Returning from a recent trip, Dan Sheehan and I got wrapped up in talking about the most iconic kisses of the silver screen. We had just surrendered all attempts to celebrate our fourth anniversary to help my family host a massive dinner party. Frenzied preparations had left us exhausted, more than a little hung over, and battling the onslaught of spring colds while we meandered through the bowels of Washington’s teeming Union Station. We were separated on a packed train bound for New York’s Penn Station and were forced to continue our debate via text message from several rows away.
Téa Obreht: All right, so what are your criteria?
Dan Sheehan: Well, deciding on the single best anything is a fool’s errand, damn near impossible, so instead I propose three categories: Sexiest Kiss, Most Romantic Kiss, and Strangest/Most Sinister Kiss.
Téa Obreht: For a moment there I misread that as “Sexist Kiss” and thought: that’s going to be a damn long list. How do you define romantic? And does sexiest mean it must lead to a love scene?
Dan Sheehan: A romantic movie kiss is one where the other background aspects of the situation don’t overwhelm the romance. So if the ratio of grief/lust/hypnosis to good old-fashioned love is greater than fifty-fifty, then the kiss in question has been compromised and will have to be categorized elsewhere. Sexy kisses can lead to sex, but don’t necessarily have to. These are my arbitrary rules.
Téa Obreht: Sounds fair. Strangest/Most Sinister seems a broad category. It’s obviously one that only comes into its own upon second viewing.
Dan Sheehan: Fun fact about that category: it was created so I could shoehorn in Michael Corleone’s “I know it was you, Fredo” kiss of death, administered to his traitorous brother as confetti rains down on them at a wedding reception in The Godfather, Part II. However, I’m sure there are other worthy examples.
Téa Obreht: Mostly between family members—my Strangest/Most Sinister award definitely goes to Leia kissing Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. This is one leery red herring. It’s meant to be titillating. It’s meant to provoke jealousy in Han Solo. Then Luke puts his hands behind his head in peacocking triumph. But she’s his sister! The writers already know it, and once we do, it makes all subsequent viewings extremely uncomfortable. Sidebar: there’s a pretty steamy train kiss happening at my three o’clock right now…your five p.m.…
Dan Sheehan: There is some serious steam rising there all right. But yes, incest kisses in family movies definitely belong in that category. I’m thinking of Marty McFly and his mother in Back to the Future.
Téa Obreht: Another skin-crawling one. As is the kiss from Big. The early ’80s really were a bizarre free-for-all in this regard.
Dan Sheehan: God yeah, you’d never get away with Big nowadays. Going deeper down the unpleasant kisses rabbit hole, how about Jack Nicholson embracing a corpse-ghost in The Shining?
Téa Obreht: That almost made my list. Oh! You know what? I stand by my Luke & Leia pick, but now feel obliged to give a shout-out to Joaquin Phoenix’s repressed priest throwing the lips on a recently dead Kate Winslet in Quills. This is one of my favorite films, not least of all because of their chemistry throughout. But then she’s killed in what can only be termed a literary sexcapade gone horribly wrong, and he’s so guilt-stricken he ends up hallucinating a sexual encounter with her shrouded corpse on a church altar.
Dan Sheehan: Christ almighty… that might warrant its own special category. We’d have to use the Internet café computers for that research, though.
Téa Obreht: Moving on, then. Where do you stand on Most Romantic Kiss?
Dan Sheehan: I’ll entertain arguments for Casablanca or Lost in Translation or Brokeback Mountain, but for me, it’s gotta be the climactic kiss between a plucky, trash-compacting, earth-bound robot and hopeless romantic, and his sleek, technologically advanced, no-nonsense girlfriend at the end of Wall-E…
Téa Obreht: Eve!
Dan Sheehan: Gets me every time.
Téa Obreht: That song, though.
Dan Sheehan: And the song is the clincher. Till then Wall-E’s amnesia threatens to tip the grief-romance balance. But just when you think that all is lost, that the memory of their magical robo-courtship has been permanently deleted, those magnificent heartstring-tuggers at Pixar pull it out of the fire.
Téa Obreht: Pulling it out of the fire is crucial for romantic category kisses, I think. Nothing worse than waiting all movie long for something that suddenly seems unlikely to catch fire. Mine: ex-con Al Pacino has spent the better part of Frankie & Johnny trying to convince diner waitress Michelle Pfeiffer that they’re meant for each other. She’s reluctant for a whole host of very good reasons we don’t yet know, but the end of a hard-won first date finds them roaming the Flower District, where Al makes his overture in a series of ever-simplifying gestures while the rising musical score drowns out his voice. Their first real kiss happens at the crescendo, just as a delivery guy throws open the cargo bay behind them, suddenly revealing a brilliant Eden of violet flowers. It’s one for the books.
Dan Sheehan: I’m ashamed to say I’ve never even heard of Frankie & Johnny, but I’ve just watched the scene in question and it’s a hell of a kiss. Pacino as offbeat romantic lead is a very underrated Pacino.
Téa Obreht: Pacino is the only one making a repeat appearance on this list so far. So I think it’s safe to say he’s an underrated kisser overall. Of course, one would rather have my kind of Pacino kiss than yours, I think. Because of death.
Dan Sheehan: Sure. That’s the strange beauty of the Pacino kiss though: you never know what you’re gonna get.
Téa Obreht: Fifty percent chance it’s death. Fifty percent chance it’s some other thing. One hundred percent chance that it will involve shouting, either way.
Dan Sheehan: If you can’t handle the shouting, you don’t deserve Al’s kisses.
Téa Obreht: Al was very close to featuring on my Sexiest Kiss list, actually, in Sea of Love. But he was defeated.
Dan Sheehan: Sea of Love, now there’s a dangerously sexy film. I’ll never understand why they stopped making erotic thrillers. Hands down the best cinematic genre.
Téa Obreht: Sometimes extinction is senseless, Dan. And unjust.
Dan Sheehan: They truly are the dinosaurs of contemporary Hollywood.
Téa Obreht: The best we can hope for is that Steven Spielberg will resurrect them as he did the dinosaurs.
Dan Sheehan: Now that you mention Spielberg, the lack of sex in his films is pretty remarkable. He should have spent more time with Michael Douglas.
Téa Obreht: Maybe he’s saving it all up for one sweet, ultimate erotic thriller to rule them all.
Dan Sheehan: We can only hope. Michael’s not getting any younger. So if not Sea of Love, what then?
Téa Obreht: So Sexiest Kiss, for me, has always been a steady favorite. Sure, a few contenders have threatened to unseat it over the years. Brokeback Mountain ranks in this category for me; The Piano is pretty high up, too. But for all its problems, there’s just no beating Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe’s romantic interlude in The Last of the Mohicans. That whole film is basically foreplay for their epic make out on the eve of the big battle—to the extent that, when they find each other at the fire while those amazing violins play, they don’t even have to be coy about what it is they’re heading up to the guard tower to do.
Dan Sheehan: Nice. The sexiness really does ratchet up when a couple are trying to evade death together. In that spirit, I’m gonna have to go with the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese motel room kiss toward the end of The Terminator. At this point, the relentless T-800 cyborg has been stalking the future mother of the resistance, Sarah, and the time-traveling soldier Reese through the streets of Los Angeles for a good half hour, and they’re at their wits’ end. In a moment of vulnerability, Reese confesses that back in the future year of 2029, he fell madly in love with a picture of Sarah. As you do. Then, as he angrily shoves homemade pipe bombs into a duffel bag, mad at himself for revealing too much, Sarah moves in for the kiss. If what transpires doesn’t get your motor running, you’re as asexual as the Terminator. Or one of Spielberg’s films.
Téa Obreht: I have to tell you something. I have never seen The Terminator. I know you love it. I know you paid three dollars to rescue a VHS tape of it from our bodega, where it was serving as a display rung for boxes of Ritter Sport, and that you’ve since hidden it among our books. Sometimes, when you say something that sounds like a film-line and look at me knowingly, I suspect you must be quoting The Terminator, but I can never know for sure.
Dan Sheehan: Everything I know about love, sex, relationships, time travel, cyborgs, and pipe bombs, I learned from The Terminator.
Téa Obreht: Then never mind. I’ve seen The Terminator.
The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.