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For all the steamy romance on-screen, the lip-locks oftenleave something to be desired

A convincing screen kiss should involve two persuasively willing participants who do more than push tightly closed mouths together and pray for someone to yell ''cut."

The best kisser in Hollywood right now might be the comedy actor Nick Cannon (''Drumline" and ''Love Don't Cost a Thing"), who appears to be very serious about, and very skilled with, using his lips. There are a lot of actors who aren't, however, and a bad kiss has the power to drag you out of a scene and ruin a film.

Things were wide open in 1896 when Thomas Edison made one of the world's first erotic shorts, ''The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss." Thirty years later, with the inception of the talkies, Hollywood cooked up the Hays production code. Its section on ''scenes of passion" put the kibosh on ''excessive and lustful" kissing. Love had to be ''pure," and the kissing chaste and staged.

The movies pretty much abandoned the code in the 1960s, making way for more realistic depictions of passion. Unfortunately, it also opened the door for regrettable encounters such as the one in Woody Allen's ''Husbands and Wives," which featured a supremely awkward canoodle between Allen and Juliette Lewis, who was a third his age at the time.

More of the best of the worst follow:

Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia, ''The Godfather Part III" (1990)

An unfortunate kiss for the ages. These two play Corleone cousins, and she's been coming onto him for the whole first hour. Finally, she stops by his SoHo club, where they call each other ''cuz" and he happens to be making fresh pasta. They roll gnocchi together. Then they roll lips. The bloodline is not the problem (although that is vaguely discomforting). Nor is it the technique: Coppola's lust is about the only digestible aspect of her notorious performance. Her father, Francis, is directing the whole thing, after all, and after Garcia has carried Sofia off-screen to who-knows-where, the sound of lip-smacking remains audible.

Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, ''Sommersby" (1993)

All right fine, he's pretending to be her husband. But he should know what to do with those lips. Alas, he just jams his mouth into her chin, pressing furiously. Her eyes are closed tight, his closed tighter until it looks like he might be squinting for dear life. Once in a while a mouth will open. But then you realize: They're not breathing through their noses! Lust has scarcely looked so labor-intensive.

Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, ''Poetic Justice" (1993)

For one timid nanosecond, the lips of pop met the lips of hip-hop. The movie is John Singleton's expletive-laced road flick. On a chilly, overcast afternoon, Jackson's poet/hairdresser tells Shakur's mailman the story of her mother's suicide. He reciprocates with a sexless kiss that makes sense only as an extension of the respect-for-women phase of his music. Singleton can do profanity and drive-bys, but a romantic lip-lock seems to freak him out.

Anthony Michael Hall and Will Smith, ''Six Degrees of Separation" (1993)

A lot of straight actors say they like the challenge of ''going gay." It suggests bravery, tolerance, and compassion, and presents the star with an opportunity to deliver his lines with his hands on his hips. So Smith, who was then a rapping TV star, must have seemed extra compassionate in taking this role as a gay con artist and then laying one on the nerdiest member of the Brat Pack. This kiss is terrible because it's not a kiss. Denzel Washington personally advised Smith not to kiss a man in a movie, so in the scene we see Smith put his face near Hall's, and the camera cuts to a reverse angle as he pulls away. There's no proof of contact, but in the scheme of things, this kiss is perfect for a film about a fraud.

Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone, ''The Specialist" (1996)

Kissing for the camera must be really hard for these two because they make it seem like an endurance test. Their session begins in a hotel bedroom and proceeds to the bathroom, where both stars flash lots of R-rated flesh. The kissing is PG, however. She doesn't seem to want his face anywhere near hers, pulling back when his mouth opens. Having most of the action take place in a shower is a brilliant diversion strategy. The steam obscures and the water makes it much simpler for the mouths to slide across each other, simulating a kiss.

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover,''Beloved" (1998)

Few writers can craft emotionally loaded sex as well as Toni Morrison. This movie completely undoes that. Winfrey and Glover play characters reunited in Ohio after years on the same plantation, and we can feel how drawn he is to her. He caresses the tree of scars on her back, she leads him to her bedroom. The sensuality is palpable. Then Glover's large, hairy face moves in for a trembling kiss that Winfrey, looking as terrified as she does for most of the film, barely catches. A second later, they've cheated by reclining on the bed.

Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves, ''Sweet November" (2001)

Technically, Reeves's approach to making out with hippy-dippy Theron is sound: He moves to her rhythm; his open mouth initially caresses hers. But it looks like he's hurting her. This is painful to watch. Though apparently this is what the scene requires: He's playing a businessman, and rough kissing signifies control. ''Gentle," she says. And so after a brief recess in a San Francisco downpour, they go at it again. She's overdone the coaching: Now he's too gentle. He goes Gere and timidly presses into her. Yet the two different styles do suggest something significant: Reeves was acting.

Asia Argento and Vin Diesel, ''XXX" (2002)

Triple X? Not with this kiss. It's supposed to be a secret snog in a nightclub between an undercover agent and the moll of the Euro-baddie he's trying to bring down. But the moment is tentative when it needs to be animal. Argento is known to kiss anything like she means it, but Diesel seems intimidated. She leans in and opens her mouth, which causes his lips to tighten and his kissing to soften. Maybe he should have pretended she was a car.

Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, ''Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" (2002)

Nobody looks to George Lucas for the libidinal. Still, everything is wrong with this relationship. The hair; the outfits; the dialogue (''Everything here is soft and smooth"); the chemistry. But most wrong of all is a moment George Lucas calls the ''stolen kiss." Anakin Skywalker reaches out to touch the exposed back of Senator Amidala. She turns her head toward his. He gives her a blank stare. She reciprocates, blanker. They kiss, but they might as well each be a blue screen for all the passion they show here.

Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey, ''Beyond the Sea" (2004)

How can a connection so apparently wholesome be so unpleasant? This bedtime smooch between Bosworth's Sandra Dee and Spacey's Bobby Darin makes kissing seem like the most uncomfortable thing two people supposedly in love can do. They don't appear to be breathing, and you can practically see thought bubbles over their heads. This is compounded by Spacey's narcissism: He directed, produced, starred, danced, and sang Darin's songs himself, but would it have been too much to let someone else kiss Bosworth?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.


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