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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Smoke gets in my eyes II

“My hands are bloody; so are Hollywood’s.”

A quote from a war crimes trial in The Hague? Dream on. It’s from an op-ed piece by a prominent screenwriter, published in a prestigious national newspaper. And it means that it’s time to talk about smoking in the movies again.

I thought I had said everything there was to say on the subject last year after a group called Smoke Free Movies began waging a campaign to get smoking out of films. But now we have this striking confessional sermon two weeks ago in The New York Times by Joe Eszterhas, who has penned such high-profile Hollywood works as Flashdance, Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

No followers of any religion are more fanatic than converts, and this goes for the anti-smoking legions as well. There is nothing more dismaying than a seemingly sudden defection from the ranks of the “I smoke because I like it; I can stop anytime I want to” crowd to the role of newborn-again prohibitionist. Actually, despite the popular conception of a powerful smoking lobby lurking out in America’s heartland, the truth is that hardly anyone militantly defends the rights of smokers except the big tobacco companies and strange political bedfellow pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. If you quiz most people that you know who smoke, they will usually tell you that they would either like to quit and/or are planning to quit. And, if you know them enough years, they eventually do quit (either by cessation of smoking or cessation of living), except for the lucky few who puff away happily until they are 100 and who are cited endlessly by younger smokers as proof that smoking isn’t all that bad for you. One fellow I worked with years ago, who was virtually the lone smoker in our office, explained his addiction by describing himself to people as “a pre-non-smoker.”

In the best saved-sinner tradition, Eszterhas paints a vivid contrast between his old and new lives. He says he used his movie scripts to propagate his (since renounced) views that smoking is everyone’s right, that efforts to stop it are “politically correct,” and that “secondhand smoke was a nonexistent problem invented by professional do-gooders.” He goes on to explain how he used smoking as a “sexual subtext” for his script for Basic Instinct. (Sharon Stone smokes, while Michael Douglas is trying to quit.) Eszterhas goes on to tell of his throat cancer surgery, which led him to give up smoking and drinking. Declaring that, through his movies, he has “been an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings,” he says that “I have made a deal with God. Spare me, I said, and I will try to stop others from committing the same crimes I did.” He goes on to make a good effort at keeping that promise, exhorting his colleagues to stop glamorizing smoking.

This is all very moving, but my main reaction is, “Huh?” I didn’t know that Hollywood was glamorizing smoking. I haven’t exactly done a research paper on the topic because that might actually require time and effort, so I can’t speak with absolute authority. But I just don’t notice that many people smoking in the movies. And, when they do smoke, I’m not sure that they are all that glamorized. You just have to look at movies made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to see what real glamorous smoking was all about. When someone like Ingrid Bergman or Lauren Bacall lit up a smoke, it made me want to have one too—at least it would if I thought one of those lady screen legends would light it for me. In those days, the coffin nail was definitely a sexually charged fashion accessory. I’m sorry, Joe, but I just don’t see it being used the same way today.

For a start, I just don’t see that many movie characters smoking. Moreover, when a character does smoke, the habit usually isn’t portrayed as particularly glamorous. One example that comes to mind is Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a film that was roundly criticized by the anti-smoking crowd. Sure, Julia is considered one of the most beautiful female actors in movies today. But the character she played in that movie was not particularly sympathetic. She was trying to wreck a marriage before it even got started, for Pete’s sake, and only because of her own weird insecurities and ego. We may have liked her in spite of herself because we saw something all too human in her, but I’m sorry, her compulsive chain smoking was not glamorous.

One of the best send-ups of the movie smoking thing was in the satire Airplane! One of the funniest running gags in the film was Lloyd Bridges as the airline trouble shooter, who got to work on solving a mid-air crisis by declaring resignedly, “I picked the wrong day to quit smoking!” as he pulled a fag from a pack. The line was repeated numerous times, each time with a more extreme substance abuse problem substituted for smoking. Glamorous it was not, but it was definitely funny. And it did point up one reason why a scriptwriter would have a character smoke. It is visual shorthand for a person under stress. Eszterhas’s rebuttal to such creative/artistic use of on-screen smoking: “The truth is that there are 1,000 better and more original ways to reveal a character’s personality.” Cool. I look forward to seeing them in your future movies, Joe.

I explained in my previous piece why I think a ban, such as Eszterhas advocates, is well intentioned but not terribly likely to work. I am not denying the power of TV and movie screen images to influence the masses, especially the young. But popular culture is a vicious circle. Hollywood studios put out what they think young people want to see, and young people want to see what Hollywood puts out. But I still hold that, in the end, popular entertainment is more of a mirror (and sometimes a magnifying glass) of what is going on in society than a cause. The fewer people who smoke in real life, the fewer who will smoke on the silver screen. At least that’s the way it seems to have been working so far.

-S.L., 22 August 2002

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