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More than just a kiss

When you see 'Far From Heaven's' Dennis Quaid locked in a passionate embrace with another man, you know taboos are weakening.

November 10, 2002|Lynn Smith | 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.

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