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Ode to a First Kiss

A screenwriter longs for the magic--in movies and her own life--of that oh-so-special moment.

February 12, 1998|DEVRA MAZA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've thought about it, fantasized and flirted. You've touched, maybe held hands, felt the warmth of an embrace. You've leaned in awkwardly near, your faces so close you could breathe each other in. And then it happens. A moment frozen in memory. The sweet softness of lips meeting for the first time. It's the first kiss . . . and there's nothing like it.

I live for first kisses. In film as in life, a first kiss can be magic. It can whisper "I want you" without words, change the course of contact and color the eyes through which you see someone. When it does what it's supposed to, there's no going back.

In reality, the best first kisses are like the ones in old movies. They matter. They had to, for old movies were the first dates of film--they didn't go all the way. Sure, there's much to be said for the excitement of a torrid sexual encounter with the proper stranger, but it won't be said here, for this is an ode to a first kiss, something that was sacrificed with the love scene's fade-out.

Long before sex went mainstream on screen, the kiss was the thing. In fact it was the only thing, so everything had to be put into it. A classic one had Rhett Butler enfolding a feisty Scarlett O'Hara in his vast arms against a flaming orange sky, whispering, "Kiss me, Scarlett, kiss me . . . once . . ," and then covering her mouth with

his. It was a hard-won kiss and didn't come until after much sparring, flirting, a dance and a war.

A lot has changed in our society and cinema since 1939. In everyday life, the first kiss has become the casual accompaniment of the dating ritual, the puckered punctuation of "hello" and "thanks for dinner," imbuing it with all the romance and spontaneity of a handshake. How can a first kiss hope to find its own magic when the "right" moment is preordained at the door?

In films, too, the first kiss has been demoted. Once the passionate payoff, it is now merely the setup for the obligatory love scene (i.e., the female nude scene) that invariably follows. Indeed, it's hard to find a film in recent memory where the first kiss did not lead to instant sex but instead was kissed for its own sake. One can't help but wonder if this trend is a reflection of our own behavior, prompting the proverbial question: Does film imitate sex, or does sex imitate film?

Either way, the first kiss wants rescuing. It's too precious to lose to impatience, too unique to turn generic. It's something to be savored, for when you've been kissed well, you stay kissed. And you only get one shot, so you've got to get it right. For that to happen, the first kiss requires its own moment, its own meaning and perfect casting. When it works, it's kinetic, touching parts of you that have yet to be physically touched. It melts your socks. I want to be kissed like that. I admit it. I blame Harry Kurnitz. He wrote "How to Steal a Million."

In this gem of a film, Peter O'Toole stuns Audrey Hepburn with a first kiss that takes her breath away. If it were a cartoon, there would be a ring of chirping birds around her head and a big mallet. As it is, there's only Hepburn in her Givenchy nightie and a wonderful Johnny (later known as John) Williams score. Thoroughly dazed, she looks up at O'Toole, unable to speak, her eyes all afterglow, and slides down into a waiting cab, but he must lift her legs inside.

Later, without him, she'll fulfill his request and wipe his fingerprints from a painting's frame, slowly breathing her way across its surface with a caress of parted lips. The kisser is gone, but the kiss lingers on.

The good ones always do. I know. Like anyone who's ever had a great first kiss, I've replayed it in my mind, basking in the feel and feelings it engendered. Let's face it, there's more to many a kiss than meets the mouth. A lick of the lips, the heat of breath, the taste of the tongue, all presage the prospect of more intimate connections, the promise of things to come.

Jules Furthman and William Faulkner in their screenplay of Ernest Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not" came as suggestively close to spelling this out as anyone. Bacall slinks into Bogie's lap for their first kiss, then tells him that if he wants her, all he has to do is whistle. "You just put your lips together and . . . blow." He then whistles what the 1940s production code won't let him show. It's a kiss filled with subtext, for a well-written kiss has something to say.

But it may not have started out that way. Anthropologists theorize that the human kiss has its origins not in communication but in dinner. Eons before Gerber cornered the market, prehistoric moms would chew their children's food and feed it to them by mouth. Some animals still do this, but one thing now separates them from us: utensils. And thank evolution for them. They have allowed the kiss to become the pleasure and affection giving/getting form of expression it is today, while along with its new benefits, it still packs all the nurturing/bonding punch of its earlier function.

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