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Is a Kiss Just a Kiss?

A history of Hollywood's most memorable kisses

Quick: Name a great kissing scene in the movies.

I’ve asked that of a lot of people over the last month and while some come up with an answer, most simply furrow their brows, put their hands on their hips, look at the ceiling and say, “Isn’t that funny.” And not just the guys either.

Kissing is one of cinema’s most common actions (right up there with punching), and yet what stands out? Something from “Casablanca” surely, and “Gone with the Wind.” “Titanic”? Did Leo kiss Kate on the prow of the boat or was that just in the poster? More memorable for me are the two of them steaming up the car windows, and Leo drawing a topless Kate. It’s like what my friend Seth admitted when I asked him for kissing scenes: “I only remember the boob shots,” he said. He was only half-joking.

Here’s part of the problem with movie kisses: they rarely further plots and often end them. It’s the action we’ve been waiting for, and yet for the plot to kick in again the kissing has to stop. It’s like dance sequences in this way.

Ask for a favorite dance number, though, and you’ll get besieged. There’s an infinite variety to them — limited only by the dancers’ abilities and the choreographers’ imaginations — but Hollywood long ago perfected how a kiss should look and it’s been stuck in the rut of its perfection ever since: Woman’s arms around man’s neck, man’s arms around woman’s waist, man 4-8 inches taller than woman. It’s even called “the Hollywood kiss,” and it’s almost always the same. I once asked a friend in a rock band how they can play the same songs night after night and keep it interesting, and he responded, “We fuck up.” That’s what Hollywood needs to do with their kisses. They need to give us imperfection. They need to fuck up.

But with the help of some friends I did manage to cobble together a few memorable kisses. Here they are, just in time for Valentine’s Day, in easy-to-read categories. I apologize in advance if your favorite isn’t listed.

The desperate kiss

Two people need each other, hunger for each other, want to merge into one another. Often something is keeping them apart; often their affair is illicit. In “Casablanca,” Rick and Ilsa (Bogart and Bergman) have to worry about poor cuckolded Victor Laszlo, a great war hero, for whom they will have to give up their love. But in the meantime: Pucker up. For Sgt. Milton Warden and Karen Holmes (Lancaster and Kerr) in “From Here to Eternity,” it’s cuckolded Capt. Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (who apparently isn’t so dynamite), who is the sergeant’s superior (at least in the military). But in the meantime: Let’s roll around the beach as waves crash upon us. It’s the Hollywood kiss with the addition of “wet” and “prone.” Never underestimate the power of “wet” and “prone.”

In both of these scenes the men are pretty cool customers while the women melt, but men in the movies can get desperate as well. The best recent example is in “Brokeback Mountain,” when Jack and Ennis meet again after four years apart, and discover, during their initial hug, four years of unspent passion. Why is this kiss memorable? Because it’s unexpected, and rough, and they risk so much for it (life itself, you could say). There is anger as well as love in it. Hollywood often sweeps this untidy fact under the carpet but anger should be part of a desperate kiss. Think of it. I’m me. I’m happy being me. But then you come along and make me need you. You’ve got your nerve.

That’s why my favorite desperate kiss is between good ol’ George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed) as they listen on the phone to that ass Sam Wainwright blabbing away in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George knows that if he kisses Mary he’s giving up everything for her — his last chance to shake the dust of this crummy town off his shoes and see the world. Who wouldn’t be mad? Jimmy Stewart is a smart enough actor to show that anger. Still, he kisses her and the next thing you know they’re married. The scene I want is post-coital. Is he still happy? Still in love? Or is he thinking: “What the hell did I just do?”

The kiss in the rain

Rain works on so many levels. Metaphorically it represents passion — the long storm front finally unleashed. It also adds the aforementioned “wet,” which is what we want our kisses to be. It also puts good-looking actors into clinging clothes. So many levels.

The kiss in the rain is usually a subset of the desperate kiss. Witness “Witness,” when John Book and Rachel Lapp (Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis) finally unleash their long storm front — despite her engagement to that lemonade-sipper Daniel Hochleitner.

Three recent additions in this category include “Match Point,” “The Notebook,” and “Spider-Man.” Yeah, the upside-down kiss with Mary Jane. Everyone remembers that one. It’s different. He’s upside-down. Hollywood, take note and think of the possibility of infinite variety.

The most famous kiss in the rain is probably from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Unfortunately I’m not a fan. I’m a fan of Truman Capote’s novella, of which Norman Mailer — who didn’t exactly parcel out praise to his competition — once wrote “I would not have changed two words.” It’s a love story without sex, and maybe without the possibility of sex, since its narrator is basically Truman, who was gay. Still he loved her. That’s part of the ache of the book that the movie completely misses, and that the movie’s happy ending, in the rain, nullifies. In the book she does not find her cat (he does, later), and says, “[I]t could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away... my mouth’s so dry, if my life depended on it I couldn’t spit.” So Hollywood added rain and a kiss and the bland George Peppard as the-anything-but-bland Truman Capote. Blech. Read the book. I love Audrey Hepburn but...read the book.

The manhandle kiss

Before feminism, Hollywood gave us a lot of manhandle kisses, but the ones I recall later wound up having a sensitive or comic update.

In John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” Sean Thornton, in perpetual Irish tussle with flame-haired Mary Kate Donaher (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara), drags her back into the cottage and kisses her. In “E.T.,” our extraterrestrial friend is watching this very scene on television and translates its needs to his empathetic partner, Elliot, who, to pull off the classic Hollywood kiss, must, like Alan Ladd, stand on a box in order to kiss his taller classmate. A sweet update from Steven Spielberg.

One of the best manhandle kisses is in “On the Waterfront,” when Terry Malloy bursts into the room of the virginal, cloistered Edie Doyle (Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint). Terry is responsible for the death of Edie’s brother and his conscience is bothering him, and his love for Edie is bothering him, but when she admits, in the negative, her love for him (“I didn’t say I didn’t love you...”), he pins her against the wall and kisses her and the music stops and they slide down that wall. And there goes the convent. The music stopping is a nice touch. In most kissing scenes it wells up, but a good kiss makes everything stop.

Its modern update?” Rocky,” when Rocky pins the virginal Adrian (Sylvester Stallone and Tali Shire) against the wall and kisses her. Down they slide. Rocky’s approach is certainly more sensitive than Brando’s — Rocky talks her through it, calmly — but this actually makes the scene feel creepier. He comes off as calculated, which isn’t Rocky at all. An argument why sensitivity isn’t always sensitive, and why unthinking brute force sometimes feels clean.

But where have all the good manhandle kisses gone? The best recent example, where an actor grabs an actress and just plants one, wasn’t even in the movies. It was at the Academy Awards, when Adrien Brody won best actor and celebrated the way that any man at a high moment in his life would like to celebrate: by kissing someone as beautiful as Halle Berry.

As to what Ms. Berry thinks? That would be in the next category.

The woman takes charge

Two words: Lauren Bacall. She slinks through “To Have and Have Not” as Slim, the woman who gives instructions on how to whistle. But she has a greater line earlier, when she lands on Bogart’s lap and kisses him.

He (smiling): What was that for?
She: Been wondering whether I’d like it.
He: What’s the decision?
She: I don’t know yet.

At which point she goes in for another; this time he kisses her back. Finally she stands, gives him a sidelong glance and says, “It’s even better when you help.”

Now that’s cool.

You could place various woman-on-woman kisses here as well — Marlene Dietrich soft-kissing a female customer in “Morocco” and then tipping her cap in thanks, and Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair sloshing tongues in “Cruel Intentions” — but you’d expect more post-feminist examples since we’ve all gotten so liberated. Apparently not. Fewer manhandle kisses, fewer woman-takes-charge kisses. We’re all so equal now. How boring.

There’s more categories, of course: The cartoon kiss (“The Lady and the Tramp”), The kiss of death (“The Godfather – Part II”) and The comic kiss (Anne Bancroft exhaling cigarette smoke in “The Graduate”; Susana (Valerie Golina) kissing Raymond in the elevator in “Rain Man.” Both involve Dustin Hoffman. Some men know how to work it.)

How about The kiss we’ve been waiting the entire freakin’ movie for? Recent examples include “When Harry Met Sally” (that’s for you, Brenda), “Lost in Translation” (that’s for you, Brett), “Never Been Kissed” (that’s for you, Kelly) and “A Princess Bride” and “A Mighty Wind” (that’s for me).

And don’t forget The kiss that sets up the rest of the movie. In “Notorious,” we get exactly one scene where Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are a couple, and most of it consists of a single, two-and-a-half minute take which includes many soft, nibbling, hungry kisses on the part of Ms. Bergman. Nice work if you can get it.

But I’ve saved the best for last.

The wow kiss

Let’s face it. Most of the time we know before the movie starts that this actor and that actress are going to kiss. It’s what people do in the movies. Most of the time, too, their charactersknow it, and desire it, and the kiss is just a culmination of something that’s been building and allows that something to continue on its trajectory. The kiss furthers trajectories but it doesn’t change trajectories.

I would argue that the best kisses in the movies are those that change trajectories. The characters are stunned — visually or verbally. They had seen their life going in this direction, and then they get the kiss and see it going in that direction. A kiss. Boom. Life changes.

In “The Philadelphia Story,” Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is about to marry that ass George Kittredge; but on the night before her wedding, she’s drunk and flirting with reporter Mike Conner (James Stewart), teasing him by calling him “Professor.” He shuts her up the best way he knows how. One kiss. “Golly,” she says. Two kisses. “Golly Moses,” she says. The next morning the wedding is called off. Oddly, she winds up marrying another man. Not so oddly, that man is Cary Grant.

Something similar occurs in “The Wedding Singer.” Julia (Drew Barrymore) is about to marry that ass Glenn, when, at the prompting of her cousin, she and wedding singer Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) practice the wedding kiss. Boom. They back away dazed. Life changes.

Finally there’s “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Guy (Mel Gibson) is a reporter in 1965 Jakarta and he’s begun a flirtatious friendship with diplomat Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), who is scheduled to return to Britain. At a swanky party, he takes her away from boring old men and out onto the veranda where he plants one and then asks her to leave with him. “I can’t leave with you now,” she says amused. “Everyone in Jakarta...” He plants another. Suddenly her voice gets serious and throaty. “I’m leaving in less than a week,” she says. It looks like he’ll go for a third, but he backs off and leaves the party. Before he can start his car, she gets in the passenger’s seat.

Now that’s good kissing.

By the way: Some people may consider this information incidental, but, as a writer, I feel it’s part of the public’s right to know — particularly the female public’s right to know. Two of the three “wow” kissers I just mentioned? They share the same occupation. They’re writers.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

—Erik Lundegaard would like to thank Patricia, Brenda, Kristin, and every woman who has ever been kind enough to kiss his sorry mug. This piece was originally published on MSNBC.com.