Kissing is an art, and like all art forms, the dominant style changes across eras. In movies especially, there are the classics, the rebels and the anomalies that happened ahead of their time. Audiences have been mesmerized and scandalized by this intimate act for over a century. “There was a day when to succumb to a kiss was to agree to marriage” says Linda Williams, a professor in Film and Media Rhetoric at University of California, Berkeley in an email. But whether it's a tender peck or an impassioned embrace, the gravity of a cinematic kiss is not to be underestimated. For many, these kisses came long before actual first kisses. They taught generations the spontaneous wonder of being dipped and kissed, the perils of making out in cars, and the way to will a kiss into existence using nothing but a lingering glance on a stranger's lips. While a kiss may have equated suburban happily-ever-after in the 1950s, it changed with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and changed again with the return to moral conservatism of the Reagan era of the 1980s.
Lip locking moves in tandem with the politics of the time, going from little closed-mouthed collisions to spit-fueled smooches. With every decade, the art of kissing experienced major shifts depending on was happening in our culture at the time, as well as the restrictions imposed on filmmakers. The history of the onscreen kiss is filled with hidden meaning, so here's a breakdown of the way kissing has evolved on the big screen — and the events that influenced the meeting of mouths along the way — from the 1940s to now.
1940s: The 3-Second Kiss Era
The famous kiss in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film Notorious is intimate. Two lovers, played by Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, talk gently into each other’s mouths, kissing and nuzzling on and off. It’s a deeply tender exchange and it also completely disrupted the norms of the time. The Motion Picture Production Code, that was in effect from 1930 to 1967, had strict rules about showing “excessive and lustful kissing.” The unofficial rule of the time was three seconds of prolonged kissing maximum — anything longer was indecent. Hitchcock's film got away with outright intimacy even under the strict regulations of the time by breaking up the kiss so that the actor's lips touched no longer than three seconds at a time while the whole romantic exchange actually lasted three minutes.
Hitchcock and other film noir era directors had to get creative (see another famously sneaky kiss in The More the Merrier in 1943), keeping with the code but also giving us impassioned scenes most 1940s audience members were not used to during the code era.
“In 1940s and 1950s film noir, the kiss symbolized the sex that the characters were definitely having but that the filmmakers weren’t allowed to show,” writes Scott McKinnon, a professor of Film Ftudies and Psychology at Western Sydney University in an email. “Those kisses were passionate and dangerous — and someone usually ended up dead because of it.”
The kisses of this era were fairly formulaic: the man (often tall, masculine and strong) mashed his lips to a woman’s (often shorter and being held down or wrapped up in some way).
This gendered representation of intimacy showed men in complete control, which made sense for the time as women (who were previously in the workforce to fill the void WWII left) were being fired en masse, according to The National World War II Museum. The independence and agency women had enjoyed until this point was slowly being stripped away, and they were being pushed back into the home to fill the role of housewife.
1950s: The Closed-Mouth Kiss Means Marriage Era
After the subtle sexiness of the 1940s film noir came the domesticity of the 1950s. Kissing during this time period was something shared between a husband and wife, both implicitly and explicitly. However, that didn’t mean that sex was not bubbling up beneath the surface. Writers such as Tennessee Williams and William Inge were masters at hinting at desire but never showing it outright. Take for instance the scene where Blanche DuBois, played by Vivien Leigh, meets Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando, in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. He swaggers into the frame and takes off his shirt as he fixes something up around the apartment, and Blanche’s eyes can’t help but linger on him, despite the fact he is married to her sister. The sexual tension is palpable, but almost everything was left to the audience's imagination or told covertly through coded language.
In the case of Streetcar, the oppressive Southern heat the characters keep talking can be taken literally or figuratively as a reference to the passion and friction everyone is dealing with. Films of the '50s used loaded terms to signify things that couldn't be discussed. "'Can I light your cigarette for you?' was code for kissing,” says Allison McCracken PhD, a professor of American Studies with a focus on the history of sex and sexuality over the phone. When the cigarettes came out, everyone in the audience would have known what the characters were alluding to.
“[Kissing in the] '50s is particularly gendered and particularly infantilizing toward women, either in the Audrey Hepburn way or the Marilyn Monroe way," says McCracken, referencing the archetypes of the doe-eyed ingenue and the sexual bombshell. "And that was a reflection of the times which were very conservative socially." The nuclear family was central to the era. Men worked and were the head of the household; women took care of the the children and marriage was everything (the code even had specific guidelines on how the sanctity of marriage could be upheld). Women certainly did not initiate kisses unless they were obviously playing the character of the harlot, and their role was mainly to be ogled or restricted to the home in the capacity of a wife and not much else.
These tropes came up often, with films like No Sad Songs For Me, in which a suburban housewife is diagnosed with terminal cancer and selflessly keeps the bad news from her husband and continues on with her wifely duties. A leading lady often existed solely to serve the man in her life. In her ideal state she was beautiful, demure and obedient.
1960s: The Kisses Are Breaking The Rules Era
Throw off your aprons, because the sexual revolution starts to take hold in the 1960s.
Kisses get deeper, women are just beginning to express their sexual agency freely, and filmmakers are boldly showing it. "Through the '60s and '70s, there was a definite rebellion,” says McKinnon. Influenced by the French new wave and its unabashed approach to intimacy, filmmakers like Francis Coppola, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, and John Schlesinger, who made the groundbreaking Midnight Cowboy, start to depict intimate moments in a new way.
“As sex scenes gradually began to become more accepted during a film, the kiss became a kind of onscreen foreplay,” says McKinnon. “It leads to the sex that is likely to be shown, maybe explicitly or maybe just through a scene of the characters in bed together, having already done it.” Movies like The Graduate pushed the boundaries of the onscreen kiss, when Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) lock lips, defying not only age conventions but the code's mandate to never "attractively" present adultery.
Culturally, the 1960s were a cataclysm of feminism, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, gay liberation and a slew of other progressive social causes all happening during a short period of time. This is also when stories about marginalized people start to be told onscreen.
The first interracial kiss happened in Island in the Sun in 1957 (which was a huge deal considering that "mesignation" was banned under the code). "Any form of non-heterosexuality was not only invisible but actively vilified” says Williams. When the production code went out the window in 1968, everything changed.
1970s: The Era of Nudity, Liberation & Queer Kisses
The closed cardigans of the '50s and the cultural shifts started by the '60s bring us to the '70s, whose films could shock even a modern day audience. This era birthed the queer cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, it brought us Jane Fonda as a New York City prostitute in 1971’s Klute and it brought us Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino robs a bank in order to fund his transgender partner's gender confirmation surgery.
The storylines were gritty and progressive, so it only makes sense that the kisses of the time were also revolutionary, showing women’s sexuality unapologetically and giving us some of the first queer representation ever.
The film Sunday, Bloody Sunday tells the story of a young bisexual artist (Peter Finch) and is among the first to depict a gay man as normal and even successful, rather than unhinged or doomed for tragedy.
“There is a kiss between [Murray] Head and Finch in Sunday, Bloody Sunday which is striking for its simplicity,” says McKinnon. “The scene is well-lit, the men are centre of screen, and there is no dramatic music or anything else to tell you that this is meant to be shocking or illicit or strange. I suspect many audience members would still have been shocked by that moment, given it would have been the first time many people had seen two men kiss, but the filmmaker John Schlesinger (who was gay) didn’t set out to stun audiences with it.”
The '70s showed us nudity, it showed us women initiating intimate encounters, and it showed a much more unrefined depiction of sexuality than we see, even in more recent decades. A lot of this had to do with the lax laws of the time, after the code got nixed and before the rating system was introduced, anything went. Women were not automatically demonized for expressing agency, as they were in previous decades, we start seeing queer relationships, and kissing becomes much less stifled and constrained. “A lot of '70s films pushed the boundaries of female sexual agency and portrayal in a way that hasn't been seen since, we’ve actually regressed,” says McCracken.
The 1980s: The High School Kisses Era
The '80s ushered in the renaissance of the teen movie. John Hughes gave us 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink and Breakfast Club, which were unafraid to show kissing’s awkward beginnings — saliva and braces included. Locking lips was just as likely to be the punchline of a joke as a heartwarming grand finale.
Many write off the genre and its somewhat predictable tropes, but not only did these movies teach an entire generation of young people how to go all in on grand gestures set to Phil Collins ballads a la Say Anything, they also told stories way ahead of their time.
For example, Fast Times at Ridgemont High had all the things that make up a classic California adolescent dream: The hot girl in a red bathing suit, making out in cars, and chill surfer dudes. But it was one of the very few movies to depict abortion as a totally normal part of a story about teenagers. “That is the last abortion we will see on film for decades, it goes away with the Reagan administration and the rise of moral majority, the idea that a character would have an abortion is off the table,” explains McCracken.
If the '70s were known for their sexual freedom, the '80s begin to chip away at this newfound liberation. The rise of AIDS, the looming threat of the Cold War and the conservative politics of the time all led to the repression of intimacy onscreen once again. Fear mongering around sex framed it as a possible death sentence. “Into the 1980s, conservative voices exploited fears of HIV/AIDS to regain power and to demonize sex onscreen (and off),” says McKinnon.
The 1990s: The Open Mouth Make-Out Era
The '90s did not shy away from tongue. Rom-coms of the time tended to feature a pantsuit-clad leading lady wooed and won by a well-to-do career man (usually played by Tom Hanks). Nora Ephron put out her legendary trilogy, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail, which include some of the most iconic cinematic kisses to date. The early days of the internet started to seep into dating culture, couples were calling each other on huge cell phones, and making out was longer and more graphic than ever before.
However, it would be impossible to delve into romance onscreen in the '90s without mentioning the effects that the AIDS crisis had on LGBTQ+ representation on film. Mainstream Hollywood did finally make a movie about AIDS in 1993, yet the main character of Philadelphia never kisses his boyfriend onscreen.
“It seems extraordinary now that anyone would make a film in which a man is dying and in which he and the lover who is caring for him never even share a peck on the lips,” says McKinnon. “At the time the filmmakers clearly thought that to include a kiss was more shocking than to leave it out.”
The '90s also started the trend of raunchy comedies that would continue into the early '00s, putting raucous parties, going-out-tops, and chunky highlights center stage. It was in movies like American Pie and Cruel Intentions where women kissing women became a sort-of party trick.
These movies forward “the idea that two women kissing is absolutely fine because straight men can find it titillating and it doesn't transgress gender roles,” McCracken sums up. Inadvertently, this trend invalidated the lived experience of queer women by exploiting their sexuality.
The 2000s To The Present: The Era Of Casual Kisses
Every once in a while, we see a romantic, old-fashioned clinch in the rain. But with the rise of dating apps, hookups have become more casual and intimacy does not always mean that there are strings attached. Most rom-com stories have focused squarely on “getting the guy," and depictions of female sexual pleasure are still few are far between.
Tongue is used more sparingly now than it was in the '90s, making way for a more artful combination of lips, tongues, and closed eyes. The Princess Diaries’ crescendo happens when Mia Thermopolis, played by Anna Hathaway, finally gets her perfect foot-pop-inducing kiss in 2001. There is the decadent upside down smooch between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) in the original Spider-Man circa 2002. The climactic kiss in 2004's The Notebook brings Noah and Allie, played by a young Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, back together to rekindle their romance in a sudden downpour.
With the ever-rising popularity of big budget superhero movies and sequels, conversations around intimacy happen almost exclusively on television, where there is more freedom and time to explore. To this day, we lack representation of people of color in romantic leading roles and most of the physical affection in LGBTQ+ onscreen relationships happens away from the camera. (See 2005’s Brokeback Mountain.)
“Everything is related to what is going on in the culture of the time,” says McCracken. “You have to think about how is the culture influencing Hollywood, which is usually a few years behind.”
Kissing, like all movie tropes and symbols, reveals so much more that we give it credit for. It is a litmus test for the cultural moment the film takes place in. It ebbs and flows depending on what is happening in society.
The onscreen kiss gives insight into how we as a society feel about intimacy. They force us to confront they way women are treated, both on screen and off. They force is to confront our own internalized homophobia, racism, and narrow-mindedness when it comes to who gets to express physical affection in front of us. The kisses that are to come out of today’s #MeToo era are bound to be influenced by this cultural moment. Conversations around consent are swirling, women’s rights issues are top of mind for many, and the current presidential administration does not value or protect marginalized identities. When moviegoers take the time to lift up diverse stories and voices, the landscape of film gets richer, and romance follows suit.
Kisses can be a form of rebellion, a push back against conservative ideals, and a unique interpretation of the present moment that is not obvious quite yet. We’ll just have to keep watching.