Essay: Changing the Signals of Passion

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There was none, of course. Romantic kissing was permissible sex, an intimacy that could be accomplished while fully clothed, even when dressed in tuxedo or ballgown. Kissing is, among other things, a subtle and civilized medium of expression. It is a preliminary and surrogate for sex, an enticement that is also provisional. Kissing is a promise that preserves the right of refusal. A kiss is mute, and highly articulate. It involves a brief fusion of two heads, the head being the residence of mind and soul. The mouth is simultaneously the front office of language and of hunger. The kiss is a wordless articulation of desires whose object lies in the future, and somewhat to the south.

What made the screen kiss stimulating in the old days was that the consummation was left to occur in the viewer's imagination. Consider the effect if Rhett Butler had carried Scarlett up the stairs and then the camera had followed them into her bedroom to record the next half-hour. As it was, Vivien Leigh's next-morning smile remains one of the most graphically suggestive moments in the history of movies. Usually, directors were clumsier. In Picnic, Kim Novak and William Holden knelt beside the railroad tracks and kissed as a train thundered out of the tunnel. Elsewhere the censorship of the Hays office produced kisses that culminated in horses rearing, waves crashing, flames leaping. Or the camera would cut heavenward through sunlit trees.

In the Hays office days, even married couples had to keep one foot on the floor. After the sexual revolution it became possible for William Hurt, in 1981's Body Heat, to kiss his co-star with both hands up her dress. Open-mouthed kissing, the old "French kiss," in the past 15 years or so became common not only in movies but also in television dramas. Actors did not give the subject much thought until it came out last summer that Rock Hudson had given Linda Evans a passionate kiss on Dynasty when he knew he had AIDS. No one in Hollywood talked about anything else. The screen kiss suddenly became a frightening threat. In October the Screen Actors' Guild sent a letter to 7,000 producers and agents informing them that from now on they must notify actors in advance of any scenes that require openmouthed kissing.

The institution of the movie kiss will probably survive as long as the romantic kiss itself. But actors and actresses are chastened by the knowledge that their business of make-believe can get caught up in fatal realities. The mystery of romance loses something when it is overwhelmed by anxiety about what someone has been doing with himself for the past five years.

But what is the alternative to a movie kiss? In Sleeper, Woody Allen had his characters at a futuristic cocktail party pass around a shiny metal sphere that when fondled produced a narcissistic ecstasy. In Tom Jones, Tom and the ribald Mrs. Waters consume a memorable dinner that is the moral equivalent, or the immoral equivalent, of a passionate night in bed. Perhaps in screenplays of the future, kisses will be blown on the wind like pheromones. The signals of passion might be changed: an ear might be nibbled, for example, or the nape of a neck nuzzled. Actual kissing may have to be handled by the special-effects department: an artful illusion. Producers may lie around the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel, smoking cigars, reading Jane Austen and Henry James, looking for a hot love scene. --By Lance Morrow

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