Great Exhalations |


Great Exhalations

Al Gore wants Hollywood to kick the habit. But when it's time to play it cool, sinister, or satisfied, it's going to be tough to resist that old, reliable call: Light Up! Camera! Action!

Vice President’s warning: Footage of Smoking May Lead to Lung Cancer, Emphysema, Heart Disease, and Bad-Mouthing.

Okay, so you may never see such a label on a videocassette, but since meeting with Al Gore on Dec. 3, Hollywood’s creative community has put itself on warning. With one recent University of California survey indicating that 80 percent of films made between 1991 and 1996 showed male leads smoking, and Hillary Clinton wondering in her syndicated column why Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Romeo as a chain-smoker, Hollywood is mouthing pieties. Representatives of the Writers, Directors, and Screen Actors Guilds (plus Christy Turlington as the mouthpiece for supermodels) agreed in principle that it’s time to end the glamorization of smoking in films. SAG president Richard Masur says the industry won’t curtail creative expression but will promote ”realistic and thoughtful and not thoughtless or arbitrary” smoking scenes.

Which may mean filmmakers can still breathe wheezy. Of course, cigarettes have seldom seemed ”thoughtless or arbitrary” – they’ve been one of film’s most versatile and effective props. Would you rather see a couple stroking each other’s nicotine patches in a postcoital ritual? With the habit under siege, cigarettes may have already become a less rewarding resort for actors – some critics found Julia Roberts’ incessant smoking in My Best Friend’s Wedding incongruous with her role as a food critic – but many a heady cinematic moment would have vanished into thin air without a cancer stick. So before filmmakers (or politicians) get any crazier notions, we have some warnings of our own.

SMOKING ON FILM CAN BE INCREDIBLY SEXY. In fact, it’s the medium’s leading sex symbol. Lauren Bacall catches fire in To Have and Have Not, as does Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. In Fatal Attraction, bed-bound Michael Douglas takes a break from some steamy verbal foreplay by lighting Glenn Close’s cigarette.

SMOKING ON FILM HELPS NERVOUS TYPES BE THEMSELVES… Geoffrey Rush could not have shone in Shine without the butts. Winona Ryder and friends couldn’t have agonized half so well over their Gen-X existence if they hadn’t chain-smoked their way through Reality Bites.

…AND HELPS OTHERS SHOW THEIR COOL. James Dean dangled smokes for figurative cool, sure. But in The Godfather, Al Pacino proves he’s ready to take over the family business by having innocent Enzo the baker head off assassins from a rival mob, then calmly lighting a cigarette for the completely shaken man.

SMOKING CAN RENDER A BAD GIRL EVEN BADDER… What did Sharon Stone have in hand when she crossed her legs in the infamous interrogation scene in Basic Instinct? Hint: It wasn’t her panties. And the prop became a habit. Stone kept on puffing through Diabolique and Casino.

…AND CAST AN EFFICIENTLY SINISTER LIGHT. James Stewart realizes a murderer may be living in his backyard in Rear Window, when he spies the red tip of Raymond Burr’s cigarette glowing ominously in the dark.