A.O. Scott’s meditation on tobacco in movies is a savvy piece of hipsterism: admit that smoking is bad but argue that anti-vice cultural crusaders are worse, and end with the hope that cigarettes will someday be akin to “time travel, or slapstick, or a mad drive to the airport to stop the one you love from getting on that plane — something that only happens in the movies.” Those comparisons are facetious, of course. It’s unlikely we’ll see time travel in our lifetime; pratfalls in the real world are involuntary; and no one has to race to the airport in an era when anti-terrorist screenings hold passengers up for hours. Smoking, on the other hand, is a choice, and one that’s deeply responsive to social cues. That’s why tobacco companies pay millions to studios to have glamorous actors light up and strike sultry poses. In Scott’s nicotine-fueled brain he knows this, but he doesn’t want to sound like a bluestocking.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from anti-smoking groups demanding either a ban on cigarettes in movies or an automatic “R” rating when a character uses tobacco. My first response is indignation at the “nanny state.” I remember how, more than two decades ago, I was forbidden from mentioning smoking in a profile I did in the late Mirabella on Jan Hooks, who chain-smoked through our two interviews. I loved her — but I also could see by how she smoked that she was very, very high-strung. It was an important detail, except that editor Grace Mirabella’s husband, Dr. William Cahan, was an anti-tobacco crusader, and no mention of cigarettes was allowed in the magazine, ever. I fought and fought and finally, finally Mirabella yielded — but only if I wrote something like, “Her yellow-stained fingers trembling, she nervously inserted another death stick between her brown, misshapen teeth.” I was furious. I still am.
On the other hand, editors at a well-known music publication that same year told me that no anti-smoking references would ever appear in their magazine: Tobacco companies paid big bucks for ads on the back cover and to sponsor the regular live-performance centerpiece. Against such vast financial resources, anti-smoking crusaders had no leverage. In the end, it was only the dread “nanny state” that could keep tobacco ads away from the young and impressionable.
These days, I don’t believe that the anti-smoking crusaders are so out of line, at least in their demand that movies with cigarettes get an automatic “R” rating. No, that doesn’t mean we expunge smoking from movies already made. We just make it tougher for new films with cigarette use to influence kids. Just as important, when tobacco companies pay to put their wares in a film, that information needs to appear in the credits — prominently. It’s one thing when everyone lights up in Good Night and Good Luck, in which the ubiquitous tobacco smoke evokes the era better than anything onscreen. (Too bad there was no list at the end of all the characters’ real-life counterparts who died of lung cancer or associated heart disease.) It’s another when cigarettes are a product placement akin to Cheerios or Apple computers.
This isn’t an easy call. I treasure the image of William Powell and Myrna Loy attempting to out-drink one another in The Thin Man — I think of it often as I order my fourth or fifth whiskey. Somewhere, I still have a poster of Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, which probably retains the aroma of the bong that sat proudly beneath it in my dorm room. And damn if Bogie and Belmondo aren’t still the apogee of cool. Scott is dead right in arguing that vice in movies can be very entertaining. But for our kids’ sake, let’s treat the addiction to deadly chemicals as a vice and not as a normal, healthy part of everyday life.
Update: Some people have written to accuse me of having a double standard, and to say that, if one follows my logic, kids should no longer be exposed to drinking, overeating, brutally killing people, or anything that might corrupt our little angels. And then, of course, as one correspondent put it, “Our movies would be a little less true.” I happen to believe that glamorizing the act of sucking tar and nicotine into one’s lungs results in images a lot less true than, say, skeletal lung-cancer patients dissolving from the inside out in an Intensive Care Unit But let’s leave that aside. I’m not arguing that smoking should be banned from movies or always associated onscreen with delinquency or death. I enjoy movies about people doing things that might not be good for them, whether it’s lighting up or shooting up or crashing cars or fucking sheep. Let’s have a cinema for grown-ups that depicts anything and everything, healthy and unhealthy. But let’s also keep tobacco companies and the greedheads who take their money from bombarding kids with the message that smoking is what cool people do.