Handling the Gay Male Kiss, in 'Milk' and Other Movies

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Poor James Franco. (And poor Sean Penn. But for the moment, poor James Franco.)

In the relentless publicity interviews he's been doing for his new movie, "Milk," there's plenty to ask about his performance as the neglected lover of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the gay rights martyr. So what does every interviewer -- from David Letterman to the Philippine Daily Inquirer to public radio's Terry Gross -- want to discuss most, over and over and over?

The kissing.

Wasn't it really difficult to kiss another man? Implied: Without throwing up, seeing as you're so obviously straight? What were you thinking as you kissed? Did you rehearse it? What was it liiiiiike?

Underlying the questions (and the answers) is this notion that a gay kissing scene must be the worst Hollywood job hazard that a male actor could face, including stunt work, extreme weather or sitting through five hours of special-effects makeup every day. We live comfortably, if strangely, in a pseudo-Sapphic era in which seemingly every college woman with a MySpace page has kissed another girl for the camera; but for men who kiss men, it's still the final frontier.

There's a whiff of discomfort of the Seinfeldian, "not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it" variety. It's a post-ironic, post-homophobic homophobia, the kind seen most weeks in "Saturday Night Live" sketches or in any Judd Apatow movie.

Judging from their interviews over the years, actors who have filmed scenes in which they have pointed a revolver at someone's head and pulled the trigger still think gay kissing is the grossest thing they've ever had to do for a movie. Franco has tried to walk a fine line of laughing along in such interviews, while pointing out that "Milk" is essentially a movie about fighting for acceptance. He's had to rehash the same kissing stories again and again:

No, he and Sean Penn did not rehearse the kissing. Yes, one scene involved more than a minute of continuous kissing with Penn on Castro Street in front of hundreds of people. Yes, there were breath mints. Yes, it was strange, but no more so than a scene in which he had to cook dinner, which he would never, ever do in real life.

"I didn't want to screw it up," Franco told Letterman on "Late Show" last week.

"See, if it's me, I'm kind of hoping I do screw it up," Letterman shot back. "That's what you want, isn't it?"

"To screw it up?" Franco asked.

"I mean, do you really want to be good at kissing a guy?" Letterman said as his audience howled with delight.

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