How smoking became film's final taboo
California's anti-smoking lobby wants Hollywood to give up cigarettes for good. But are stars who light up the silver screen really that bad
Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30
When the makers of this summer's Ghost-busters reboot were working out which parts of the original film to reuse, you can bet chain-smoking wasn't among them. One of the strangest sights in Ivan Reitman's 1984 action-comedy - on a par, at least, with Manhattan's Upper West Side being trampled by a giant marshmallow man - is the cigarettes that are constantly drooping from the lips of its leading men.
Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz sparks up first while he scours the Sedgwick Hotel for paranormal activity during the gang's first professional call-out. And for the rest of the film, he, Bill Murray's Peter Venkman and Ernie Hudson's Winston Zeddemore laconically puff their way through various slimings, possessions, and feuds with the city's Environmental Protection Agency. (Harold Ramis's Egon Spengler is more of a junk food guy.)
Three-and-a-bit decades on, it's jarring to see the heroes of a family blockbuster contentedly dragging on a cigarette. But is it also harmful? A new class action lawsuit says 'Yes'.
The complaint, filed in California last month against the Motion Picture Association of America, six major studios and the Association of Theatre Owners, alleges that since 2003, smoking in films has led 4.6million under-16s to become smokers themselves.
The prevalence of "tobacco imagery" in "youth-related films", it states, is "one of the major causes of children becoming addicted to nicotine".
Instalments in the James Bond, Transformers, X-Men, Avengers and Hobbit franchises are among the accused.
The lawsuit demands that any film featuring so much as a waft of cigarette smoke should receive an R rating: only cinemagoers who are themselves old enough to smoke could buy tickets to a film with a smoker in it, even if that smoker is Gandalf or an Autobot. The equivalent certificate here would be 18.
You might think the issue could be resolved with statistics. A recent example from the World Health Organisation, quoted extensively in the lawsuit, notes that "films can provide [the tobacco industry] an opportunity to convert a deadly consumer product into a cool, glamorous and desirable lifestyle necessity".
In reality, it's a little hazier. Statistics tend to show that teenagers who watch films that feature smoking are more likely to have tried cigarettes themselves, but the causal relationship between the two isn't proven.
That's not to say one doesn't exist, though - and in the past, tobacco companies themselves have banked on the connection.
In the 1930s and 40s, 33 of the era's top 50 box office stars, including Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and John Wayne - all prolific screen smokers - were paid millions of dollars to personally endorse particular brands of cigarettes. In the 1950s, the tobacco companies' marketing budgets were lured away from cinema by the homely glow of the television set - and perhaps the film industry's simultaneous transition to colour did something to lessen smoke's visual allure.
By 1990, when health concerns about smoking could no longer be ignored, the Cigarette Advertising and Promotion Code had been updated to rule out product placement (of cigarettes, at least) in both films and television.
Pressure groups prompted a congressional hearing in 1989, at which the murky links between the film and tobacco industries were dragged into the light.
Among the scandals were a payment of tens of thousands of dollars by Philip Morris to place Marlboro and Lark cigarettes in Superman II and Licence to Kill, and Sylvester Stallone's 1983 agreement to feature Brown & Williamson tobacco products in "no less than five" films, in exchange for a $500,000 fee.
Hollywood's subsequent show of contrition is why Ghostbusters' cigarettes look so dated - and in its DVD commentary track, Reitman points out that in 1989, "by the time we did Ghostbusters 2, the Ghostbusters never smoke on camera". (Deadpans Ramis: "No, they did ecstasy.") This isn't strictly true: in the sequel, Ray's occasionally seen chewing on a cigar, and he contemplatively sucks on a pipe behind the counter of his occult bookshop. But smoking is certainly nowhere near as prevalent.
When Reitman's son, Jason, wrote and directed the Big Tobacco satire Thank You For Smoking in 2005, cigarette-smokers in the movies were almost exclusively what Rob Lowe's product-placement maven calls "RAVs: Russians, Arabs and villains." On the rare occasions they aren't - as in television's Mad Men - they're period-appropriate, often deployed with a distancing wink. In the lawsuit's view, though, any such distinctions are immaterial.
All screen smoking is bad for you.
But there are crucial advantages to smoking in films, which such campaigns can never concede: it gives actors a useful, subtle, non-verbal way to tell us something about their characters, from Michael Corleone's dead-calm manipulation of a Zippo in The Godfather, to Norma Desmond's talon-like cigarette-holder in Sunset Boulevard.
There are, of course, lower-tar alternatives. Brad Pitt is a master of conveying character through eating. In Moneyball, he gets the same kind of dramatic mileage from a mouthful of popcorn that Humphrey Bogart would have done with a 10-pack.
The second advantage - the very nature of the ritual of smoking, coupled with the smoke itself - is considerably trickier to get around. Because both, intrinsically and unavoidably, are - how best to put it? - cool. On screen, smoking adds movement to stillness, and pricks the dark with momentary flares of warmth and light. It's a catalyst for intimacy, and particularly in the film noir era, there was often no fire without it.
Take Lauren Bacall's debut screen appearance in To Have or Have Not, Howard Hawks's noir-tinged romance from 1944. "Anybody got a match?" comes a purr from just out of shot: Bogart turns to see her in the doorway and obligingly tosses her his matchbox, which she snatches from the air with a cat-like swipe.
Or try the opening sequence to Hawks's The Big Sleep (also 1946). We see Bogart and Bacall in silhouette: he lights her cigarette, then his, while the credits drift past in a fug.Then the camera tilts down to a crystal ashtray, where two hands place the still-smouldering coffin-nails side by side but separate, like lovers in a motel bed. Never mind the cliche of the post-coital cigarette. Sometimes, a cigarette alone was all it took to get the job done.
Smoke came to Hollywood in style from Germany in the Thirties, where directors like GW Pabst, Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg used its satiny visual texture to fill their films with luxury and intrigue. It's no coincidence that Marlene Dietrich, the greatest star of Weimar cinema, was also cinema's greatest smoker.
Kenneth Tynan called Dietrich "sex without gender" - and there's no question cigarettes endowed her with an androgynous potency. In von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), Dietrich's cabaret singer, Lola Lola, coolly whips a cigarette from its case before passing the box to her flustered admirer, Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), who drops it on the carpet.
He gets down on his hands and knees, and the camera cuts underneath Lola's dressing table - and we see Jannings fumbling on the left of the frame, and Dietrich's bare legs tantalisingly on the right.
"When you're done," she smiles while taking a drag, "send me a postcard."
If noir's nicotine cravings were rooted in Weimar cinema, then the habit that seized Hollywood after was mostly noir's fault - and even the best smoking scenes of the Technicolor era had a monochrome soul. Clint Eastwood biting down on a crumpled cheroot in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns shows us he can handle the acridity of frontier life unfiltered. And in Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman and John Travolta's light up Red Apples at Jack Rabbit Slim's, encircled by the jetsam of pop culture's past.
The screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, himself a keen smoker until his throat cancer diagnosis in 2001, revived smoking's old associations with female potency in his 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone's character exhales in Michael Douglas's face, addling his brain with sex and nicotine - and as in The Blue Angel 62 years earlier, there's an unforgettable, voyeuristic pairing of cigarettes and bare legs.
After a 2002 operation to have most of his larynx removed, Eszterhas opined in The New York Times that his films' glamourisation of smoking had made him "an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings".
By 1979, smoking's association with sex was cliched enough that in Manhattan, a rarely more-nebbishy Woody Allen was able to joke: "I don't inhale, because it gives you cancer, but I look so incredibly handsome with a cigarette that I can't not hold one."
But thus far, Disney is the only studio to have formally kicked the habit.
In 2007, the company's CEO, Bob Iger, said that unless there was strong historical justification to the contrary, no smoking would appear in any new Disney film.
After a complaint to Ofcom in 2006 over smoking scenes in two vintage episodes of Tom and Jerry, Turner Broadcasting voluntarily cut tobacco-related imagery from more than 1,700 Hanna-Barbera cartoons in their library. Scenes in which Tom is fed through a lawnmower, has his tail scorched by a waffle iron, and has his hands and feet smashed with hammers, however, remained intact.
Sometimes we have to trust ourselves to know when something's only a movie.