clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Short-Lived Reign of MTV’s Best Kiss Award

In a time before gratuitous red-carpet makeouts, one category at the MTV Movie Awards became ground zero for celebrity spontaneity and PDA

Harrison Freeman

“Like, looking back, I have all these regrets.”

Seann William Scott is once again thinking about a night 20 years ago when he won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards for his work in American Pie 2. With fellow victor Jason Biggs busy doing a Broadway play, Scott sauntered to the stage solo in a Harley Davidson T-shirt and jeans and proceeded to jokingly name-drop all the girls he’d kissed before. “Somebody showed me a picture of what I wore. Like, ‘What a fucking idiot,’” he exclaims. “Dummy, what’s wrong with you? It wasn’t even my shirt!” As for the actual contents of the speech, he’s not much more charitable: “Why did you say that on stage? Asshole!”

Given the rant, it’s easy to assume Scott has tried to repress the whole ceremony. But the opposite is true. “My jaw was dropping the entire time,” says Scott, who went on to cohost the show one year later with Justin Timberlake. “And then winning an award—it was surreal … that and hosting were two of my career life moments.” He later bequeathed his popcorn trophy to his mom; it still resides in the TV room. Such is the power of the Best Kiss award.

No ordinary basic-cable variety show, the MTV Movie Awards has lured in basically every A-list movie star in the galaxy over the past 30 years—and nearly all of them, from Brad Pitt to Julia Roberts to Jamie Foxx, have been game for self-effacing fun. If you want to see some teary-eyed actor babbling about a trophy at a podium, watch the Oscars. The MTV Movie Awards will provide a ’70s-styled Jim Carrey giving a shout-out to Foghat. And just in case it wasn’t 100 percent obvious that MTV prioritized movies over films, its shows included an array of irreverent categories: Best Fight, Best Dance Sequence, Best Musical Sequence, Best Villain. Some have come and gone—Best Virtual Performance, we hardly knew ye—but one category not only withstood every flashy trend over the past three decades, but actually became a staple that carried legitimate cultural weight.

Google the Best Kiss winners since 1992 and see for yourself. Or just take my word for it: The list features an impressive cross section of generational stars from Carrey to Will Smith to Sarah Michelle Gellar to Jake Gyllenhaal to Noah Centineo. But the Best Kiss trophy didn’t become what it was simply because of who received it: It represented an annual opportunity to watch celebrities at their most freewheeling and affectionate. Silly award aside, it meant something. During a time when stars were far more buttoned-up and private, the category was a key that unlocked unprecedented unpredictability—a reputation that grew annually as winners tried to top those before them. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams took their on- and off-screen chemistry to impressive extremes to honor The Notebook in 2005; Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart set the internet on fire for four consecutive years; Adam DeVine and Rebel Wilson broke into into an R-rated make-out session, censored crotch shots included, during their acceptance speech for Pitch Perfect 2 in 2016.

While the Oscars had its most infamous moment ever because of the unpredictable actions of a major star, MTV’s Best Kiss category has for years been a sanctioned breeding ground for improvisational absurdity (albeit of the more affectionate variety). Just ask Will Smith himself: He had to fight off a smooch from Carrey in 1997 because Independence Day cowinner and costar Vivica A. Fox was filming on location. (Ironically, Carrey was one of the first stars to publicly admonish Smith for his 2022 actions.) “We just thought it was fun, then it became a bigger thing as time went on,” says Doug Herzog, MTV’s former head of original programming and president of the Viacom Music and Entertainment Group. “Going back to Gone With the Wind, screen kisses are a part of the landscape and a part of the tapestry, [they’re] how people remember their favorite films. ... We hit on a vein that mattered to the audience. That was always MTV’s secret sauce.”

Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards
WireImage

This kiss-and-tell tale begins in a Manhattan conference room circa late 1991, when the “M” was already seeping out of MTV. The Cindy Crawford–hosted fashion series House of Style premiered in 1989. Its political “Rock the Vote” campaign started a year later, followed in 1991 by the debut of The Real World in New York City. “We were branching out from a strictly music channel to more of a lifestyle pop channel,” Herzog says. Meanwhile, executives noticed that movie studios were buying more and more ad time for their new and shiny offerings in a bid to attract the youth-saturated MTV audience. Music videos served as promotional materials for artists and record companies; something needed to be done to appease the movie crowd. The marketing department soon bandied about ideas for a ratings bonanza of a show that would be both on-brand to MTV and cater to its most lucrative sponsors. The annual Video Music Awards were already an industry-respected ratings smash … how about a movie counterpart?

A young producer named Joel Gallen helped flesh out the idea. “We can’t take ourselves seriously. We got to do the opposite of what the Oscars does,” he says. “We wanted to do the opposite, have some fun with it, and come up with categories that our audience cared about.” To underline the point, he and the team eschewed traditional categories like Best Actor and Best Actress in favor of more titillating alternatives. “We had Most Desirable Male and Most Desirable Female, which was basically our way of saying who’s the hottest person on screen,” he says. Winners would receive a colorful movie reel instead of a statuette. (The steel popcorn trophy arrived one year later.) And where esteemed Academy members voted for their peers at the Oscars, MTV put the vote into the hearts and minds of its viewers. “We took the voting process very seriously,” Gallen says. To cull the nominees, an independent research firm polled MTV viewers from around the country via phone and mail-in surveys. From a list of nearly 100 candidates in each category, producers and executives whittled down the list to five. To determine the winners, viewers called a 1-800 number and picked their favorites.

Winners were never tipped off in advance. However—if a high-wattage celebrity such as Sandra Bullock had started to pull ahead in the Best Female Performance category, producers would contact her team and strongly encourage her to attend. (Herzog says they were so desperate to put Alicia Silverstone in the room in 1996 to accept her Clueless awards that they paid for her independent film to shut down production for the day and flew her in and out on a private plane.) But in 1992, celebrity presence for the inaugural event was hardly a sure thing. Though studios promised big names as presenters to promote upcoming films, Gallen says it took some arm-twisting to get stars to show up to accept such funny-seeming awards. Original director Bruce Gowers recalls that the preproduction was shaky, with dozens of people sitting in on meetings to offer their two cents. “I mean, it was bizarre,” he says. “I have never, in my life, seen a bigger table. … Everybody at MTV wanted to be a part of it and have a say.”

The nerves were for naught. The MTV Movie Awards were held on June 10 at Disney Studios in Burbank and hosted by Saturday Night Live alum Dennis Miller. And nearly every winner—from Dana Carvey and Mike Myers for Wayne’s World to Rebecca De Mornay for The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—turned up. Even Keanu Reeves, the eventual winner of the Most Desirable Male award, was there. “He was very shy,” says Gallen. “I remember he was so uncomfortable.”

For Best Kiss, voters chose a prepubescent Anna Chlumsky and Macaulay Culkin pecking each other on the lips in the movie My Girl over Annette Bening and Warren Beatty in Bugsy, Anjelica Huston and Raúl Juliá in The Addams Family, Priscilla Presley and Leslie Nielsen in Naked Gun 2 ½, and Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. “The other [nominees] weren’t our audience,” Gallen says. “Raúl Juliá? Come on.” Chlumsky showed up sans Culkin and gave a wide-eyed, gee-whiz speech thanking her parents and the film’s director in between big gulps of air.

Still, the biggest winner was MTV. The show earned instant credibility when the groundbreaking 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day—which was relegated to the technical awards at the Oscars—cleaned up in the major categories, including Best Movie. But producers knew for sure that they had struck gold when an actor declared in his acceptance speech that “the Oscars could learn something from this show.” That impressed winner? The host of that year’s Oscars, Billy Crystal.

The first 14 editions of the MTV Movie Awards were taped on a Saturday and aired the following Thursday—and in the pre–social media world, few fans noticed or cared. Because the show relied so heavily on comedy (as opposed to music for the VMAs), producers wanted the option to trim or delete a bit that didn’t work. This rationale proved especially helpful in 1993, when cast members from The Brady Bunch reenacted some of the Best Movie nominees via short film clips. The parodies for Basic Instinct, A Few Good Men, and The Bodyguard went over like gangbusters (hi, Sharon Stone guffawing!); the one for Malcolm X did not. But producers also learned early on that the unscripted Best Kiss speeches, which encompassed laughs and sincerity and a bit of unbridled lust, consistently delivered. The category truly entered the cultural lexicon in 1995, when Carrey and Lauren Holly took the stage together for their makeout in Dumb and Dumber. “I knew he would lead the charge,” Holly recalls of her then-boyfriend. “We had been together a long time at that point, so I was just ready for whatever he was going to bring. I just didn’t think he was going to bring any romance.”

He did. After Holly joked that “Jim Carrey really does kiss like that. You should see the way he makes love,” he called her “honey” and replied that he would slay dragons for his love. “It shocked me, to be honest, because I thought it was going to be all jokey-joke,” she adds. “That night has a super-special place in my heart … it was so fun to win that award and winning with my boyfriend was even more fun.”

“They were fantastic. They were funny. They were entertaining,” says Gallen. Things started to turn the next year, says Salli Frattini, another longtime producer who helped run the show from 1998 to 2007: “People started to feel challenged.”

Indeed, subsequent winners consistently sealed the deal on stage. Species actor Anthony Guidera practically swallowed costar Natasha Henstridge whole in 1996. (“My mom is going to kill me, Anthony!” she exclaimed in response.) A year later, Carrey tried to plant one on Will Smith, his tongue jutting out of his mouth while the Independence Day star dramatically fought him off. (“This is the life!” Smith said in his acceptance speech.) And in 2000, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair puckered up and kissed each other while accepting their award for that memorable—and considerably less chaste—Central Park tutorial in Cruel Intentions.

“That was just, like, iconic,” says Sean Patrick Thomas, who played Blair’s crush in the sultry 1999 teen classic. Which is why a year later he was pleasantly surprised to be nominated in the same category for his work with Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance. “I didn’t feel like it was this big, cinematic showstopping moment,” he says. “It was just a simple, innocent moment between two characters.”

Thomas took two family members to the 2001 event and still cringes at the memory of his mother encouraging him to introduce himself to Beyoncé. Stiles was in attendance as well. And while they had just finished their European promotional tour, they hadn’t communicated at all about a potential win. He was stunned when co-presenter Christina Ricci announced their names. “At first I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible,’” he says. “Then once I got up there with Julia we were kind of like looking at each other like, ‘OK, what do we do now?’” The costars got on the same page in a hurry, as Stiles put her hands on his face and kissed him to the sound of gleeful applause.

The kiss was symbolic beyond the superficial: It also marked the first time an interracial on-screen couple won in the category. (Only two mixed-race couples have won since, though they comprised 60 percent of the nominees in 2021.) Thomas is honored by the distinction. “I just don’t think of myself as a trailblazer in any way at all. I think about Sidney Poitier or Denzel Washington or Hattie McDaniel,” he says. “I just have so much respect for history and for firsts. … It never even occurred to me that I would be part of a first.”

Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards
WireImage

The MTV Movie Awards were a true force by its second decade, widely accepted in the ever-fickle pop culture landscape and Hollywood as one of the most important and impactful entertainment events of the year. This was a show with the savvy to give Best Movie to the groundbreaking The Matrix in 2000 over that year’s off-putting Oscar champ, American Beauty. Leonardo DiCaprio famously and graciously accepted two Best Male Performance trophies before picking up his first Academy Award. Hosts like Jimmy Fallon (2001), Justin Timberlake (2003), and Jason Sudeikis (2011) cut their teeth on stage before entering the comedic stratosphere. It’s no wonder major talents literally went out of their way to accommodate the show. In 2000, Ben Stiller exited his honeymoon in Australia early to shoot a Mission: Impossible spoof with Tom Cruise in L.A. Cruise himself appeared in another short film a few years later and made several aughts-era pop-ins. “It’s no accident why he’s so successful,” raves longtime staffer and 2007 to 2012 executive producer Audrey Morrissey. “Talk about a gracious person. He understood what a superstar he was, and he took great pains to put everybody else at ease.”

Over in the Best Kiss corner, though, two still-on-the-rise celebrities provided some of the most talked-about moments in the show’s history. First, some context: The 2005 edition of the Movie Awards was on tilt from the start. Nine Inch Nails pulled out from the bill because MTV refused to let them perform using an unaltered image of then-President George W. Bush as a backdrop. (“Apparently the image of our president is as offensive to MTV as it is to me,” Trent Reznor said in a statement.) Making matters worse, the much-hyped 20th-anniversary The Breakfast Club cast reunion got torpedoed when Judd Nelson abruptly bolted from the Shrine Auditorium. “They literally chased him as he left the building to try to bring him back,” Frattini says. Alas, no dice.

Then, midway through the show, Paul Walker and Zhang Ziyi presented the Best Kiss Award to Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams for their histrionic kiss in the rain in The Notebook. “We just hoped that they’d do something fun,” recalls Gallen, who directed the show. “Then they look at each other and walk up to the stage with Ryan going all the way to the left and Rachel goes all the way to the right.” Even without the benefit of CGI’ed precipitation, the two went all in on re-creating the melodrama of two star-crossed loves reuniting: They ran to each other from opposite ends of the stage and met in the middle for a makeout, complete with McAdams’s legs wrapped around Gosling’s waist. The actor then carried her to the stage, oh-so-casually chomping on a piece of gum the entire time. It was funnier and sexier than anything The Notebook author Nicholas Sparks could have conceived. “They had this 10-second kiss and the place went nuts,” Gallen says. “I don’t even remember what they said after that. It was just this electric moment.”

“As an executive producer, [I was thinking], ‘Let’s make sure all cameras have this at every angle. This is hysterical, this is great!’” says Frattini. “But you know, listen, it was all clean. There was no nudity, nobody squared off in the middle of it. Nobody took off anything. So it was great.” Plus, the producers didn’t even realize Gosling and McAdams were actually dating—a fact that’s since elevated the moment into a crucial artifact in celebrity romance history.

The kiss managed to go viral before the concept even existed—and with the invention of iPhones and Twitter still a few years off, the network had full control over the coverage of the prerecorded show. By releasing only a single photo of McAdams and Gosling in each other’s arms in advance of the airing, the tease was on (as were potential big ratings). “We intentionally held back surprises,” Frattini adds. “That built the buzz.” One grainy video on YouTube now has almost 4 million views. It’s still analyzed during every The Notebook anniversary, and no “Celebrity Costars Who Dated in Real Life” internet listicle is complete without the words “the 2005 MTV Movie Awards.”

Another real-life couple dominated the category for four consecutive years. As the brooding vampire and the lip-biting teen who can’t help falling for him in five Twilight movies, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart’s forbidden love ignited a fan frenzy and turned them into tabloid cover staples. “It just seemed like this series that came out of nowhere,” Morrissey says. The first Twilight entry went on to win Best Movie in 2009, while Pattinson and Stewart each took home individual popcorn trophies. For Best Kiss—the official coronation—the two gazed longingly into each other’s eyes and inched closer and closer, noses touching, before Stewart turned away and gushed into the microphone, “Thank you so much!”

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards
Getty Images

The shrieking audience wanted more, and they got it one year later: This time, Stewart coyly told the fans, “I guess we’re supposed to kiss each other” before ever-so-briefly locking lips with Pattinson. By 2011, the couple was all in on playing up their chemistry to the masses. “I think we should finally go for it,” she told Pattinson. Cut to Selena Gomez, looking extremely delighted—and Pattinson then darting into the audience to share the love with costar Taylor Lautner.

The Twilight phenomenon was a win for all: The two often came off in interviews as serious introverts, so these appearances enabled them to show off their actual personalities. Asked how important it was for Pattinson and Stewart to RSVP yes, Morrissey replies with one word: Huge. “They were the biggest guests, especially for that demo,” she says. “They were both gorgeous—a couple you couldn’t take your eyes off. They had a sort of electric presence. … You can’t beat that.”

Surprisingly, the heyday of Twilight ended prematurely: The two were not even nominated for the final movie in the franchise, 2012’s Breaking Dawn—Part 2. Silver Linings Playbook’s Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were the ones to break the streak, but Lawrence didn’t even show to accept the honor. Cooper sheepishly said, “She was great to kiss,” and thanked the fans.

But there’s no chance you remember this, and the same likely goes for all the winners that followed. With the influx of small-screen options, the Movie Awards soon began to lose its luster as a must-see live event. Besides, MTV no longer had the market cornered on A-list spontaneity: After the rise of social media, candid celebrity moments became a dime a dozen. Seeing famous people kiss feels a lot less novel when Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker are sticking their tongues down each other’s throats on every red carpet.

Trends of any kind are now hard to come by for the one-time trendsetting network. A typical day’s programming on MTV usually consists of 10 hours of Ridiculousness reruns. Morrissey says her 11-year-old son doesn’t even know what the network is. “In a lot of ways, MTV is a shell of its former self,” says Herzog, who now cohosts Basic, a podcast about the heyday of basic cable. “Streaming has become more of the first stop.”

The Movie Awards still exist—but the show is scarcely recognizable to anyone who watched Carson Daly on the network, let alone Tabitha Soren. To acknowledge the explosion in small-screen content on various streaming platforms, the ceremony incorporated TV into the mix in 2017. Last year, a supplemental “Unscripted” program aired one night later. Success is now measured not necessarily by classic movie star turnout but by the volume of hashtags, social engagements, and TikTok videos.

The most interesting difference, though, is the most subtle one. Gallen noticed it when he returned to oversee the show in 2018 and 2019. “People are afraid to be made fun of now and everybody’s so sensitive,” he says. “It was a looser, more relaxed vibe back in the ’90s, and that’s what enabled us to achieve the success we had.” In fairness, he adds that the change isn’t an MTV issue: Celebrities have become highly curated and preprogrammed in this new era of hypersensitivity. As an executive producer and director of 14 Comedy Central Celebrity Roasts, Gallen wonders aloud, “Will we do another roast so soon? I don’t know.”

In the context of the Awards, look no further than the lineup for evidence: Instead of, say, Best Gut-Buster, new categories in recent years have included Best Tearjerker, Best American Story, and Best Fight Against the System. The winners have led to impassioned yet sobering speeches. Best Kiss has also veered away from celebrating low-brow (albeit crowd-pleasing) comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Starsky & Hutch, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and We’re the Millers. Now the represented films and series are mostly earnest in nature—The Fault in Our Stars, Moonlight, Outer Banks. “I was there representing an incredibly powerful film, with an incredibly important message,” says actor Keiynan Lonsdale, who took the honors for the sweet 2018 LGBTQ+ teen comedy Love, Simon.

There’s just no getting around the fact that what was considered funny back in the day just no longer is. An extensive straight-dude kiss to appease female objects of desire—as seen in Scott’s American Pie 2—would never get written into a 2022 movie, let alone validated with a trophy. “It’s a bit innocent, but it probably wouldn’t be done today,” Scott says. “Things have definitely changed.”

The behind-the-scenes talent sounds nostalgic for the glory days. “They were a bunch of rebels in the early days,” says Gowers. “It wasn’t like it is now. … It’s pathetic.” Adds Morrissey, “It was a great time. It was just conceived and created out of thin air. … There wasn’t anything else like it.”

The feeling is shared by the movie stars. Thomas keeps his popcorn trophy (along with the one for Breakthrough Male) in his basement and notes, with a twinge of melancholy, “Twenty years later, [you realize] that doesn’t happen every year.” Holly displays hers on a shelf above her office desk and recently showed it off during a Canadian talk show guest spot. As for Scott? He may have regrets in that metaphorical rearview mirror, but his Best Kiss trophy still signifies how far he came in his journey. “You just wouldn’t imagine it,” he says. “Growing up, watching those award shows … and all of a sudden, I get a movie. Then I get invited to the show. Then I win a little popcorn statue and then a couple years later I host [the show]?! It’s kind of bonkers!”

Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.

The Town

Producer Jason Blum on Money vs. Creativity

Ringer Dish

Nancy Jo Sales Remembers Her Iconic Story, “Leo, Prince of the City”

Movies

“How Would You Like a Lap Dance?”: The Oral History of ‘Magic Mike’

View all stories in Movies