Under.”

Those shows, along with “Will & Grace,” may be paving the way for more acceptance of a same-sex embrace. But major movie studios, dealing with greater costs and the tastes of an international market, still consider male kissing a liability, said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, which releases edgy, independently produced films like “Dogma” and “The Rules of Attraction.”

Ortenberg said Lions Gate executives knew the kiss between Van Der Beek and Somerhalder in “The Rules of Attraction” would be difficult for some in the audience to watch. In the scene, Van Der Beek’s straight character seems to have a sudden change of attitude and willingly responds to the advances of Somerhalder’s character, who is gay. Ortenberg said he hadn’t expected to hear the collective and highly audible sigh of relief let out by the test audience when it was apparent the kiss was part of a fantasy sequence.

“Fantasy removes it from the narrative,” Morris said. “It’s not exactly real.” Because it appears the movie is not really endorsing it, it’s one way for studios to deal with the anxieties associated with male kissing, he added. Most simply avoid it. There are many examples of what Seomin calls the “lost kiss” in movies -- scenes in which characters would be expected to kiss romantically but don’t in such films as “Six Degrees of Separation,” “The Birdcage” and “Wonder Boys.” Perhaps the most famous “lost kiss” didn’t happen in 1993’s “Philadelphia,” about a lawyer (Tom Hanks) dying from complications of AIDS whose partner is played by Antonio Banderas. Banderas recently said on Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio” that he had been willing to go for a kiss, but Hanks declined. (Hanks won an Oscar for his role. His acceptance speech, which thanked a gay teacher, unintentionally inspired the movie “In & Out,” which deals with the impact on a teacher’s life when an Oscar winner outs him on the awards show.) Neither Hanks nor Banderas responded to requests for interviews.

While “playing gay” is OK and can even win Oscars, “most actors don’t gain by kissing unless they can pull it off as a strong character,” Morris said. “Antonio Banderas would be able to do it. There’s something unapologetic about him.”

Quaid said his agent pursued the role of the closeted husband for him. They both wanted it for the same reason: that director Haynes (“Safe,” “Poison,” “Velvet Goldmine”) is widely admired as a director. “He’s such a great filmmaker, and I thought it would be done right,” Quaid said.


“I didn’t think it would hurt my career at all,” he added. “I’m an actor. That’s what I do. I reflect human nature and human experience and that’s just part of it. There are certainly a lot of gay actors playing straight guys. Why not straight actors playing gay guys?” In fact, straight actors have often played gay roles in films (Hanks, Banderas, Hamlin) and on TV (Eric McCormack in “Will & Grace,” Michael C. Hall in “Six Feet Under”).

Quaid said Haynes chose him particularly because his all-American image would be less expected and more interesting. “Someone said that me kissing a guy is like Nixon going to China. He was so staunchly anti-Communist he could go. I feel the same way,” Quaid said. “I’m a confirmed heterosexual who can go to China.”