Have you ever thought how weird the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss is?
You probably won’t see many actors keeping their MTV Awards alongside the Oscars or Emmys. The popcorn trophy that can usually be seen on the shelves of interpolated stars and anyone from the dusk saga that is not Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart has never been a symbol of prestige. The modern relevance of the award remains questionable given the waning popularity of MTV and the evolution of Gen Z to more online entertainment. However, there is something about this curious awards ceremony that has always fascinated me a little.
Founded in 1992 – and originally hosted by Dennis Miller? – the MTV Movie Awards were designed to be another Gen-X sign of effortlessly cool and vague countercultural radical chic. Sure, the Oscars love all that serious drama your parents love, but MTV is here to scream Terminator movies and drool over Keanu Reeves and not be embarrassed to enjoy brash comedies or explosive blockbusters. Where else could you see Aladdin, Primary instinct, and Malcolm X competing against each other? Sometimes this advantage exercised paid off, with moments like awards given to the director of Hoop dreams or a then unknown Wes Anderson. As with all MTV Awards ceremonies, the hope was that the show – which initially aired live – would spark those headline-ready moments. Create enough opportunities and chaos will reign.
That sounds like good reasoning for a category called Best Kiss. Well, that and this is a show aimed at a younger audience who love to watch hot people smooch. It’s the perfect way to get fans screaming, whether it’s for expedition joy or sheer comedic fun. You won’t see that kind of passion at the Oscars (unless it’s scary and non-consensual like when Adrien Brody won Best Actor and tried to kiss Halle Berry in WWII, like it or not.) Really, I think it’s the best Category Kiss that gives us the best lens to see this weird awards show and its impact on pop culture in general. Because seriously, it’s a bit crazy to exist.
Not all movies have a good kiss. Even in the 90s, when romantic comedies and erotic thrillers reigned supreme, perfect lip locking was not always guaranteed. A kiss in this context is sort of a climax – heh – a release of tension and a sign that the audience is satisfied – seriously, heh. Two people of comparable heat do not guarantee instant chemistry or that the kiss will work as intended. Do you want champagne corks to jump wildly or fans to sigh with pleasure or laughter to fill the multiplexes?
MTV Award nominees cover this range in often unexpected ways. Take the first year of the award, where the winners were Anna Chlumsky and Macaulay Culkin for My daughter, two literal children. It at least makes sense that youngsters at MTV are thrilled that the most famous child actor of his generation is having his first major kiss onscreen, but his place among these other nominees can’t help but feel a bit disconcerting: Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia in The Addams Family; Annette Bening and Warren Beatty in Bugsy; Priscilla Presley and Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun 2½: The smell of fear; and… uh… Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis in Cap Fear. The messages are, to say the least, mixed. Are we supposed to be eyeing all of this? Or laugh? Or be uncomfortable? Remember, De Niro manipulates a teenager in Cap Fear. It’s supposed to be horrible. Did MTV read it that way and see his nomination as a way to celebrate an effective moment of characterization? Or were they really in it?
This blend permeates this category over the decades. Of course, it’s pretty funny when the kid and the whale Save Willy be nominated, but what a kiss MTV is excited to see Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore kiss in Annibal? Are children great in How to make an American quilt?
And what about this nomination for Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain in Lolita? You know, the story of the pedophile? It’s quite famous. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I could probably spend thousands of words writing about Adrian Lyne’s adaptation of Nabokov’s novel, how much he missed out on most of the source material, and how much the media indulged in sexualizing a child. with its promotional cycle. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t run out of material. Much of the marketing around this movie sold it as a romance, and I would say the movie does too. But seeing MTV’s “cool kids” invites us all to get hot and bothered by Irons kissing a 14-year-old and place him next to moments like the threesome in. Wild things is certainly indicative of something sinister about ’90s entertainment. Again, who is it for and why?
There are times when this category feels a bit ahead of its time. Same-sex kissing is a frequent nominee, and has been since 1997 (shout out at Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon in Leap.) However, it was still rare during much of the 90s and early 2000s to see a same-sex portrayal here that also isn’t a joke, like Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen winning for Nights of Talladega, or fetish fuel, like Owen Wilson with Amy Smart and Carmen Electra in Starsky and Hutch. We can see how some might take these crumbs as a sign of progress in the vein of visibility at all costs, but there is still a tinge of otherness in all of this that makes me uncomfortable. As refreshing as moments as a reward brokeback mountain meaning, you wonder if the intention is clear, but it got better over the next few years, with the award going proudly to queer works like Moonlight.
But progress has been made. As the awards broadened its horizons to include television as well as film, MTV seemed happy to wear a more proudly progressive program on its sleeve. The categories of actors were no longer divided by sex. The best fight included clashes like “Ruth Bader Ginsburg vs. Inequality ”. Impactful documentaries like Survive R. Kelly and Heart of Gold: Into the Gymnastics Scandal in the United States were mentioned.
Pop culture awards tend to be terrible measures of merit, but they’re great barometers of how a particular industry wants to see itself and how it wants the world to perceive it. The Academy ignoring decades of cinema of women and people of color doesn’t make those films bad, but it does reveal the ingrained bigotry and systemic wrongdoing of an entertainment sphere that dictates which stories are most prized. MTV is no longer the cultural giant it once was, and one wonders how accurate it is to measure so-called youth culture, but its cinematic awards are an intriguing look at how old men in costume perceive its most valuable demographics. If the wind is blowing in the direction of progress, it would be foolish not to follow.
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