- Watching Men Kissing Men: The Australian Reception of the Gay Male Kiss On-Screen
In the 1942 film Casablanca, piano-playing Sam famously sings that we “must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss.”1 Although now a classic cinematic moment, coming from a Hollywood film, this is arguably something of a hypocritical message; when placed on-screen, a kiss has often represented much more than just a kiss. The kiss has been required to carry multiple meanings in the history of cinematic sex, from innocent affection to sexual passion. From cinema’s very beginnings until the mid-1960s, Linda Williams argues, “a kiss of variable length had to do the job of suggesting all the excitement and pleasure of intimate sexual contacts.”2 This was certainly true in Australia, where a limited local film industry and a dependence upon British and American studios was coupled with multiple layers of censorship, first in the place of production and then through local censorship regimes. Kisses were targets for the censors, who feared that audiences might be enticed toward inappropriate passions. But if the kiss could arrive at a range of moments in the narrative and could convey a range of possible meanings—from affection to desire and from illicit passion to marital bliss—there was at least one kind of kiss that remained entirely unacceptable to the censors. Until the 1970s the kisses filmed by British or Hollywood studios and ultimately screened to Australian audiences were always between a man and a woman. Although heterosexual sex enjoyed a slow cinematic reveal, starting with the kiss and leading up to the eventual display of sexual intercourse, gay men were first seen kissing on-screen in the same films in which they were first seen having sex. There was no slow reveal; a gay male kiss only ever appeared in films that also featured sexually explicit scenes. While heterosexual kisses were cinematic symbols for the whole range of heterosexual sexual acts, when two men kissed on-screen, it was always foreplay. [End Page 262]
In her insightful and illuminating book, Screening Sex, Williams charts the history of sex on-screen in the context of her own (hetero)sexual awakening, depicting the progression in movie history from kisses to actual sex as a kind of growing up through which the movies, the American cinemagoing public, and Williams herself came of age. To Williams, the long era prior to the end of the industry-regulated Production Code censorship system in 1968 represented a “prolonged adolescence [during which] carnal facts of life were carefully—often absurdly—elided.”3 Williams does include gay male on-screen sex from the 1970s onward as a significant element of her analysis, but she does not contemplate the absence of same-sex kisses during that prolonged adolescence. For gay men on-screen, there was no gradual development of cinematic sexual knowledge. There was no gay Mickey and Judy or Frankie and Annette, innocently exploring their adolescent sexuality on-screen and containing their desire within (outwardly) chaste kisses. Nor were there any urgent film noir embraces in which the kiss represented illicit sex, or any final meetings of lips to resolve the sexual tension of a romantic comedy and to indicate future years of monogamous joy. When gay men finally kissed on-screen, they were decidedly grown up, and they only kissed because they were about to have on-screen sex.
I grew up in a slightly later era than Williams, with a different gender and sexuality and on the other side of the world. I was born in 1972 and grew up as a cinema-obsessed gay male in Sydney, Australia, and my childhood and adolescence were filled with movies, the vast majority of which contained at least one heterosexual kiss. But I was in my very late teens before I saw two men kiss on-screen. Films with gay men kissing were far rarer than those containing straight kisses and were, as a result of the sexually loaded position of the gay male kiss, only available to adult audiences. I am interested, then, in what the range of differences between cinemagoers like Williams and...