Why Can't A Kiss Just Be a Kiss?
He Locked Lips in 'Milk,' Now He Should Zip 'Em

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.

"If you wanted, I'd be willing to kiss you right now," Franco offered. (And then he kissed Dave on the cheek. Cue more screams from audience.)

"This kind of thing goes on any time there's a movie where two men kiss; and whether it's a gay audience or a mainstream audience, it's something everyone wants to know about. It's titillating," says Corey Scholibo, entertainment editor for the Advocate magazine.

"At a certain point, the joking about it . . . just isn't funny anymore," he says. "And it's disappointing for gay people. It's especially not as funny as it might have been a month ago, before Proposition 8 was passed," amending California's constitution to forbid gay marriage.

"No one ever asks Neil Patrick Harris what it's like to play a straight guy who sleeps with lots of women" on the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," Scholibo says. "No one ever asks him how 'gross' it is to kiss a woman."

To answer this, Scholibo takes off his gay media hat and puts forth the biggest academic "duh" in cultural studies: "Everything in culture is rooted in the idea of masculinity, patriarchy . . . hegemony. You have to be disgusted by two men kissing, otherwise there goes [your] masculinity. If an actor were to say he enjoyed a scene where he kisses another man, then he's somehow less of a man."

Straight actors who've taken on gay roles usually give the same answer -- a combination of disgust, bravado (resolving to get through it and earn their paycheck) and the sure-is-weird feeling of stubble not their own.

"Soon as they say 'cut,' you spit. You want to go to a strip bar or touch the makeup girls. You feel dirty. It's a tough job," Chris Potter, an actor in Showtime's "Queer as Folk," once told MSNBC. (Another actor from that show, Hal Sparks, was more circumspect: "Definitely there's an ick factor. It's a little bit like French-kissing your dad. When you don't have the internal impetus that makes you gay in the first place, you're kind of flying blind in that area. I don't get it. But then that's even more evidence, I think, for the argument that people should be allowed to be who they are.")

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger fielded kissing questions a thousand different ways when "Brokeback Mountain" was released in 2005. After the stubble answer ("One word," Gyllenhaal told People about Ledger's face: "Exfoliate") and the ooky answer ("That why we had stunt doubles," Ledger quipped about the love scenes to CBS's "Early Show"), after all the stale "I wish I knew how to quit you" jokes and the "Best Kiss" prize from the MTV Movie Awards, Gyllenhaal finally started telling interviewers that it was like kissing anybody else -- "like doing a love scene with a woman I'm not particularly attracted to," he told the London Telegraph.

Rex Wockner, a syndicated San Diego journalist who for nearly two decades has diligently compiled a weekly "Quote Unquote" column of people talking about gay-related topics, shared some of his favorite "kissing" quotes from celebrity interviews. The most common theme? Weirdness, revulsion and finally surrender.

Here's macho man Colin Farrell, talking about his gay love scenes in "Alexander" in 2004: "I didn't enjoy kissing the men any more than I am sure a gay guy would enjoy licking a woman's [bleep]. I find it repulsive when a guy's stubble is pressed against my lip."

Dennis Quaid told the Associated Press in 2002 about getting it just right in "Far From Heaven": "By Take 3 it was just fine, just another scene. We both went after each other like a couple of linebackers to begin with. And [director Todd Haynes] had to, like, stop . . . and say, 'Hey, it's a '50s screen kiss, okay?' "

Toby Jones seemed over the moon in 2007, discussing his kiss with Daniel Craig in "Infamous," the other Truman Capote movie: "I've never dreamt that I would kiss James Bond. . . . Now I've done it, I can say that I hope I am the first of many. . . . It was slightly abrasive, but ultimately rewarding. And neither of us are gay." (Not that there's anything -- eh, you know.)

Women actors who've kissed other women in love scenes, meanwhile, sound like an enlightened other species in interviews about kissing. For them, it's no big whoop. The men, on the other hand, talk as if they've outdone themselves and are now ready to accept their golden statue.

"These answers do often sort of seem to play to the assumed homo-discomfort of the audience," Wockner says. "I mean, a long, long time ago, I kissed girls. It wasn't gross, it just wasn't all that interesting. But kissing a guy for the first time, that felt very different. So if these actors were being fully honest, rather than going for laughs or guffaws or playing to the assumed gay-kissing phobia of the audience, [they] would instead say, 'You know, it was just sort of uninteresting, sort of not really anything. . . .' "

Kissing, after all, is kissing, and it feels great.

Unless it doesn't.

Time Out Chicago: Has every interviewer asked you about kissing Sean Penn?

James Franco: Uh, yes. [Laughs.]

Time Out Chicago: And you say it was uncomfortable because of his fake moustache?

Franco: I told that once, and yeah, I mean, I don't want to make it sound like -- I feel bad -- that kind of makes it sound like it was the worst thing in the world. It wasn't.

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